Amateur astronomers set sights on sophisticated telescopes

Today's budding Galileos are seeing things that only professionals had access to years ago, owing to recent telescope technology improvements in cameras, software, optics and cheaper GPS technology.

Elliot Malone just wanted to see some stars.

The 18-year-old and his father Paul had driven almost an hour to San Francisco from their home in Petaluma, Calif., to visit the planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences. But it was sold out, so they headed to the next place on their list: a small telescope shop called Scope City.

There, Malone walked through the rows of telescopes, talking with his dad about the difference between refractors and reflectors. Scope City manager Sam Sweiss took note of the precocious teen. "I was listening to him, and I was very impressed," he says. "The way he explained it was very gentle and kind, in simple words."

Sweiss offered the then-high-school student a job, jokingly. But Malone followed-up by phone two days later, and Sweiss eventually made good on his word, thinking that Malone would be a help with the store's various astronomy walks and children's stargazing parties. Malone wanted a high-end telescope, but couldn't afford one, so he and Sweiss worked out a deal where he would be paid half in cash and half in store credit.

Now, four months later, Malone finally has his telescope — a Meade LX200 12-inch classic. He says the $4,500 US device was the biggest portable scope he could afford, and that his boss gave him a great deal. He can see stars, nebulae and galaxies with just the push of a button.

While the particulars of Malone's story might be unique, his passion for sky watching is not. He's part of a new guard of amateur astronomers enabled by recent telescope technology improvements in cameras, software, optics and cheaper GPS technology. Today's budding Galileos are seeing things that only professionals had access to years ago. The new telescopes also take better pictures of the sky, and thus contribute to scientific research.

They're also moving down the pricing curve as improvements in manufacturing make them cheaper to produce. To prove this point, the International Astronomical Union and the American Astronomical Society teamed up to create a Galileo-style telescope on the cheap. "It costs $15" to make, says Kevin Marvel, executive officer at the American Astronomical Society. "It has enough resolution and magnification so that you can duplicate all of the observations that Galileo made and do one that he couldn't do, which is to see Saturn."

On the low end, Scope City says a decent entry-level telescope costs about $200. A decade ago, it was at least double that. Fancier telescopes are not much more expensive. Today you can get an entry-level "go-to" scope for around $400; 10 years ago, a similar device would have cost in the thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, telescope manufacturers are piling on technology like GPS and "go-to" location software that makes their devices easier to user and more accessible to newbies.

Marjorie Christen, who owns telescope manufacturer Astro-Physics with her husband Roland, now employs three part-time programmers to help design her Machesney Park, Ill.-based company's proprietary object-locating technology. Each programmer works on developing a separate component: One works on PC-based software; another programs the hand-held controller and a third makes the electronic drive system located on the mount.

'Star-hopping' stumbles

Christen says two big factors are pushing "go-to" technology adoption. First, pollution in urban and suburban environments make it hard to "star hop," or navigate the sky star-by-star. "It's really hard for people to do that these days because you can't see enough of the fainter stars to effectively star-hop," she says.

Second, technology-rich telescopes are just plain easier to use. "They want to maximize their viewing session and see a number of different things in one session without spending as much time hunting for them," says Christen.

Today, almost all electronically equipped telescopes give the user access to tens of thousands of stellar objects after just a quick calibration. Here's how it goes: You point the stand toward Polaris, then point the scope at a known bright star, such as the Summer Triangle's Vega, then input your location, time and date. From there, finding galaxies and nebulae is only a matter of button-pushing.

"This technology makes it so that anybody — even someone who knows nothing about astronomy — can enter some basic information and start looking at nebulae and galaxies," says Malone, now a Scope City salesman and go-to evangelist.

Combined with improvements in charge-coupled device (CCD) camera technology, the proliferation of go-to technology is making amateur astronomers increasingly valuable to their professional counterparts. For example, NASA Ames Research Center is planning to crash a rocket into the moon later this summer, and it is counting on amateurs to help measure the size and brightness of the 40-mile-high cloud of debris that is expected to form from the crash.

The American Astronomical Society says this is all thanks to improvements in technology. "In the research area, the CCD cameras are much more reliable and inexpensive," Marvel says. "Amateur growth is really hinged on good telescopes becoming inexpensive."