As a newbie to astronomy, setting up a new telescope can be a daunting task. But with the help of this simple step-by-step guide, you will learn to set up a telescope in no time and enjoy the beauty of galaxies far, far, away.
Here’s a quick preview of what you’ll learn:
- The parts of a telescope, their functions, and why you need to know them
- How telescopes magnify distant objects
- Eight simple steps for setting up your telescope
- Things to consider before carrying your telescope outside
- How to adjust your telescope to get the best possible views
- Special considerations for different types of telescope
Keep in mind that different types and models of telescopes have different parts and features. This is why we recommend that you read your user’s manual for assembly instructions. After all, you won’t want to break your new telescope before you get to use it, right?
Telescopes have been around since the 16th century, and we’ve come a long way from then to an era where anyone can purchase a powerful telescope at an affordable price.
Whether you’re an amateur astronomer or a complete novice, we’ll show you how to get the best viewing experience possible from your telescope. Keep reading to find out how!
Telescope Parts and Their Functions
Before setting up your new instrument, you should be able to identify the parts of the telescope and what they do.
Also known as the tube, this is the main body of the telescope. It houses the key parts that make the instrument work: the lenses and/or mirrors.
Optical tubes can be long or short, depending on the type of telescope. A long optical tube is an indicator that the telescope has a long focal length.
The eyepiece is the part that the viewer looks into to see a magnified image. This can be found in different locations on the tube of the telescope.
In reflector telescopes, they are positioned close to the aperture (opening) of the tube, and in refractor and most compound telescopes, they are typically placed at the back of the tube.
The eyepiece contains lenses that bend the light that it receives from the lenses or mirrors in the optical tube. This plays a major role in making the image appear larger, giving our brains the illusion that something is much closer than it is.
The eyepiece is also responsible for the magnification power of the telescope. Each eyepiece has a number written on the side of it in millimeters, which indicates the focal length – the smaller the number, the higher the magnification.
A finderscope is a small tool that sits on top of the telescope tube. It is used to find the viewer’s desired celestial objects before he/she zooms in on them with the telescope.
This device is important because it would be difficult to find deep sky objects using just the telescope, and of course, we can’t see these objects with our naked eye.
Some astronomers prefer to use a battery-operated red dot finder instead of a finderscope.
Aperture refers to the opening at which light enters the telescope tube. The size of the aperture determines how much light gets in, and is directly related to how bright objects appear in your eyepiece.
Different types of telescopes carry different sizes of aperture. Reflectors tend to have apertures with larger diameters than other telescopes. While this is an advantage of reflectors, they also tend to be less compact and less portable than other models.
Reflective telescopes also have an open aperture, so dust can easily get inside the tube. For this reason, reflectors require regular cleaning.
Lenses and Mirrors
Telescopes use different mechanisms to manipulate light. Without these important parts that bend and redirect light, magnification would not be possible.
Reflector telescopes use mirrors to reflect light, while refractor telescopes use lenses to bend light.
In reflector telescopes, the primary mirror is positioned at the end opposite the opening where light enters the tube. The light reflects off the primary mirror and onto a smaller secondary mirror which directs that light to the eyepiece.
When you place your eye on the telescope, the light spreads out on the surface of your eye, making the image appear magnified.
Unlike reflectors, refractors use lenses to manipulate light. The light rays enter the tube through the primary lens and are directed to the smaller lens at the back of the telescope. The smaller lens then redirects this light to the eyepiece, which is typically located in the back.
Some models, called catadioptric or compound telescopes, use both mirrors and lenses. Reflectors are generally cheaper than other types since mirrors don’t cost much to produce, unlike lenses.
Lastly, reflectors require regular collimation or alignment.
Your telescope doesn’t have the same design as Captain Jack Sparrow’s spyglass, so you obviously would not be holding it up in your hands. This is where the mount comes in.
Modern telescope mounts allow users to turn their telescopes in several different directions, thanks to a mounting head attached to the tripod stand. If you’ve never owned a telescope before, a good tip is to get a mount that can support the weight and size of your telescope.
There are three main types of telescope mounts:
Altaz or Alt-azimuth
This basic mount is commonly used with amateur and Dobsonian telescopes.
