This article was prepared for people attending the telescope clinic, organised by the RASC, Toronto Centre. But it contains information useful for any new or novice telescope user. We provide links to RASC Toronto Centre and RASC national resources, good articles by astronomy magazines such as SkyNews and Sky & Telescope, plus a number of other good resources on the internet.
Getting started in astronomy and getting comfortable with a new telescope can be challenging with new hardware to sort out, strange terms, using one eye, with poorly written user manuals. Happily, there are lots of good resources out there.
An excellent brief article with tips on enjoying astronomy. From SkyNews, the Canadian magazine on astronomy.
A new-ish article by Gary Seronik enntitled "Tips for Choosing Your First Telescope." [New!]
A good article on the basics. [Updated!]
Ed H. has great getting-started info on his site.
Another excellent article, good advice. From Sky and Telescope magazine. [Updated!]
aligning the finder scope
The manual process for viewing a celestial object in the sky takes a few steps.
- First, one looks in the area of the sky, checking constellations, sign posts, bright stars.
- Then one aims the telescope in the general area.
- Next, the finder scope is used to bull's eye the target area.
- And finally, with a low power eyepiece in the telescope, one looks to see if they hit the target.
In order for the critical "finding" step to work, the small finder scope needs to be parallel to the viewing axis of the main telescope itself. One should periodically check the alignment the finder scope to the telescope.
This is easily and quickly done in advance of observing, ideally in the daytime.
- Put a low power eyepiece in the telescope.
- Aim the telescope at a distant terrestrial object like a water tower or a farm silo.
- Then look through the finder scope.
- Make adjustments to the finder scope bracket or adjustment screws so that it's centre area is on the same object.
- Compare the eyepiece and finder scope views until they are both perfectly centred on the same target.
See also Astro Tom's brief piece on aligning your Telrad.
collimating the telescope
To ensure the image presented by a telescope is as best as possible, we need to ensure that the optics are in proper alignment. And that means perfectly centred or in-line and parallel, where appropriate. Owners of refractor telescopes very rarely need to concern themselves with this. Compound (SCT or MCT) telescopes occasionally need a tune-up. Reflector telescopes (or Newtonians) on the other hand (often on Dobsonian mounts) need to be regularly checked. And then often they need adjusting.
Gary Seronik's web site is an excellent resource on many things.
Owners of equatorial-mounted telescopes need to aim the mount of the telescope so that the Right Ascension (RA) axis is parallel to the north-south pole of our planet. If doing visual observing, it can be done quickly and "roughly." I.e. it does not need to be perfect or highly accurate. Pointing at the star Polaris is sufficient. However, if doing photography with the telescope, particularly if taking long exposures, very accurate alignment to the North Celestial Pole (near Polaris) is required. See the documentation for your telescope mount for specifics.
The advice below applies to most equatorial mounts.
aligning a go-to mount
Telescope mounts with go-to capabilities are able to bull's eye objects in the telescope by selecting them from a menu or a list. Magic! Well, no, it's just some clever computer programming. And, carefully alignment. The computer go-to alignment process is very specific to each mount manufacturer and model but there are still some good tips and tricks to know. So, carefully read (and re-read) your telescope mount documentation. And check out these sites.
Tip for Celestron or Synta telescope owners: use the "up-right rule." Always finish your adjustments using the up and right buttons on the hand controller. This ensures the alignment comes at the target from the same directions as when slewing.
RIchard McDonald's tips on aligning and using an equatorial mount.
Astro Baby also has some good advice for basic alignment on a GEM. [Updated!]
Meade, Celestron, Orion, and Skywatcher are popular telescope brands. They offer modern electronic-based telescopes with hand controllers. Essentially they have a small on-board computer. This computer needs to know where it is on the planet, the local date and the time, and where a few stars are, so to build an accurate model of the sky within the telescope mount. The location and time details either come from a GPS or you carefully supply these. The alignment process then requires the operator to choose one, two, or three bright stars in the sky. The operator needs to know the correct star locations and should choose the preferred or best stars to help create an accurate sky model. A telescope owner should carefully review their telescope documentation for details.
Orion offers tips specific to one-, two-, and three-star alignment. For example, for the two-star process, they recommend: "Choose two stars on the same side of the meridian and at least 3 hours apart in right ascension and 3 degrees apart in declination. If you suspect your polar alignment is poor, choose two stars that are 20 to 60 degrees apart in declination."
See Weasner's web site for best alignment stars for Meade ETX mounts.
Many people use the software tool Best Pair II for their Meade or Celestron mounts.
how to find things in the sky
It may seem magical when an experienced user of a manually controlled telescope "plucks" a deep sky object, like a galaxy or the Ring Nebula, out of the night sky and offers up an attractive view in their eyepiece. Or when an advanced user does a two- or three-star alignment with their go-to mount, quickly identifying the proper alignment stars. A common question we hear is, "How do you know where to look?!" It is not magic. It is a combination of knowledge, experience, practice. We often recommend starting out by learning some constellations and bright stars and viewing the night sky with binoculars.
The RASC Toronto Centre offers a free introductory astronomy course called NOVA two times a year. See our Education page for the next event.
