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Star stuff

Telescope 101 with the Tulsa Astronomy Club

It’s hard to miss the array of telescopes when you walk into the Planetarium at Tulsa Air and Space Museum. Long Newtonian reflectors mingle with short and stubby Schmidt-Cassegrains in an assortment that any stargazer would be delighted to see.

“These have been donated to us over the last 10 years or so, and we just keep adding new ones,” said Bryan Kyle, manager of TASM’s Planetarium, located at 3624 N. 74th E Ave. near Tulsa International Airport. “A lot of times people donate them because they just don’t know what to do with them or they lost interest.”

Though TASM makes good use of the donated telescopes, part of their mission is to “inspire science-based learning through discovery.” That’s why Astronomy Club of Tulsa is partnering with the Museum for a workshop to help people learn how to use their own telescopes. On Saturday, Jan. 5, participants in the Telescope 101 Workshop will learn how to work their personal telescopes from the pros.     

“We encourage people that have gotten a telescope for Christmas, or maybe they’ve had one sitting around and just didn’t know how to use it—we have them bring it in, and we give them a mentor person to show them how to put everything together and explain how it works and answer their questions,” Astronomy Club member John Land said. Land has been in the Astronomy Club of Tulsa since 1977.

“We try to set it up so that each person (or group) has at least a 30-minute session,” he said. “That’s something new we’re trying this year.”

The idea is for novice stargazers to get comfortable using their telescopes so they can stargaze solo. “We try to set it up and get them at least to where they can get it pointed at the moon or a star that they want to look at,” Land said.

Sessions are available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., during which time the Planetarium is screening “Two Small Pieces of Glass,” a 23-minute feature about Galileo and the history of the telescope.

Both Land and Kyle said after the workshop, the next cosmic event you won’t want to miss will be the lunar eclipse on Jan. 20.

“This one is going to be pretty cool. It’s going to be the first one at a really good height,” Kyle said. “A lot of times they’ll happen near the horizon or really late at night. The last one I got a good look at was at like 4 a.m.”

During a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow blocks the sun’s light from the moon. The moon has no inherent glow; we can only see it because light from the sun reflects off its surface—but during an eclipse, our planet’s shadow is cast over the moon. Despite this impediment, the moon is still visible to us because the sun’s light bends around the Earth, shining through our atmosphere. The moon often appears red, as some of the light from the sun gets filtered out. The longer wavelengths, the oranges and reds, are what reflect back to us.

If you want to break out your new telescope before the workshop and eclipse, Kyle has some essential advice. “First of all: Read the instructions. A lot of people make that mistake and think, ‘I don’t need that. It’s just a tube. How hard can it be?’

“If you’re going to take it out the first time, find a target that you know is easy to find,” he said. “The moon is the best thing to try and see first because you can’t miss it.”

However, Kyle said before you go out, know that what you see through a telescope won’t look like the high-definition images NASA puts out from deep-space telescopes like Hubble. Planets in our own solar system are the size of a pea, or maybe a dime if you have a high-power telescope. Kyle explained that galaxies look like milky blobs because our eyes can’t make out some of the color coming from them.

For good planetary observation, Kyle recommended waiting until you can see Jupiter this summer. “Right now the only planet we’ve got that you can see with the naked eye is Mars—and technically Venus, but really early in the morning,” he said. “Jupiter is the first thing I saw through my telescope that I got in high school, and it’s kind of the thing that puts it into perspective for people because you can see the planet and its moons.”

Right now from our perspective on Earth, Jupiter is close to the sun, so we can’t see it well, Kyle said. The best time to view Jupiter next year will be starting on June 10.

You’d be surprised how much you can see with a small telescope or even a pair of binoculars, like the Andromeda galaxy. But according to Kyle, if you’re looking to spot planets like Uranus or Neptune—both of which are currently visible—then you’ll need a telescope with a six-inch diameter or larger.

“A lot of people, when they go get a telescope, they want to see nebulae, galaxies, and those are great, but if you’re using a small telescope, a lot of those are going to be hard to see,” Kyle said.

“I tell people to look for star clusters. Some of them you can actually see with the naked eye, but any of them through a telescope are really cool to see. There’s one near Cassiopeia called the double cluster. It looks like a Fourth of July firework show.”

When you’re hunting for small or far away things, there is something Kyle said can be confusing: eyepieces. “Logic tells us that the bigger one would surely be the more powerful one, but it’s the opposite. The smaller one is high-power.”

Another bit of advice from Kyle: “You never want to look for something with a high-power eyepiece. You always want to start with a smaller one, find what you’re looking for, get it in the middle, and swap [the eyepiece] out.”

Regardless of the power of your eyepieces, or the focal length and aperture of your telescope, having anything to help your eyes see what’s above can give you a new perspective, Kyle said. “Just about any telescope will give you a huge insight onto the universe.”

You can RSVP for the Telescope 101 Workshop on the TASM website.

Where to stargaze around Tulsa

Light pollution severely limits what we can see when we look into the night sky. The more light there is near your observation point, the harder it is to see stars, planets, and other celestial objects. These maps will help you plot where to go for your stellar search:

Hello, Luna

The same side of the moon faces the Earth at all times thanks to a phenomenon known as tidal locking. The moon’s position in the sky changes because it orbits our planet on a different axis than Earth’s orbit with the sun. Depending on where the moon is during the month—it takes 28.5 days to complete a lunar cycle—light from the sun will be shining on different parts of it, which causes the moon phases.

Types of telescopes

Refractor telescopes are the type Galileo used. They use lenses to magnify far away objects. Reflectors are what Isaac Newton used, which is why you’ll hear them called Newton reflectors. They use mirrors inside the telescope to reflect images into an eyepiece. A newer type of telescope is the Schmidt-Cassegrain—the short, stubby telescopes that often contain a computer interface. They’re still reflectors, but they have a different design. They reflect light down through the center rather than off to the side, and they’ve got a filter in the front that blocks certain frequencies of light. “Those are the ones that professors like to use,” Kyle said.

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