Altaz mounts allow the telescope to move up and down and left to right at angles of up to 360 degrees. The most popular variation of the Altaz mount is the rocker box. Another variation, known as the ball and socket mount, allows the telescopes to rotate in any direction.
This type of telescope mount is very popular among recreational astronomers as it allows the telescope to rotate in line with our planet’s rotational axis. There are two variations of this model: the German mount and the fork mount.
These mounts are computerized and can automatically align to the Earth’s axis with the push of a button. This saves the user time and effort since they will not have to manually track and align their telescope.
GoTo mounts can be bought separately from computerized telescopes and used with manual telescopes as well.
Steps For Setting Up Your Telescope
After unboxing your brand new telescope, we recommend that you read the user’s manual before attempting to assemble the parts, as it provides you with important information specific to your instrument’s model.
When you’ve read the instructions and finished assembling the telescope, get familiar with its components, including the knobs, adjustment screws, and buttons. It’s now time to set it up!
Step 1 – Set Up The Mount
When you’ve picked out your dark sky location, the first step is setting your telescope mount on firm, level ground (or a similar surface). The last thing you want is your expensive telescope toppling over if someone accidentally bumps into it or if a strong wind blows your way.
To position the mount at an angle you find best for viewing the sky, use the adjustment screws and knobs.
Step 2 – Collimate Your Telescope
If your telescope is a reflector or catadioptric type, you’ll need to collimate your scope beforehand. Collimation involves aligning the mirrors so they reflect light rays properly. Read more about this simple process below.
If you ignore this step, you may find that distant objects will look blurry or distorted.
Step 3 – Align Your Telescope
If your telescope is computerized, you don’t have much work to do in this step. If it’s manual, you will have to align it with the north celestial pole. There are a few ways to do this, which we have outlined for you further down in this article.
Step 4 – Adjust Your Finderscope
Align your finderscope and telescope to point at the same object or spot on the same view.
To align the finder and telescope, you will first have to locate a large enough celestial object, like the moon or a planet with your finderscope. Next, slowly move the finder around until the center of the scope aligns with the center of the celestial object.
Slowly move the telescope until the image you see in the eyepiece looks exactly like the image you see in the finderscope, or as close to it as possible. The object has to line up in the center of each scope. Your finderscope is now adjusted and ready to be used.
Step 5 – Use the Right Eyepiece
To get the best views, we recommend using the right eyepiece. Note that higher magnification does not necessarily mean better image quality.
You can calculate the best magnifying strength for your telescope model by using a very simple formula. You’ll find this info under the “magnification” heading.
Step 6 – Use Filters If Necessary
One thing you must know before putting your eye to the telescope is that these optical instruments can cause serious damage to your eyes, even blindness if they are used incorrectly.
You may need to attach solar filters to your telescope to protect your eyes if you’re planning on looking at the sun. You may also want to use lunar filters if the moon is very bright and it hurts your eyes to look at it directly.
Step 7 – Give Your Telescope Time to Acclimatize
If you’re taking your telescope out of its warm storage area and placing it outside in the cool or cold night air, your images may not be as clear due to condensation forming on the lenses and mirrors of your telescope.
You can use fans and insulating material to acclimatize your telescope to the outdoor weather.
It is also a good idea to walk with dew covers and heaters to limit the amount of condensation that can form on your telescope lenses.
Step 8 – Enjoy the View
Now that your telescope is set up, have a stellar time enjoying the astronomical observations. You can also invite your friends to a star party on a clear night.
Things to Consider Before You Set Up Your Telescope
Weather plays a huge role in the quality of the images you see through your telescope.
You should pay attention to the astronomy weather forecast for your region to know your chances of getting a good, clear view of the sky.
Websites and apps such as this one provide weather information specifically for astronomy enthusiasts.
Condensation and Dew
Did you know that humidity is what causes condensation to form on your telescope lenses? The warmer the weather, the more water vapor air usually contains, and that’s not ideal for stargazing.
Luckily there are dew covers and heaters which reduce the formation of dew on your lenses.
