Catalog Critic: Jupiter, by Computer
By Nancy D. Holt
We've always wanted to get in touch with the Universe, but the idea of negotiating a star chart and telescope has left us intimidated. But now, we hear, there's a modern solution -- computerized telescopes.
For as little as $250, new high-tech scopes promise to help you locate as many as 20,000 celestial bodies with the push of a few buttons. Forget boning up on your Galileo, this is stargazing for dummies: Just set up the scope, tell the attached computer what you want to see, and soon itís pointing you toward stars, constellations and planets.
Thatís the idea, anyway. Eager to get our own guided tour of Saturn's rings and Jupiterís moons, we ordered four computerized scopes -- and, for comparison, a plain, no-tech version in the same price range. Within a few days, we were beneath starry skies, waiting for our new gizmos to put on a show.
We discovered that these scopes work -- but only after you do. First we had to point them toward the North Star and level them. Then, in an exercise rivaling VCR programming, we had to enter screen after screen of data about the time and location. Next, we waited as the computers pointed toward a few bright, "easily recognized" stars.
Of our four high-tech models, only the Bushnell North Star scope lacked a motor, so we had to position it by hand, following the computer's prompts. The others whirred to face the
target stars on their own. But there was more fiddling to be done: We had to fine-tune the scopes so that each target star was in the center of our view field. The problem? Call us indiscriminate, but most stars really do look alike, so we were never sure we were centering on the right ones. We knew we'd done something wrong when our telescopes started taking us on "sky tours" of the pavement on our driveway.
So we called in a pro. Astronomer Keith Gleason of the University of Colorado in Boulder quickly got our scopes oriented, and after a bit of trial and error, we found that all four computers worked reasonably well. But Mr. Gleason quickly pointed out other shortcomings in these scopes: Some had poor-quality lenses or mirrors, shaky tripods and not enough
magnification to see things like Saturn's rings, even on clear nights.
At the heart of the matter: budget. While most first-timers wouldn't shell out more than $300 on a scope, that's actually about the minimum it takes to buy a serviceable model, Mr. Gleason explains. The catch is that with computerized versions, part of the bill is going toward technology, not the telescope.
So before even judging the computer, he says to make sure the scope has a solid mount and good optics. Other factors: Generally, a bigger aperture means brighter images, and a longer focal length produces larger ones (he recommends a focal length of at least 700mm to view planets). Most of our vendors' Web sites offered still more advice, like how to decide between reflector and refractor scopes.
After that explanation, we expected the most from our noncomputerized model, the $300 Astroscan. And while it was stable and had good optics, its short focal length made planetary details hard to see. We also found good optics and stability from the Meade scope -- plus, this one came with an easy-to-use computer. But we encountered the same problem: We still didn't have enough magnification to see planets in detail. And, the Meade lacked a finder, the small secondary scope that makes aiming easier.
Although it had the biggest aperture and longest focal length, the Bushnell was a letdown. It shook when we nudged it, blurring whatever we were looking at. Plus, when we raised the tripod, it slipped back to the lowest position. (The manufacturer suggests using the scope on grass to minimize vibrations and says it has improved the tripod design.)
And our favorites? They weren't the biggest, or even, according to Mr. Gleason, the highest quality. But we thought Tasco's StarGuide telescope, and Celestron's NexStar, from eHobbies,
offered the best combination of features -- the magnification was good enough that we could see planets, each had a helpful finder scope and the computers were among the easiest to use. The Celestron, which has a bigger database of stars, gets our nod for best overall and best value.
In the end, our amateur stargazing experience was mixed. Without help, we couldn't find Saturn, much less its rings. But with patience and a star chart, we eventually found our horizons expanding. And that taught us what we should have figured out in the first place: There's no substitute for staring up at the sky, and thinking hard.
Editors Choice: eHobbies; Celestron NexStar 60GT Refractor Telescope
; 714-736-5148, www.eHobbies.com
Quality -- Best Overall, Best Value. This 60mm refractor scope has a 4,000-object database and 20mm, 10mm and 4mm eyepieces. Lenses and tripod werenít great, but 700mm focal length let us see Saturnís rings.
Shipping Cost/Time -- $6.99, three to seven business days. Ours arrived in four.
Return Policy: May be returned within 30 days of receipt, in original packaging. You pay shipping and a 15% restocking fee unless the company erred. Call for return authorization.
Telephone attitude -- Valiant. Our attendant tried to find answers to our queries, but they were vague. Luckily, threes lots of information, and about 50 telescope models, on the stores Web site.
Comes with PC software and easy-to-follow manual. Requires eight AA batteries.