Long-time stargazers learned the basics of the night sky the hard way — with pencils, star charts and lots of patience with their telescopes.
Now high-tech equipment and smartphone apps are making the task a lot less daunting for beginners.
New point-and-shoot telescopes, for example, require only the push of a button to go into action: Plunk one down in the driveway and the device gets its own bearings, aligning itself with the stars above so it can tell you that the twinkling light in the eyepiece is Betelgeuse.
Three models of these new, self-aligning telescopes will be offered this July. The company launching it says that it is intended for amateurs who don't have in-depth knowledge of the night sky, or may not even have a clue of how to set up a telescope.
Even seasoned astronomy experts are heralding such automation.
“I think the telescope that sets itself up, so anyone can easily use it, is great,” said Jay Pasachoff, chairman of the astronomy department and director of the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
“This kind of telescope makes it possible for people to be out in their backyards and look at the most interesting astronomical objects within minutes.”
To find its position and then recognise the stars above, the telescope has a digital camera that takes pictures of the sky. It then compares them with its computerised database of stored images, the company official said. The process typically takes less than three minutes.
Automated telescopes that can find celestial objects with no help from humans are not new. Telescopes have long had motors to drive them, allowing built-in processing and databases. Users of some older telescopes, for example, can choose “Saturn” from the menu on the hand controller, recentering the eyepiece over the planet.
But even these go-to telescopes, as they are known, must be set up properly, said Tom Kovach, customer service manager at Astronomics.com, based in Norman, Okla. “It only takes a few minutes to do this,” he said, “but you have to be technically savvy, and some people are defeated by the process.” Some of the instruments fill that last niche in automation, he said. “The go-to's make it easier, but they are only as good as the alignment you give them.”
Amateur stargazers are also finding a wealth of data via low-cost technology like smartphone apps. Smartphones, with their cameras and abundant processing power, offer novel features that telescopes cannot.
For example, there is an application for iPhone and iPad that identifies bright stars or planets you can see in the night sky. It can also simulate a ride on a spacecraft taking you on a tour of distant planets.
Last year, the App Smart column of The New York Times reviewed several other astronomy-related apps including Star Walk (for the iPhone and the iPad) and Google Sky Map for Android phones (free).
The apps can lead to more telescope sales, said Mr. Kovach of Astronomics.com. “People come in with their phones,” he said, on which they have looked at labelled versions of the night sky. “They say, ‘I want to get a telescope to see this for real'.”
For those who want to meld the benefits of telescopes with smartphones, attachments are available. A simple adapter clamps an iPhone directly onto the telescope eyepiece, said an official of the company based in West Melbourne, Fla. With that, users can take snapshots of Saturn, the moon, Jupiter and other bright objects via the telescope. “You won't get distant galaxies,” he said, “but it will get you started.”
Dr. Chris Lintott, director of citizen science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, said he believed that the availability of beginners' tools like apps and self-aligning telescopes would help drive interest in astronomy.
“People can find out much more easily what that bright thing in the sky is that interests them,” he said. “And once they've found out that bright star is a planet, I think it's natural to want to learn more about it.”— © New York Times News Service