You may have acquired a telescope but are having a hard time finding a celestial object with ease.
It turns out telescopes can be surprisingly hard to use!
Looking for celestial objects to aim at requires some knowledge and preparation, a couple of extra pieces of equipment you probably already have, and a little bit of practice.
The sky is enormous—duh!—but it gets all the more overwhelming through a telescope. That’s because the magnification from a telescope or a refractor massively decreases the angle of view, so even the slightest move and tremor can put you off the grid and prevent you see what you wanted to see.
This is why there are techniques developed by experts and enthusiasts that greatly increase the chance of you finding what you are looking for in the night sky.
The technique we are going to present here is called star-hopping, and you’ll find that it doesn’t take much to learn. We will be jumping back and forth explaining how to do it, so it’s best to read this article at least a couple of times.
To start with, let’s see what you’ll need to bring with you and how to prepare for the process, and how to prepare before your first night session.
To achieve easy star-hopping, all you need to have is a telescope, a stand, different means of magnification (eyepieces and a Barlow if your telescope allows), and a finder. It is good to have several eye-pieces of different power because the initial process will take precision gauging whenever you start.
Now we have done initial preparations for the finder.
Once you prepared your equipment, you can head out and aim your telescope at the most remote point you see in daylight.
No need to think about it too much, we just need to initially tune your finder to a certain precision before seeing the dark sky.
This can be a traffic sign, a dumpster, an isolated tree, or a chimney in the distance, anything to which you can zero-in your telescope. Try to position the telescope by using slow-motion control on your telescope.
Once you’re happy with the results, tighten the knobs to lock it in place.
Then, fine-tune your finder to fit the image to the best you can. You can usually do so by moving the adjustment knobs on the finder. Center the same object on the finder as you have done with the telescope. Double-check through the telescope if the object is in the field of view.
You can repeat this process a couple of times by gradually incrementing the strength of your magnification either only through eye-pieces or in combination with Barlows. Our goal is to synch the finder and the telescope/refractor. Don’t forget to tighten your finder and lock it in place once you have finished.
Seeing the sky
Now that your finder is somewhat synched with your telescope, you can go and check out some near celestial objects. Never look at the Sun through a telescope without appropriate Sun filters as it can permanently damage your eyes.
The Moon is fine for our next set of preparations. We will basically do the same with the Moon as we did with the chimney (or whatever you chose) at daylight.
Point the telescope at the Moon and lock it in place. Start with the lowest magnification, and further fine-tune the finder. Repeat the process with higher power eyepieces and Barlows until you finally lock your finder. You will do this before every session, and after some practice, it will only take a couple of minutes.
Finding the objects
Since you are ready to look for other celestial objects, there’s no need to wait. Look for some other ever-present celestial objects like Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. Check them out with your finder, center the construction as precisely as possible and you can then look through a telescope and find it with your slow-motion controls and center it on your telescope.
Again, start with low magnification eye-pieces and repeat the process with lower focal lengths. Remember to correct the focus at the eyepiece for a clearer picture.
You will now notice how the objects quickly move out of the field of view. Use this to practice tracking objects with slow-motion controls on your telescope and telescope stand over time. This will help you get the feeling of your slow-motion controls.
Now it’s time to bring the game to a higher level.
You can use PC software like Stellarium or Sky Safari to check the celestial objects and their position relative to the objects visible to the eye. You can then fine-tune your telescope to zero in on some less visible and far-away objects.
If you are not a fan of the software, people have been doing this for centuries via planispheres, star charts, and atlases. Star charts for your location are especially useful and easy to utilize as there will be clear instructions for many less visible objects in relation to the more visible stars of various constellations. A red flashlight will help you read these at night.
(Note that stargazing mobile apps are fun and education, but simply not as helpful as good charts!)
Special considerations for your telescope model
Depending on your telescope, you can either utilize an eye-piece or an eye-piece and a Barlow. A Barlow is a special type of lens that further increases the magnification power of your eyepiece.
Simply put it before the eyepiece into your focuser or a diagonal.
Another common difference between telescopes is the choice of stands. There are basically two types of stands.
- The equatorial stand needs to be adjusted according to the North Pole or Venus. It easily tracks the movement of the objects in the night sky. It most commonly has counterweights that improve the stability of the device. It is great for tracking objects over time as it is designed to follow them in an arc.
- Alt-azimuth stands are the most common mounts which place the telescope on a tripod and can move the telescope over the x and the y axis. It also possesses soft movement controls that finely pan and tilt the telescope to precisely aim at a celestial object.
These common mistakes make it hard to aim
Above all, issues with aiming come down to two things:
The first and most general is not planning what to look for at the session.
A star-gazing session can become frustrating and boring quickly if you are gone to gaze without preparation. The sky is very large and an aimlessly pointing telescope can bring one-in-a-million experience if you are lucky enough, but what of the numbers that come before that million? They are most commonly just black space.
More technically, be careful about setting low focal length eyepieces right off the bat.
A low focal point means high magnification. Once you multiply how big the sky is with the eye-pieces magnification power, it can be pretty large. It is then not enough to simply find an object through a finder. The magnification can be so massive that it can be either easy to skip it or it can take too long to navigate your telescope towards the object. Not to mention that the slightest error can lead to missing the whole object from the field of view.
Simple accessories to make aiming easier
A couple of common products can make your life a lot easier.
First off, a red dot finder (like these) is one of the more popular finders based on reflector sight principles.
The device is powered by a battery that projects a red dot in a position in the sky where the telescope should be aiming at.
An optical finder scope (either straight through or angled) is the most common finder which is a low-power telescope that is mounted onto your refractor or telescope. You can then use it to look through its eyepiece at a significantly smaller magnification and locate the object with more ease. Some of them have crosshairs that ease the aiming.
Recap: how to aim your telescope correctly
We’ve covered an easy way to navigate across the sky with your mighty telescopic eye.
It all boils down to gradually zeroing in on the object you want to gaze at by using a finder and the soft motion tools that come with your stand.
Remember, trying to skip ahead one step can bring you back a couple of steps, so take things slowly and focus on the object gradually.