It's amazing what you can find on the streets of San Francisco. No, the actual city streets, not the '70s cop drama starring Michael Douglas. I recently came across a scavenger's treasure in the city's Sunset neighborhood: a fully operational Meade NG-70 Altazimuth Refractor Telescope. It was just sitting there on the curb with a handwritten note simply stating "Free" taped to its barrel. Now, I'll tell you, I'm not much of an astronomer -- inasmuch as I have never used (even touched) a telescope or ever had much interest in learning. The idea of standing around outside in the dark, fiddling with dials always seemed too much hassle to make very distant sparkly objects to appear slightly larger. But what I am also not is a sucker -- and a free telescope is a free telescope -- so into my car's trunk it went.
Once I got the rig home, I set about examining my prize. Often in San Francisco, "Free" tags are simply code for "here, you throw this away." But, shockingly, this telescope had nearly all of its bits and pieces -- from the lens cap to the two extra eyepieces, most everything was present, intact and functional. The only things missing were the instructional DVD, the laser rangefinder and, for my part, even a rudimentary understanding of what "Altazimuth Refractor" means. Figuring out how to focus the telescope and smoothly track moving objects was simple enough, so I set about educating myself on the wide world of amateur astronomy. By which I mean I downloaded Google Sky Maps and swiveled about my living room in an office chair for 15 minutes while searching for interesting celestial phenomena.
After having swiveled myself dizzy without finding anything worth looking at in my hemisphere, I decided to revise my strategy with a bit of internet research. First things first, I Googled "Altazimuth Refractor." Turns out altazimuth refers to the telescope's two-axis mount, which works much like an Etch-A-Sketch with separate knobs controlling horizontal and vertical movement, while refractor refers to the fact that the telescope employs a lens to magnify images instead of two mirrors like a reflecting telescope. I also learned that the individual eyepieces offer varying levels of magnification, which explains why I'd need more than one. Having gotten the hang of my telescope's basic operation, I began searching out resources for amateur astronomers. And what better resource could there be than NASA itself?
Sky maps of Messier objects [Image credit: Deep Sky Watch]
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration should be the first stop for anyone interested in getting into astronomy. Not only does the site maintain a valuable compendium of online resources for neophyte stargazers, but also the agency itself has partnered with a multitude of nonprofit organizations across the country to help promulgate astronomical societies, like the Night Sky Network. NSN is a community of more than 400 astronomy clubs across the US (like the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers) as well as an astronomy portal operated by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab that seeks to bring "the wonders of the universe to the public." Users simply input their zip code to find local events, star parties and public viewings at nearby observatories in their area. For folks in the UK, the Society for Popular Astronomy offers a similar service as well as a super-helpful tutorial for setting up and using a telescope for the first time.
Digging around the NASA and SPA sites then led me to a number of private organizations like Sky and Telescope, which features everything from tutorials and weekly sky maps to breaking astronomy news and product reviews. S&T Senior Editor Alan MacRobert's "How to Start Right in Backyard Astronomy" is from 2006, but I found it extremely helpful. If you're looking for more extensive sky maps than what S&T offers, head over to Deep-Sky Watch. Its Illustrated Deep-Sky Observing Guide (downloadable PDF) includes more than 7,000 celestial objects that can be seen with 14x magnification as well as more than 600 deeper objects. And to ensure that you can actually see what you're looking for, the Dark Site Finder map is invaluable.
My favorite and most used site, however, has got to be The Awesome Amateur Astronomer. Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands created this website as part of the EU's Universe Awareness program. It's designed for kids, sure, but it's actually a really engaging system that teaches the basic theories behind astronomy. Users complete 10 steps with varying tasks -- such as visiting a planetarium, learning the parallax method or making an angular measurement -- to "finish" the program. Plus, each step includes links to related on- and offline resources. Honestly, this needs to be an app.
With these resources successfully bookmarked for future reference, I'm feeling pretty confident about not only knowing what to look for, but also where to look and how to find it. Over the past couple of nights, I've been able to spot features on the moon, spied the top of the illuminated cross on Mt. Davidson from my living room and scanned the heavens for UFOs (no luck yet). I didn't think I'd be that excited about staring into the night sky when I found the telescope, but now I can't wait for sundown.