Observation Tools

This guide will assist you in choosing and using the many different observation tools. First, you will need eyes. Most of us have two, which is one more than is needed for the average eyepiece, unless you are using binoculars. Others may have more. Mothers, for example seem to have eyes in the back of their heads. This could be very useful if they have two pair of binoculars or a telescope and a pair of binoculars.

When dedicated stargazers venture outside to enjoy the night sky, they bring their telescopes, binoculars and various well-considered pieces of observing gear away from city lights and into the cool dark of night to catch sight of cosmic objects. But how can the average person get started on their way toward becoming an expert skywatcher? Begin by simply looking up.

If you’re just getting started in astronomy, the best thing to do is to first spend some time under the stars with just your eyes and get acquainted with the brighter stars and constellations,  Purchase a good sky guide and star chart. Just as you might consult a travel book when sightseeing in an unfamiliar city, a good book on stargazing or a simple finder chart will go a long way to help you familiarize yourself with the night sky.

It’s always worth setting up shop at your chosen skywatching site before it gets dark.  Stargazers also need a plan for a rewarding night of skywatching.  We suggest putting together a checklist of cosmic sights to see for the night. Specialized skywatching software can aid in that hunt.

Binoculars for Astronomy

The best place to start is investing in a good pair of skywatching binoculars can help. For not much money and very little weight, binoculars can reveal many night-sky sights that wouldn’t be otherwise available to people looking at the heavens with the naked eye. To pick the best binoculars for your particular needs, use Sky & Telescope‘s handy binocular buyer’s guide: Binocular Buying Guide.

Telescopes for Astronomy

Choosing a quality telescope is like picking the right vehicle to drive. Telescopes can provide more magnification than the average binocular, so they let you  peer more deeply into the cosmos on any given night. Do yourself a favor and don’t buy a cheap ‘scope from a department store. Poor optics and flimsy hardware will turn you off to the beauty and majesty of the sky before you’ve actually seen it.

Beginning skywatchers will need to choose between four kinds of telescopes: reflectors, refractors, hybrid, and Dobsonian.  Sky & Telescope’s How to Choose a Telescope can help.

Skywatching software

Many skywatching experts swear by the use of digital skywatching software to map out the night sky. It can be used to print sky charts and get a more exacting picture of the night-sky objects that are best to train your gaze upon during any given time of year.

A planetarium program can prove to be invaluable, displaying on monitors any number of sky objects that you might want to look at for any hour of the night, as well as providing you the ability to generate and print your own custom sky chart.  A sky tracking app on you mobile device can be equally invaluable when you aren’t 100% sure of what you are looking at.

Stargazing Accessories

Gallant stargazers also need some additional items (including warm clothes) to stick it out for a night of skywatching.  You might want to gear up with some of these items before heading out into the long night of gazing up at the stars:

Observing chair

If you’re going with binoculars, bring a lightweight reclining lawn chair.  My favorite is the “zero-gravity” chair, but any will do.  Your arms will thank you. Your back will thank you. Many a meteor shower has been won or lost based upon chair comfort! Telescope-jockeying skywatchers should seriously consider a purpose-built astronomy chair, especially if you own a refractor. These chairs can get low to the ground or as high as your eye would be when standing. The best ones have a padded backrest.

Folding camp table

Where are you going to put your binoculars?  How are you planning to read those star charts? When you put the iPad down, can you find it again easily? How about that coffee? Your box of colored filters? Your sandwich?  Your laptop?  There are many different folding tables to suit your needs; from a small folding table, to a roll-up table, to a large folding table.  Each type has its advantages, choose what is best for your needs.

Red-light Flashlight

When you’re observing at night, you’re going to need to read a star chart or planet finder or telescope markings, or find stuff like eyepieces or your coffee mug. An astronomy tool like this Celestron Astro Night Vision Flashlight goes for around $10, but there are many models to choose from. It takes at least 20 minutes to become dark adapted, even if you are young. Some experienced observers say their eyesight doesn’t peak for over an hour under complete darkness. A 10-millisecond flash of white light from a cell phone or car headlight can reset you back to “do over.” You can even find a red-lens flashlight that goes around your forehead on an elastic band.

You don’t even have to buy this tool. You could make your own. It’s popular among DIY folks to modify an old Maglite to suite your stargazing needs.

Telescope Cover

When out in the field a cover for your telescope is invaluable for keeping your optics dust free.  Good observing nights start in the daylight with a thorough setup and checkout of the telescope. Then it sits , sometimes for hours, equalizing to the lowering temperatures as the sun sets. Meanwhile, all kinds of dust have been kicked up by friends stopping by, cars pulling into the star party site, campers erecting tents, etc…  Your cover could be something as simple as an old sheet secured by bungee cords pr something more elaborate such as Orion’s Scope Cloak.

Other Equipment

Here are a few other major pieces of equipment you might want to look into for all your skywatching needs:

Dew Zapper

This handy little tool can extend your viewing session by heating your front lens, focuser, and finderscope.  A simple as band that wraps around your telescope’s tube, or as complex as a 4-channel device, the dew zapper is an essential tool in humid environments.  There are even plans available online, such as Sky & Telescope’s DIY Dew Heater for the DIY enthusiast.

Power Cell

If you have a driven telescope and are running several other electrical devices (laptop, dew zapper, espresso machine) you may want to invest in a power cell.  These can range from a DIY set up that uses a 12 volt marine battery, to a “jump start” battery from your local auto parts store, to something like Orion’s Dynamo Power Tank.

Warm socks

Can’t tell you how many nights of great observing have been shanghaied by discomfort. Don’t be that dude. There are electric socks work; there are chemical toe warmers.  But the simplest may be a thin silk sock liner inside a properly engineered mountaineering sock within a rubber-soled boot.

Cell phone with music player and recorder

Your cell phone may save your life out there in an emergency. But we hope nothing more than a great night of skywatching lies in store for you! A music player can keep you company; you’ll find amazing correlations between what you hear and what you see in the sky.  You can use your phone to take audio notes during particularly good observing. It will keep your hands free and your eye at the eyepiece. Even if you never transcribe them, you can listen later and relive the cold awesome night in your warm cozy bed.

Shooters’ gloves

On cool Spring or Fall nights, and frigid winter nights your fingers will get cold. Eespecially on metal telescope surfaces. But we need manual dexterity to run the cameras, adjust the focuser knob, change eyepieces and use the laptop.  A quick solution can come from an Army/Navy surplus store: fingerless gloves with a fold-back, mitten-top covering.  You can also find them at amazon.com and on eBay.