Stargazing at Its Finest: Reflector Telescopes
The sheer amount of exciting news to come from NASA and other astrological agencies recently has gotten more than a few people interested in stargazing. From these amazing images of adistant cartwheel galaxy to thespooky sounds of an actual black hole, the universe continues to provide us mere earthlings with endless wonder.
If you’re wondering how you can start to explore these distant wonders, you’re not alone. Astronomy itself is a complex subject that has fascinated and confounded man for centuries. How can we even begin to study something as vast and infinite as the universe itself? Are the laws of physics as we understand them enough to make more than the smallest dent in the mysteries of the universe?
Thankfully, you don’t need to answer any of these questions to get started with a fun and interesting hobby that serves as many people’s introduction to astronomy: stargazing! From the comfort of your own backyard to the forests, mountaintops, or anywhere you can set up a telescope can be an excellent vantage point to explore the “nearby” galactic phenomena.
If you’venever stargazed before, or if you have and are looking for a new telescope to use, you might want to learn how to use a reflector telescope, and here’s why!
What is a Reflector Telescope?
Reflector telescopes are one of the foundational types of telescope you can buy. Sometimes you’ll see these telescopes called “reflecting” telescopes but regardless of the spelling, these telescopes are characterized by their use of curved mirrors (a single or multiple mirror(s) can be used) which reflect light in a way that creates an image visible to your eye.
The origins of this type of telescope date all the way back to the famous astronomer and physicist Isaac Newton. Newton invented the reflector telescope as an improvement to the refracting telescope, which was common back in the 1600s. These refracting telescopes would hardly be considered telescopes today as they had numerous issues, especially in terms of altering the color of the images they created (sometimes called chromatic aberration).
A refracting telescope worked well in an age when very few were looking toward the stars; however, since Newton’s upgrade to the reflector telescope, astronomers and hobbyists alike have never looked back. The overwhelming majority of telescopes used by professional astronomers today are reflector telescopes. Even the incredibly famous Hubble Space Telescope is a reflecting telescope!
The Newtonian Reflector telescope has become so prominent that the design has even been applied to non-astronomical uses such as medical X-rays and thermal cameras.
Setting up Your Telescope
While it’s tempting to approach your new telescope like you would a package on Christmas morning, it’s important to take a step back and familiarize yourself with all of the parts. Unpack your new telescope box and lay out all of the gear and pieces that are included.
Practice changing out different eyepieces and make sure you’re comfortable with the construction and function of all of the individual pieces, be they eyepieces, lenses, tripod, or other parts. If at any point you need additional instruction on your specific model of telescope, don’t be afraid to check the user manual!
It’s important to understand exactly how your telescope operates since the locking mechanisms can be slightly different from manufacturer to manufacturer. You don’t want to be in a situation where you change out an eyepiece and think that you’re ready to go, only to have it snap and fall off when you take a look at distant objects!
Once you’re comfortable with the parts and mechanical setup of your telescope, you’re almost ready to go! If you’re just getting started or just too eager to go look up at the night sky, you can skip the next step. On the other hand, if you’re a more experienced stargazer, or if you want to find something specific, you’ll want to make sure you complete the following.
Using a Finder Scope
A finder scope is a small accessory that attaches to the top or side of your telescope. Basically, the finder scope helps you zero in on celestial objects that would be difficult to pinpoint in a sky full of stars. Attach the finder scope to your telescope body in line with your manufacturer’s requirements, and be sure it’s locked in and firmly attached.
Once your finder scope is ready to go, you’re almost ready to find any object within a star cluster, but there’s one more step that serious stargazers won’t want to skip.
Use a Star Chart
Star Charts sounds like something directly out of the Star Wars universe, where Rebel and Imperial captains are consulting the star charts to plot their jump to hyperspace. While real-life astronomers don’t use star charts for anything as exciting as that, they do frequently consult star charts the same way ancient seafarers used terrestrial maps and stars for navigation.
Star Charts tell you where the stars and constellations will be based on your location on Earth and the time of year it is. This is important since the stars you’ll see will be in different parts of the night sky depending on the time of year.
By consulting a star chart, you’ll learn where the deep sky objects that you want to see can be located. If you’re going out away from your home to use your telescope, you’ll want to commit as much of the chart to memory as you can. Minimize the time you’ll need to rely on it in the field and you’ll have a better overall stargazing experience.
Or, you could just stay in your backyard and see whatever bright objects you can, but where’s the fun in that?
Adjusting and Calibrating Your Telescope
Once you’ve assembled your telescope, attached all of the additional parts, and consulted your star charts, you’re ready for the final step to set up your Newtonian telescope. To adjust your telescope, go to an area with as little light and air pollution as possible. Point your telescope towards the sky and be sure to remove any protective lens covers.
Like the navigators of old, you’ll be using the celestial bodies to help you calibrate your telescope. In this case, you’ll be consulting with the moon. Point your telescope at the moon and make slight adjustments to the positioning and magnification until the moon is perfectly in view in the center of your telescope optics.
Next up, you’ll want to make sure your finder scope is calibrated as well. Fortunately, you’re going to use the moon again to help you with this. Ever so slightly make adjustments to the screws or locking mechanism that hold your finder scope in place.
Make sure to continue making adjustments until the moon is also perfectly centered and viewable without any blur or spherical aberrations. Once the moon is centered and clearly visible in your finder scope and your primary mirror, you’re ready to stargaze like a professional!
Stargazing Through Time
There’s something truly awe-inspiring that comes with using a Newtonian telescope to look at the universe. When you stargaze, you are standing in the shoes of the great physicists and thinkers who came before us using the same telescope that has been in use for centuries. Thanks to modern advancements, you’re viewing further and with more clarity than has ever been possible in the past.
When you’re looking up into the night sky, you’re going on a trip through time, much in the same way Newton and Gallelio did hundreds of years ago. The sky they saw was different from the one you and I are viewing today.
We don’t usually think of it, but light actually has to travel to get from place to place. On Earth, it’s as simple as turning the lights on, but in the vastness of space, light can only go so far so fast. When you use your telescope, you’re seeing light that was emitted proportionally to the number of light years away from the object you’re viewing.
In other words, if you’re looking at a star that is 10,000 light years away, you’re seeing light that left its home 10,000 years ago. In essence, you’re traveling through time and seeing the star as it was when the light first left ten millennia ago.
Once you stop to consider that 10,000 light years is basically our neighbor’s house in universal terms, the universe begins to feel very large, and ancient beyond imagination. All of these wonders and mysteries have captivated the human mind since our earliest ancestors first looked up at the stars.
Now that you know how to use a reflector telescope, the best technology that has ever been available to a stargazer, you can get a better look at these ancient wonders than anyone who came before. Short of hopping on the next starship and seeing the stars with your own eyes, this is as good as it gets.