Stranger in a Star Party
By Paul Below (adapted from an article by John Steinberg. Continued from the first installment in Issue #46.)
Once you've caught a glance of a favorite object in the sky, ask someone to point out where it is above you (if you don't already). Try to judge if you're the sort of person who would enjoy navigating the night sky on your own, or if you need the assistance of digital setting circles (DSCs) or GOTO. If you already have a pair of binoculars, make sure you bring those along. If you can find the object (or at least the location in the sky where it is) through the binoculars, you're probably well suited to star-hopping. DSCs and GOTO (read an explanation of how they work) are useful and entertaining, but they do add to the cost of the telescope, so there's no question you can get more scope for your money if you can find your way by star-hopping.
Of course, it's not all about you--you should find out about the equipment too! After looking through a few scopes, you may have decided on which set of optics you like the best. But what about the steadiness of the view? That depends a lot on the quality of the mount and tripod, if any. When testing one out, it's a common tactic to rap the tripod and see how long it takes for the vibration to settle out. A couple of seconds is typical. If it takes 5 seconds or more, the mount/tripod is probably insufficiently strong or stable to support that particular scope.
Scope owners don't always take kindly to people rapping on their tripods, however, so here's an idea you might try--ask them where the focus knob is. Even if the image is perfectly in focus for you, try racking the focus in and out. Is it relatively easy to get the image to stop shaking enough for you to focus, or does it shake so much that you have to let go, wait for the image to steady, adjust the focus again, let it go, rinse, repeat? Keep in mind that you will get better at this, but it is a measure of the mount and tripod's stability. Try looking through the finder. On some scopes, due to the design of the mount, the finder is so close to the tube, and in so awkward a position, that it's difficult to use. You may want to use a unit-power, red-dot finder (like a Telrad or EZ Finder or Rigel or Daisy) instead; if there's one of those at the star party, you should find an opportunity to try it out. Owners of these unit-power finders tend to be strong proponents of their usability, especially for beginners, so most of them will let you take a peek.
If, by lucky chance, you should find someone willing to actually let you move the scope from object to object, and you're not all thumbs, then by all means avail yourself of the opportunity! Let the scope owner teach you how to move the scope. Make sure that you don't force anything; many mounts have clamps and clutches that prevent the scope from slipping when the scope is fixed on an object, and you can damage the mount if you try to move it again without releasing these. Ask yourself if you find it easy to move the scope in the direction you want.
Lastly, if there is any chance of meeting up with these people again, why not join the astronomy club? If you've narrowed your choices down to a couple, ask people about how they feel about their scopes, from the purchase to the maintenance to how often they use them. You may need help after your new purchase, and the club members are often just the ones to assist you. You can also get some tips on where to go buying your scopes. Dealers that come highly recommended by club members often cost a little more, but what you get with the extra cost is the assurance that there'll be someone there to help you if misfortune strikes and you have a problem with your new scope. We have star party tips here: http://www.bpastro.org/index.php?page=tips-for-a-star-party Here are some "do's and don'ts":
Don't shine a flashlight at anything. This holds especially if it's a dark-sky party, as opposed to one that takes place in a city. You may find it disorienting in the dark, but flashlights ruin the dark adaptation of others. Red flashlights, although used by amateurs to protect their night vision, are still too bright when shined directly at people and scopes. Don't do it.
Don't park in front of the observatory; save the space for those with heavy equipment to unload or who have trouble walking.
Do bring warm clothes. Even in summer.
Do be aware of your car headlights. Try to arrive before dark.
Make sure your face and hands are clean. In the normal course of using a scope, these body parts are likely to come in accidental contact with optical surfaces. If they're not clean, they will not only leave dust on the lenses, but those lenses may get scratched, and grease is damaging to optical coatings.
And a final "Do": Do make it known if you're interested in buying a scope. You will get much more information from club members if they know you're researching purchases. You may get more than you want at first, but it's easier to whittle away the facts you don't need than to make up ones you don't have.