For many people, the appeal of astronomy is mired by the thought of spending hours and hours in the dark, searching the night sky aimlessly for a glimpse of some conveniently-passing heavenly body. Most people don’t want to see acres and acres of space – they want to see cool stuff like planets and nebulae and comets. The arrival on the commercial market of the computerized telescope changed all this – now, instead of waiting for hours trying to work out exactly which bright spot of light in the night sky is the Dog Star and which is Flight UA-703 inbound to JFK, lazy astronomy buffs need only to dial Sirius’ location into their laptop and voila! The telescope will rotate to track the star in question.
Basically, that’s what computerized telescopes do. Using co-ordinates and identification numbers fed in to the mount, computerized telescopes locate, track and record different celestial objects. Now, many astronomy purists decry these delightful ‘go-to’ machines, claiming that they take the art out of astronomy and that people who use them never really get to understand the mysteries of the cosmos, but as an entry in to the hobby they are a great (if relatively expensive) choice.
The real drawback of computerized go-to telescopes is not so much their cost, but their size. Remember, all the technical wizardry in the world isn’t going to overcome the fact that, if you have a 2-inch reflector lens, you’ll be hard-pressed to see much further than the stratosphere. Telescopes still work the same way in principle as they did back when Galileo first cobbled together his first prototype back in 1609, and still need light coming in to function. This is where computerized scopes trip up – for the price of a 5-inch computerized lens, you could easily afford a 10-inch conventional telescope, a copy of Astronomy for Dummies, a good parka and a decent thermos, and still have change.
However, for special-interest or time-constrained astronomers, you can’t go wrong with a go-to. With a decent-enough rig you could find enough stars and planets in an hour to make James T. Kirk look like a rank amateur, and still make it home before bedtime. It all depends on what interests you – if you want to study and truly explore the wonders of the night sky, then your best bet is probably to avoid computerized telescopes for now. If, however, you just want to spot planets as they move in to orbit or comets as they hurtle past the atmosphere, a decent computerized telescope is probably all you require.
The Hubble Space Telescope