Somewhere Out There

For the holidays, consider the gift of looking up.

Giving a telescope to a Seattleite only seems like a sick, sad prank during the rainy season. For your amateur Seattle stargazer, already the very embodiment of optimism, where there's (celestial) light, there's hope.

Astronomy is one of those hobbies that can be indulged to whatever extent your pocketbook sees fit, and technology adds a whole new layer of possible accessories to the mix. If you're looking to outfit a novice astronomer, you can get out of this holiday season respectably for less than four figures; if you're buying for someone who can differentiate between the six visible stars of the Pleiades at will, there's a good assortment of higher-end gear available at prices that aren't—sorry—astronomical. (If that's who's on your gift list, one word of advice: ask. This article gives guidance only for those wading in; this geek personally knows better than to override any other geek's wish list.)

When stargazers talk telescopes, they're interested in three major factors: aperture (the most important measurement), focal ratio, and magnification. The larger a telescope's aperture (the diameter of its primary mirror or objective lens), the fainter and farther away the objects it can see—but the less useful it'll be for nearby objects such as planets and the moon, which will simply be too bright to see well. Similarly, the lower the scope's focal ratio (length from the primary mirror or objective lens to the focus, divided by the aperture), the wider its field observation, which also makes for good deep-sky viewing but poorish solar-system looks.

And then there's magnification, which speaks for itself—but rather quietly, since everything from dust in the atmosphere to a stiff breeze can turn a good image mushy. It's mainly important to know about magnification so you can avoid buying a telescope from anyone who feels that magnification is the most important factor in choosing a telescope. (The Seattle Weekly Gift Guide: We may not tell you what to buy, but we'll definitely tell you who to sneer at.)

There are other variables as well—the eyepiece, the mounting hardware, and so on, not to mention portability. Some telescopes are designed to be carried from place to place, while others such as the larger Dobsonian-mounted variety are meant for people who feel comfortable selecting one spot on Earth and building a telescope on it. (Few of these people, as you might suspect, live in Seattle. Besides, how are you going to hang at any of the Seattle-area star parties if you can't tote your telescope?)

First light: If you're in the market for a first telescope for a young or novice astronomer, look for one with a relatively small aperture. An aperture of around 4 inches will produce good views of the moon and the planets. (To provide some perspective, the telescope Galileo used had an aperture of about 3 inches, while the Hubble Space Telescope has an aperture of 2.4 meters.) If you're looking to drop about $800, Meade (www.meade.com) makes a nifty 3.5-inch telescope, the ETX-90EC, with "goto" functions available in the optional #497 Autostar—14,000 fewer celestial objects to keep track of oneself.

Keep in mind that you don't have to lease the Hubble to see amazing stuff. According to Karl Schroeder, president of the Seattle Astronomical Society (www.scn.org/ip/sastro), a stargazer with a decent pair of binoculars has more objects visible to her than she will ever be able to observe. More important to the new astronomer is advice on not how but where to look. Star-spotting has been made remarkably easier with the advent of "goto" functionality: Align your scope on any two stars, tell the nice computer what you want to see, and the telescope will glide into position. (No, it's not a dumbing-down thing; observatories use them too.)

Goto is nice, but a person still ought to know where things are: any number of star charts and guides will help your novice get acclimated. Charts are a must, both for planning an evening's stargazing and for getting a bigger sense of the Big Picture. For planning the night's viewing, consider a star-chart package such as Earth-Centered Universe (www.nova-astro.com) or Stella (www.saunalahti.fi/~elk). (You'll find terrific star charts online at a variety of sites, but most of them don't print out well.)

If you're still feeling unsure of yourself or your friend, a good book might help one or the other of you focus. One of the best available for both casual reading and field consultation is Terence Dickinson's Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, which dispenses wisdom on everything from dealing with urban light pollution to identifying that sparkly thing over there on the left. And just think: If all else fails and Seattle once again remains socked in till June, you will still have given your friend the gift of stargazing—even if it is from indoors in a large, comfortable chair.

Angela Gunn is the technology editor at Seattle Weekly.

 
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