How To Protect Your Telescope From The Elements
It’s a good idea to always have a telescope cover and a dew shield or a dew heater on hand. If it suddenly begins to drizzle or rain while you’re outside, the cover will protect your instrument from getting wet.
The shield and heater will help protect your telescope from moisture and condensation and increase your chances of getting good photos if you’re into astrophotography.
The best location to observe the cosmos is a place that has the least light pollution possible, i.e, the darkest place you can find, and the clearest view of the open sky.
You would also want to make sure the surface you rest your mount on is sturdy enough to support your telescope.
Spend some time getting familiar with your telescope and learning how to properly collimate it, aim it, and adjust it on its mount before you invite your friends over to a star party.
Of course, it’s better to do the initial setup in the daytime so you can clearly see what you’re doing. Just make sure that you do not aim your telescope at the sun or, worse, look directly at the sun. Doing this will most likely damage your instrument and blind you.
Adjusting Your New Telescope To Get The Best Views Possible
Just because you have a 3mm eyepiece attachment doesn’t mean it will give you the highest magnification possible. The best viewing experience you can get from a telescope in terms of magnifying power depends on other factors like the telescope’s aperture and focal length.
As a general rule, the maximum magnification you need would be the diameter of your telescope’s aperture (in inches) multiplied by 60. For more tips on the minimum and maximum magnifying power for your instrument, you can check out this video.
A nifty little piece of equipment that can increase your eyepiece’s magnifying strength by up to five times is the Barlow lens. The 2x Barlow lens is the most commonly used one. It is cost-effective, and you only need one lens to double the magnification of all your eyepieces.
Aligning Your Telescope To The North Celestial Pole
Polar alignment is crucial as it allows you to find and track celestial objects more easily. Nowadays, there is an app for everything, including aligning your telescope!
If you don’t have the patience to do it the old-fashioned way, via the declination drift method, or if you don’t have a GoTo mount or computerized telescope, using a polar alignment app is your next best option.
If, when viewing bright stars like the moon, you find that the image you see is too bright for your eyes, getting a lunar/moon filter can help reduce the brightness without distorting the image. There are also solar/sun filters on the market if you’re interested in safely watching solar eclipses.
As you may already know, one of the main tasks relating to maintaining your reflector telescope is collimation.
Collimation simply refers to aligning your telescope’s mirrors to give you the best view possible. You will need a collimator such as a sight tube or Cheshire to align your scope’s mirrors.
Catadioptric or hybrid telescopes will also require collimation, some more often than others.
One of the most popular catadioptric designs is the Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. If you own one of these powerful, compact optical instruments then you should know that they work with mirrors.
This type of telescope is compact, portable, and great for beginners. Refracting telescopes do not require collimation.
Astronomy enthusiasts typically use red light instead of blue or white light when setting up their telescopes in the dark.
Why red light? The red hue helps your eyes stay adapted to the dark which would give you a much better view of outer space.
You can use a red color filter on your phone’s flashlight if it supports that feature. Alternatively, you can buy a flashlight that gives red light or make your own filter on a flashlight you already have.
How To Set Up A Telescope: Recap
- Do some research on the parts of the telescope and their functions before you attempt to set up your scope
- Before assembling the telescope, read the instruction manual on how to safely and correctly put the parts together
- Gather all the tools you’ll need before you start assembling the parts
- When your telescope is assembled and ready to be set up, get familiar with how to manipulate and adjust the different parts of your telescope
- If you don’t know how to set up a telescope, the first step is to set the mount and tripod on a stable, leveled surface
- Collimate your telescope if it uses mirrors. Refractors and most compound telescopes do not need to be collimated
- Align your telescope with the Earth’s rotational axis
- Align the finderscope with your telescope
- Use the right eyepiece. Remember that higher magnification power does not necessarily mean better image quality
- If necessary, use solar and lunar filters to protect your eyes from damage
- Allow your telescope enough time to acclimatize to the outside temperature
We hope this guide has helped you learn more about how to set up a telescope. Remember that before taking your telescope outside, you should also check the astronomy weather forecast, have a good, dark location, and give your telescope enough time to acclimatize to the outdoors temperature. You can now enjoy the heavenly views!