From the May 2017 issue

Hitching a ride

Before buying a new piece of equipment, be sure to test-drive it.
By | Published: May 30, 2017 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
During my college days in the late 1960s, I didn’t own a car and often had to hitchhike to get from place to place. Nowadays, I would never recommend this mode of travel (I’m older and perhaps wiser, and understand the sheer number of crazies on the highways), but I do advocate hitchhiking via a different mode of transportation — the telescope. Not only does telescope hitchhiking take you to destinations far beyond anything you could access on the freeway, it might save you hundreds of dollars when it comes to purchasing astronomy gear.

When the first 100° wide-angle eyepieces appeared on the market, I knew I had to have one. Sure, the price was astronomical (pardon the pun), but after four decades as a dedicated backyard astronomer, I felt worthy of the luxury.

Fortunately, I belong to a vibrant astronomy club: the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston. At one of the club’s observing sessions, member Steve Clougherty was using one of these eyepieces to view deep-sky objects through his 18-inch Dobsonian. When I heard this, I had to hitch a ride on his scope! To my surprise and dismay, I couldn’t take in the full 100° apparent field of view — not without moving my head up and down and side to side. I returned to my scope and inserted one of my 82° wide-angle eyepieces. Peering in, I could just capture the whole field without any head movements. This was more like it! To spend hundreds of dollars for a slightly wider apparent field would have been a waste of money.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you avoid buying a 100° wide-field eyepiece. Several members of my club own such eyepieces and describe their performance in three words: amazing, amazing, amazing! And your eye may be able to take advantage of the wider view. What I am suggesting is that, whenever possible, try out a telescope or telescope accessory before purchasing one. Hitching a ride on a telescope allows you that opportunity.

Children line up to observe the Moon through an 18-inch Dobsonian telescope and its 12×75 finder scope at southeastern Virginia’s Back Bay Amateur Astronomers sidewalk viewing session in April 2012. Such events provide ample opportunities to try new equipment on for size.
Ted Forte
That’s one reason why I recommend joining a local astronomy club. Not only will you get the chance to talk with people who share your passion for the sky, but you’ll also have an opportunity to try out other members’ equipment. I’ve never encountered someone who wasn’t eager to let me peer through his or her telescope. In fact, more often than not, the owner invited me to look. In the process, I got to experience a variety of telescope types and accessories. Not only did they teach me what not to buy, but they also paved the way for some worthwhile purchases. I bought that 82° eyepiece I mentioned earlier with confidence after I looked through one at a club get-together.

Time to party

Astronomy conventions and public star parties also provide great opportunities for telescope hitchhiking — there you’ll find amateur astronomers fairly begging you to take a peek through their scopes. A few years ago, I helped out with a star party being held at a local elementary school. One of the volunteers was working with a refracting telescope he purchased from a company that offered such scopes for an insanely low price. I thought the quality would be iffy at best, but I hitched a ride anyway. The image of the Orion Nebula (M42) through it was so crisp that I wound up ordering the same telescope model for myself.

At this year’s annual Stellafane Convention in Springfield, Vermont (which takes place July 20–23), I plan to wander around the observing field hitching rides on as many different scopes as I can. I really don’t need a new telescope, but I’ll be asking the owners about the eyepieces they’re using. A backyard astronomer can never own enough eyepieces! Make sure the scope you’re hitchhiking with is similar to your own, though. The performance of an eyepiece coupled with a short-focus reflector may differ dramatically from its performance when used with a long-focus refractor or catadioptric scope.

Don’t get me wrong — there are drawbacks to telescope hitchhiking. For one thing, a cursory glance may not allow you enough time to truly evaluate a telescope or accessory. Fortunately, my astronomy club has a loaner program. A room in the clubhouse stores a variety of donated telescopes, eyepieces, and accessories, and club members can take any of them out on temporary loan. If you borrow before you buy, you can almost guarantee that your purchase will deliver years of enjoyment.

Questions, comments, or suggestions? Email me at Next month: August’s spectacular total eclipse!