Maybe it begins at a school club – our brief on how to get skygazing – at all hours.
The 20,000-strong crowd gathered in Ningaloo, a small town in Western Australia, fall quiet as the first shadowy arc crosses the Sun. Darkness gradually descends. Wildlife and pets voice confusion as senses and circadian rhythms collide. Then, silence…
The April 20, 2023 solar eclipse will no doubt be much like every other. For those gathered to see it – along the Pilbara coast and out on ships in the Indian Ocean, it will be a special, once-in-a-lifetime event – perhaps even one to spark a desire to see more.
For Bill Stent, an economist by training but now a key member of Australia’s only telescope factory, Sidereal Trading (which he reckons is ‘like working in the Ferrari factory’), his obsession with astronomy began with exposure to a club at school.
“We had a 4-inch Unitron refractor in a dome, as well as an ancient brass refractor and a 6-inch Newtonian”, he recollects. “We’d drag them onto the school oval at night, or make solar projections during the day.”
But for those of us who didn’t have an astronomy club – or, let’s face it, just weren’t that interested back then – it can feel a bit overwhelming knowing where to start.
It doesn’t have to.
“Listen, if you want to get into astronomy, you probably already are and didn’t know it yet,” says Stent.
“You don’t need anything to gaze at the stars. Ever been out camping and looked up and said ‘wow, what’s that big long fuzzy thing? I’ve never seen that before?!’? Then you start thinking about what it is – and how far away it is – it just blows your mind.”
Being awe-struck isn’t just for kids.
Seeing Saturn for the first time is an incredible experience – even for adults. “It blows your mind all over again”, says Stent. “Yes, we’ve seen it in books and on the Internet, but when you see it with your own eyes…”
Ok, you want to see more. What (on Earth) do you need to get started?
What star is that? (Can be free if you don’t mind in-app ads)
Perhaps start by getting a stargazing app so when you are outside at night you can identify planets, moons and stars. Phone apps (such as the free program, Stellarium), and other websites can be handy for navigating the sky and planning a night’s observing.
Binoculars (From $70)
The next of the best (non-biologically-attached) pieces of beginner equipment is binoculars.
In fact, for some targets, they’re the best option.
“Sometimes, when people are starting out, you suggest a pair of binoculars and they look a bit crestfallen,” Stent says. “But some nebulae are really big, way bigger than the Moon, and some comets have really large tails. If you use too much magnification, you’ll see such a small part of it that you won’t even know it’s there.”
Binoculars are great for studying the moon, and they are much kinder to your wallet.
“You don’t need expensive binoculars to get great views,” he says. “But aperture is important – get a low magnification, large aperture set such as these 7×50 Saxon Wide Angle binoculars”.
Telescopes (From $400)
If you are still keen on a telescope, though, Stent has some firm advice.
“Go to an actual shop. Talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about and actually handle the equipment. Everything sounds incredible on the internet, because it’s been written by marketers.”
Secondly, he says, “avoid the ‘hobby killer’. There’s nothing worse than when you see a kid struggling with a toy telescope. In less than a week they’ll be turned off completely, and for the rest of their life they’ll think astronomy is garbage.”
So, what does he suggest?
“The most important thing is to manage your expectations. You can’t see anywhere near as much detail or colour with your eye as you can with a camera – unless you have an enormous telescope. Everything will be silvery white.”
Light pollution can also intrude. “It isn’t a problem for the Moon, the planets, and star clusters, but the deep-space stuff will likely be invisible,” he says.
“Start with something half-way decent, like the Saxon 909Az3. It’s big enough to see the Moon, larger planets like Saturn and pretty star clusters like Omega Centauri, M25, M41 (Little Beehive), M47 and the Wishing Well Cluster. Plus, it’s a ‘left-right, up-down’ (or altazimuth) mount which is the easiest type for first-timers.”
If you can physically handle a bigger scope, Stent suggests something like the Saxon 8” Dobsonian (or even better, a 10” Dobsonian), for the best bang for your buck. It uses a simple mount, but has great optics and will let you peer into galaxies and nebulae in the sky.
Expect to have a more magnified view and see nebulae and detail in clusters like the Jewel Box and M7 (Ptolemy’s Cluster). However, to see deep detail (such as the background stars in M7) you’ll need a camera to “grab and retain light, building those amazing images over time,” explains Stent.
A more advanced observer (with deeper pockets) might consider a go-to mount. These are a little fiddlier but will find and track objects for you. Stent suggests something like a 5” Maksutov.
A simple setup consisting of a colour camera and wide-angle (50 mm or more) lens on a camera tracker (for example the iOptron SkyTracker mount) can produce beautiful night sky photographs like Crux (the Southern Cross), the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Milky Way.
If you are keen to get into higher magnification astrophotography, keep costs down by looking for a small, high-quality refractor like this William Optics Redcat 51 using your own DSLR on a small equatorial mount like a Sky-Watcher HEQ5.
With a little experience and some luck, you might find some second-hand bargains. Mark Iscaro, the President of the Astronomical Society of Victoria (ASV) began imaging with an 8” Meade LX90, buying it for under a quarter of the retail value, but these days he is passionate about ‘astrophonetography’.
“Everyone has a phone,” he says. “If you can access a telescope (even if it’s not yours), then all you need is a phone adaptor or a very steady hand. It’s really that easy.”
Iscaro uses a Sky-Watcher HEQ mount, an ED80 telescope and a Saxon phone adaptor. Including a telescope eyepiece, it has cost him around $800 (all second hand), and with a bit of know-how (including the free Android app Deep Sky Camera) produces some incredible imagery, such as the Moon and Eta Carina Nebula.
Chasing the sun
When it comes to viewing our closest star, Stent has a stern warning. “Looking at the sun is a dangerous game. An old physics teacher of mine had two blind spots in his retinas, both shaped like a partial solar eclipse.”
Use proper eclipse sun glasses for looking at the sun with the naked eye (dark sunglasses do not cut it), or project a telescope image onto a piece of paper held about a foot from the eyepiece. “But you need a metal focuser and a metal eyepiece, or you might end up with a burning telescope. I’ve seen that happen myself,” says Stent.
Another popular method is to find filtered light (under a tree, for instance) and watch the ground.
Solar telescopes, such as the Lunt 40mm refractor, give “astounding” images of the sun that “you have to see to believe,” says Stent.
“No matter what ‘rig’ you choose, “you also need patience and practice”, he says. “Nobody takes a decent shot on the first night. It’s a hobby for life, and you’ll grow into it.”
You are going to want some warm clothes (Stent has an industrial freezer suit) and some mosquito repellent.
“The one thing you really need in your ‘kit’,” says Stent, “is a mentor. Someone who knows what’s out there, how to find those hidden secrets and to help you with your equipment. Sometimes they’re hard to find, but start searching at astronomical societies. There are 53 astronomical clubs in Australia and there will be a group near you. Iscaro agrees. “Don’t let those with more knowledge make you fear astronomy. Ask questions and join a club. Everyone starts somewhere, even those with fancy equipment.”
Errors and clarification: The first version of this story carried images which were not representative of those seen through the telescopes which were referred too in the article. We apologise for the error which was made by the editors, not Clare Kenyon or the people who helped with the content.
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Originally published by Cosmos as What you need to get ready for the upcoming solar eclipse and other celestial wonders
Clare Kenyon is a science journalist for Cosmos. An ex-high school teacher, she is currently wrangling the death throes of her PhD in astrophysics, has a Masters in astronomy and another in education. Clare also has diplomas in music and criminology and a graduate certificate of leadership and learning.