A commonly cited example of cosmic phenomenon that is rooted in Christian tradition is the sighting of the lodestar by the Magi leading them to believe a momentous occurrence was in the offing. Stargazing in the history of man goes back even earlier and can be traced to the ancient philosopher Plato’s experiments with Astronomy as a discipline circa 300 BC. Little wonder then, that Astronomy ranks among the oldest natural sciences. With the passage of time, astronomy also became linked with astrology as priests from the ancient world were the earliest professional astronomers.
Jump to the 20th century and you have “Scotty, beam us up,” the famous command line from that cult television series of 1960s ‘Star Trek’, which captured the popular imagination of millions the world over. The voyages of the spaceship the ‘Starship Enterprise’ traveling through space fueled the thought process of a global audience that must have wondered about the unknown expanse of eternity beyond the earth’s atmosphere – outer space.
Philosophers tell us that you can find heaven on earth–and even if you don’t believe this, you can still gaze at the heavens from your own balcony if you have a good telescope.
Why should you look at astronomy as a hobby? For one thing, in this IT-enabled software-driven always-connected era, it provides a moment of solitude for you to do your own thing. It also teaches you about the might of the universe, unfolding mystery after mystery among those neutron stars, magnetars, pulsars and black holes. And finally, while a star-lit night is beautiful, it pales in comparison to the majesty of the Universe – none of which is visible to the naked eye.
But to achieve any of the above, you need a good telescope. Here are some pointers on choosing the right one:
Software: We know that two paragraphs ago we criticised software, but hey, we didn’t say that you shouldn’t use software to be disconnected, did we? Gone are the days when you just peered at the sky. Today, plenty of free and paid software products are available and they can make your hobby more scientific and significantly improve your experience. So head to the app store of your choice and download the right software for your iPhone or Android.
Selection: What do you want to see? If all you want to do is watch the rings of Saturn, maybe you are better off buying binoculars. If, however, you want to see far-off constellations, you may want to buy something a lot more complicated.
Tech stuff: In a beginners’ guide, we don’t want to get technical, so we will make this point as simply as possible–you can buy reflector telescopes which use mirrors, or refractor telescopes that use lenses. Both have their advantages and disadvantages–while refractor telescopes produce a rainbow effect, reflector telescopes lose light and need mirrors to be realigned once in a while. You should also think about the aperture, which is the size of the mirror or the lens- and in this case, the bigger the better.
Budget: how much are you willing to spend? If you can spend thousands of dollars and are really passionate, you can buy advanced telescopes that have a database of over a lakh celestial objects and a remote control. These telescopes can actually speak to you and explain what you are seeing–about as thrilling as it gets. If your budget is limited, don’t worry–you may have to use a normal telescope and some software to decipher the night sky, but you will learn more in the process.
Portability: This is an odd thing to contemplate, but cities suffer from light pollution from the presence of too many street lights. That’s why you may find fewer stars in cities as compared to villages. If you travel a lot, you could buy a telescope that can be easily transported so that you can carry it around and see how the night sky varies in different parts of the country or the world.
Starting a new hobby is always daunting because you don’t know how long you will be passionate about it. It is always better to take baby steps–buy a simple telescope, explore a bit of the universe, and then upgrade your equipment if you still love the hobby one year later. Watching the sky may not, at first brush, seem as thrilling as sky diving, but it is enthralling when you know that the light you see from the telescope probably left the stars when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.