Jimmy Westlake: A telescope under the tree

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

Reminder: If the skies clear this week, keep an eye on the beautiful conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the southwest sky after sunset. On Monday night, the crescent moon joins the planet pair for the best sky show of the year.

I'll never forget my first telescope. When I was 10 years old, my mom and dad purchased a little 2.5-inch reflecting telescope and put it under the Christmas tree with my name on it. It didn't take me long to discover the moons of Jupiter, the craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn and a whole universe of surprises. Since that modest first telescope, I have graduated to larger and larger instruments, some of which I've made myself. But, that first little telescope really was something special. I still have it somewhere up in the attic.

Lots of moms and dads think about giving the gift of a first telescope this time of year, but they don't know where to start. If you would like to put a telescope under the tree for a young boy or girl on your gift list, here are some important hints to keep in mind.

First, don't be misled by claims of 400 or 500 magnifying power on the telescope box. Magnification is the least important feature of a telescope, but marketers know that claiming high magnification increases sales. No small telescope can give a good, clear image at 500 power. Instead, you want to put your money into the largest diameter lens or mirror that you can afford. For example, a reflecting telescope with a 4-inch mirror will show the rings around Saturn even at 80 times magnification. The larger the diameter of the lens or mirror, the sharper the view will be. I recommend a reflecting telescope, which uses a mirror, over the traditional refracting telescope, which uses a lens. Dollar for dollar, you get more telescope with a reflector than a refractor.

The second important feature to look for is a rock-solid mount. If it came on a wobbly mount, even the Hubble Space Telescope would be very frustrating to use and probably would be left to gather dust in the closet. Two good mounting styles to look for are an equatorial mount or a Dobsonian mount. Avoid wobbly-legged wooden tripods at all costs.

Finally, you can get a "smart" telescope with some fancy "go-to" technology that will automatically point your telescope to any object in the sky that you choose, but your young astronomer will miss the experience of getting out the star charts and finding the objects on their own. That's the best way for them to learn their way around the sky. And, when they proudly invite you to step up and look at the Orion Nebula that they found all by themselves, you'll share their excitement of discovery, too.

For more tips on buying that first telescope, check out the Web site at www.telescopes.com.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" Web site, Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, MSNBC.com, NationalGeographic.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. His "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Also, check out Jimmy's Web site at www.jwestlake.com.

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