The 2010’s are turning out to be a great decade for introducing people to basic hands-on astronomy. My college offers an Introductory Astronomy Laboratory class, and one way to teach this class is to focus* it on helping students learn how to use a telescope, and how to use it to do some basic astrophotography. What makes this especially cool is that the students use their own equipment: their own cheap-but-good telescopes, and their own cameras.
One thing that makes this decade great for introducing people (and students in particular) to the basics of astronomy is that telescopes are currently so cheap—at least in the college setting (and, in my case, in the community college setting, so it’s a fair bet to say that they really are cheap). College textbooks are amazingly expensive—science textbooks especially. A soft-cover astronomy text will cost $150. A hard-cover “physics-for-scientists-and-engineers” text can run upwards of $300. And yet a decent 2.5” refractor on a basic mount can be had for under $90. A 3” reflector on a basic mount can be had for $100. For an additional $50 you can have these telescopes on a better mount with fine adjustment (slow motion) controls that make it easier to find objects and keep them in the telescope’s field of view. Most students are excited to find out that they are going to be buying a telescope for class rather than, and for less than the cost of, a textbook.
These small, good telescopes are quite serviceable. They produce great views of the moon and (with a filter) the sun. Students are regularly stunned by what the moon looks like through their telescopes. These telescopes also show Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons nicely.
Before you run out and buy a cheap telescope for your spouse or child, beware! Not all such cheap telescopes are created equally. Only the good ones will show the moon, Saturn’s rings, etc. so well (and the Vatican Observatory blog is not the place to be endorsing brands of telescopes).
Also beware that many people find even the good small telescopes difficult to figure out. I am not saying that the use of a small telescope is “rocket science.” It is not. Many people do figure telescopes out on their own (maybe with the help of the internet or books from their library to supplement the poorly-written manuals that often come with telescopes). But many other people do not figure them out. Many visitors to the public programs held at my college’s observatory have testified to having bought family telescopes that their families have never, ever been able to use. A little coaching helps a lot.
The other thing that makes this a great decade for introducing students to the basics of astronomy is the smart phone—or, to be specific, the smart phone camera. These things are fantastic! Anyone who can find the moon with a telescope and get the moon centered in the eyepiece can get a decent photo of the moon with a smart phone camera—again, with a little coaching. And then he or she can post the photo on social media, zap it to friends and family members, and generally share it with the world while crowing about how cool it is to take one’s own picture of the moon. Back in the day I used to try to do this with a film camera, and for the most part I failed miserably. I envy today’s beginning astrophotographers.
Nice affordable telescopes? Achievable astrophotography using the stuff in your pocket? Wow. It’s a Golden Age.