Sky Talk February 2011: Why Buy a Telescope?

The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.

I would expand upon these wonderful words from Robert Frost’s famous poem The Star-Splitter to say that someone in every home owes it to the home to keep one! And here’s why.

You may be wondering if you should buy a telescope for yourself and/or your family. Begin by considering that a good telescope is not just another gadget or technical possession but rather a marvelous, magical gift from the Universe to all of us. It’s a “window on creation,” a “time machine,” and a “spaceship of the mind” all rolled into one! And it’s also a superb investment, for a properly-cared-for quality telescope will last a lifetime (and in most cases well beyond) while providing countless memorable hours of enjoyment.

A telescope lets you view nature at its grandest — from the relatively nearby Moon and planets to remote galaxies at the edge of creation. In between these extremes, are comets, and asteroids, and moons of planets, colorful double and multiple stars, pulsating supergiant suns, glorious glittering star clusters, and eerie glowing nebulae where stars are both being born and dying. Looking through the eyepiece of a telescope is very much like peering through the “porthole” of a spaceship at the universe. As one stargazer expressed it, “It’s the next best thing to actually being out there!” So look upon your new telescope as your very own personal “spaceship”!

Another exciting thing about a telescope is that the further out into space you look the further back into the past you’re seeing, since it takes time for light from celestial objects to reach us. That’s why skywatchers are often called “time travelers.” (See the March Sky Talk.) The light you see from the Moon left there less than two seconds ago, and that of the planets anywhere from minutes to hours to reach your eye. But when it comes to the stars and other objects beyond the Solar System you’re looking back into time anywhere from a few years, to millions of years in the case of remote galaxies. As you view objects through your magic glass, it’s fun to reflect upon what was happening in your life or on our planet when their light left out there.

Perhaps the greatest value of a telescope is its most subtle — the cosmic perspective it gives you and others with whom you share the celestial wonders it reveals. Everyone needs a look through a telescope to get their priorities straight, especially in today’s troubled world. We end as we began, with a quote. This one comes from the dedication of the famed 200-inch reflecting telescope on Palomar Mountain: “Adrift in cosmos whose shores he can’t even imagine, man spends his energies fighting with his fellow man over issues which a single look through this telescope would show to be utterly inconsequential.”

–James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine and author of eight books on stargazing.

Additional Resources:

  • All About Telescopes – a 200 pg classic book, referred to as “the amateur astronomer’s bible”
  • How to Use Your Telescope – a 36 pg book that includes tips on selecting a telescope, understanding telescope terminology and finding sky objects.