The RASC national organisation encourages people to obtain the Explore the Universe Certificate.
good general books
There are a great numbers of books and guides on astronomy. Perhaps overwhelmingly so. But there are a few that stand heads-and-shoulders above the others. And we have a few favourites that we always recommend for people getting started. Some can be found at your local library. Some you might consider adding to your personal collection. NightWatch in particular answers a number of questions like, how to choose a telescope, how to choose accessories, explains terms, etc.
NightWatch by Terence Dickinson [Updated!]
The Beginner's Observing Guide by Leo Enright
good astronomy atlases
There are many excellent paper atlases and charts. Some are compact while others are large and bulky and possibly come in multiple volumes. We have a few favourites, highly recommended for those starting out.
Pocket Sky Atlas from Sky and Telescope. Detailed yet compact. [Updated!]
The New Atlas of the Moon features transparent overlays with labeling.
The free Mag-7 Atlas Project by Andrew Johnson includes black and white or colour maps.
Free charts to help you locate the Messiers objects with a Telrad finder.
Many astronomers use planetarium software on their computers, tablets, and smart phones. For review, entertainment, and planning purposes. There are many options available but we have a few favourites. And in particular we list some free ones here so that one doesn't need to make a major expense while just getting started in the hobby. And every day it seems there are new apps for tablets and smartphones.
Stellarium is free software to Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Very realistic displays. Free and paid versions for mobile devices.
Virtual Moon Atlas is free software for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Very detailed.
Sky Safari for iOS and Android. Free basic version. Paid versions offer more features. Highly regarded.
To play tennis, what do you need? A racquet. Right? Well, yes also need good shoes. Tennis balls. Sunscreen. A hat perhaps... And so on. Using a telescope is no different. There are a number of accessories that are, frankly, essential. Like a red flashlight. Owners of refractors, SCTs, or MCTs need to seriously consider dew heating equipment. And there are a lot of "nice to haves." [Updated!]
getting new eyepieces
The eyepieces or oculars that are included with a new telescope are often of medium quality. Sometimes, a telescope owner will enjoy a significant improvement in views (clarity, no false colours, better contrast, wider field of view) when these eyepieces are replaced or upgraded. Also, adding more eyepieces to one's collection gives more versatility. For example, one can extend the lowest and highest power of the telescope. But selecting eyepieces can be a difficult decision with many choices and some mathematical considerations.
Sky and Telescope magazine has two good articles on understanding and choosing oculars. [Updated!]
RASC member Doug C prepared an article discussing power, eye relief, etc. with links to calculators.
Cleaning telescope lenses and mirrors must be done with great care. Some say it should never be done. Obviously, if a lens or mirror is very dirty, cleaning might be attempted. But minor dirt or dust can be ignored and will not degrade views. Eyepieces also need to be cleaned from time to time, particularly of errant fingerprints. So, before you undertake the task, learn as much as you can, and then decide if it really needs to be done. If you're still not sure if you should proceed, ask an expert! [Updated!]
There's very good information from the Arkansas Sky Observatory.
Amateur astronomers are also, out of necessity, part-time meteorologists. One needs to have a good sense of the upcoming weather so to plan for night-time observing or astrophotography during clear skies. Of course, there are many web sites that show the current conditions and predict weather, but we have a few favourites which we regularly consult.
SkyNews has prepared a brief introduction to the Clear Sky Charts.
The Environment Canada Weather site is obviously a good resource. They also have prediction information specifically for astronomy! [New!]
starting out at astrophotography
You have a telescope. You have a camera. Wouldn't it be great to put them together? You can! A telescope can act like a lens for your camera and, in turn, greatly magnify things. It is exciting to capture the details of the Moon, a planet, or a deep sky object and share with with friends and family. It's pretty easy to hold your point-and-shoot camera or smartphone to an eyepiece and get a decent photo! All that said, high quality astrophotography can be challenging and demanding. Happily there are a great many resources available to help people get started.
The Backyard Astronomers Guidebook by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer.
A Beginner's Guide to DSLR Astrophotography (CD-ROM book) by Jerry Lodriguss.
SkyNews magazine showcases photos by amateur astronomers.
Astronomy, with aspects of mathematics, science, physics, cosmology, etc., is rife with special terms and words. Then again, many hobbies are. Step on a sailboat and you might be told to "hoist the jib." Take a race car school and your instructor might discuss "slip angles." In astronomy, we need to learn a few basic terms. Good books will include definitions or a glossary.
Sky and Telescope magazine assembled an article star terminology. [Updated!]
need more info? next steps?
Keen about astronomy? Hungry for more information? Want to learn more? Want to learn your telescope? Want to improve your telescope? Need general help on astronomy? The good news is there are lots of resources, and different types, that you can choose from.
Of course, the internet has web sites galore on astronomy, telescopes, astrophotography, and so on.
You might consider joining some Yahoo!Groups. There's probably one for your telescope or mount. You can chat with like-minded people and ask questions.
Attend a public star party. There's lots in the summer. Some are at the Ontario Science Centre. Some are at the David Dunlap Observatory. Or the universities, York and the University of Toronto. Tons of events!
Our best advice? OK. Admittedly, we're biased. But we think there very best way to dive into astronomy is to join an astronomy group or club. There are many in the Greater Toronto Area.
See our web links page for lots more information...
We'd love to have you join the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Contributed by Blake Nancarrow and Ed Hitchcock. Prepared by the RASC Toronto Centre. Your trusted astronomy resource. Updated January 2021.