Introduction to Amateur Astronomy on a Budget, Helpful Hints
A few inexpensive ways to enjoy observing the heavens. Notice: Your experiences may vary!
VISUALLY: As simple as the sounds, just looking up can help us learn about astronomy.
Tools: None required. There are many apps available for free on your cell phone to assist in identifying what is in the viewable sky. Examples of such apps include: STARTRACKER, STELLARIUM, STAR WALK 2, and many others.
BINOCULARS: Good option to inexpensively view solar (with proper filters), lunar, planets, and some deep space things.
Tools: Binoculars. Sizes vary. A good starter size is 10x50, 9x63, 20x50 or 12x70 (first number is magnification the second is the size of the objective lens (how much light is allowed in)). Remember, the larger the binoculars, the heavier they are. A pair of 25x100 weigh about 12 pounds!
Cost: Vary based on a number of items: manufacturer, fog proof, water proof, eye relief (look this one up). Available new or used from a reputable seller on sites such as EBay, Amazon, or pawn shops. Many to choose from between $40.00 - $100.00 (or more). Asking a NEFAS member might offer some additional guidance.
Upgrades: Consider getting a good tripod, and or, a very comfortable zero gravity chair to enhance your viewing.
TELESCOPES: Entry Level reflector or refractor telescopes are available. Look on Craigslist, pawnshops, Amazon, EBay, and of course, ask any of the NEFAS members if they are aware of a scope for sale. Prior to selecting a telescope, it is important to consider what do you expect the telescope to allow you to enjoy. EVERY telescope has limitations, even Hubble. ALL of the limitation concerns can be worked with or overcome with inexpensive upgrades or diligent practice.
Tools: Most smaller telescopes (60mm, 70mm, 76mm, 80mm, and 90mm) are refractor by design. They have good optics, but to keep the price lower, the manufacturers often install focusers that are “sloppy”, spotters that are barely adequate, provide eyepieces (EP) that are poor to average quality, and tripods that do not offer much stability to the telescope. Not much here to adjust, can be a point and observe experience. These can be found on EBay delivered for under $100.00.
The other entry level telescopes are what is called either a reflector or Newtonian design. These are a little more complex in design and often are a little more expensive. Reflector telescopes are as small as 70mm and get larger from there. These are often identified by the size of the primary (larger) mirror either in MM or INCHES. Note: 25.4mm = 1 inch, 76mm = 3 inch, 114mm = 4.5 inch, etc). When it comes to telescopes bigger doesn’t always mean a better experience. Reflectors tend to use either a budget minded AltAz Dobsonian mount, or can use an AltAz tripod or Equitorial tripod mount. Learning what these terms mean will be critical to your purchase decisions and overall level of satisfaction.
Cost: I have found both refractor and reflector telescopes for sale at prices as low as $28.00 delivered. The telescope was a 70mm on a tripod. It works well for solar and lunar observing. I also purchased a 76mm reflector on a tripod that is also good for solar, lunar, planets and some deeper space items for under $100.00 delivered.
Upgrades: Too many to discuss here. As you increase your experiences, your choices for what works, or doesn’t, will change.
In closing, this information is shared, not as the end to what you might want or need to observe the heavens, but to provide some information to help you make better choices, help keep your budget in check. Astronomy has many tools to pick from. Not every option is correct for everyone based upon what they want to observe and how they want to observe. As your experiences mature, your needs and wants should also change. Asking questions to the NEFAS members and leadership will provide some interesting direction, as well as watching as many U-Tube tutorial videos as possible. Remember the universe is endless, and so is how we experience the hobby. Enjoy the journey and keep looking UP!
Another great budget option: 3D-printed astronomy. A user on reddit designed and built a 114mm scope that's made almost entirely from 3D-printed parts, and a 114mm Newtonian is enough to get some nice views of the moon and see some decent details on Saturn and Jupiter. The files for printing are available for free here, with additional details on the scope shared on his website. A few rods and screws from a hardware store, some 3D printed parts, and mirrors sourced from China (like these) can get you a nice beginner scope for $100 or less if you have access to a printer. You could then build a more solid dob mount for it if you find the printed mount a little wobbly, but getting in the door for less than $100 is a compelling proposition.
Zac that is a really innovative idea. Any idea who might have a 3D printer and an interest in astronomy? I have no idea what the limitations are for a printer..
I am getting one next month and am planning to start by using it to make telescope accessories like solar filter film housings. I don't have a need for a 114mm scope but am certainly more than happy to attempt to print pieces for it for the club once I get the hang of using it. The model I bought isn't exactly plug-and-play and will have a learning curve on getting great prints when I first start using it. If someone wants to buy a plug-and-play printer to use, this model is currently the best consumer model available for a competitive price.