An RVer’s guide to gearing up for astronomy

An RVer’s guide to gearing up for astronomy

By Chris Fellows
In my travels I have been amazed by two juxtaposed facts. One, people love looking at the stars/moon/planets with their own eyes, and two, people haven’t really tried it for themselves.

Let’s take a moment to think about that second point more closely. The sky is over our heads our entire lives and yet very few people take the time to simply look up! There are literally billions of things to see and learn about up there and some of them are fantastically beautiful. Why don’t people try astronomy for themselves? I think folks find the idea of amateur astronomy technically intimidating, assume it would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, and/or don’t think they have the room in their RV for all the equipment. In this article I will attempt to relieve those anxieties and encourage everyone to take that first step into an appreciation of the universe. 

What you will need and what it will cost
Although it is true that you can spend a lot of money on equipment, it is by no means necessary to get a completely satisfying observing experience. Here I am going to recommend a setup that will cost less than $200 and allow you to see good detail on the moon, atmospheric bands on the surface of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn — all this with minimal setup and technical know-how.

First, and maybe surprising, I am not going to recommend a telescope. Using a telescope can be a bit daunting at first. There is a lot to learn, many different designs to choose from, and finicky adjustments and alignments that must be performed. Instead, I think a decent pair of 12 X 60 or larger binoculars is a better choice for beginners. Binoculars have many advantages: They are extremely portable, rugged, low cost, useful for wildlife/landscape viewing, and technically simple to operate. There is a huge variety of size and design options available and almost any of them will do the job, but there are a couple of features you should look for:

• Primary objective (front lens size) of at least 60mm
• Porro or BAK4 prism design
• Multi-coated optics

You can find many choices online but here are a couple by Celestron that I have used and can recommend:

Celestron SkyMaster 12×60 Binoculars (approx. $70 at Amazon.com)
Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15×70 Binoculars with Tripod Adapter (approx. $75 at Amazon.com) (This second set is very large so will be more limited to tripod use but has the required “L” bracket included.)

Next you will need to mount your binoculars on a tripod to get a steady view. Because planets are optically small, handheld observing is very difficult and not very satisfying. To battle the shake and wobble of handheld observing we need a tripod and a way to attach our new binoculars to it. A binocular “L” bracket is a simple adapter that connects your binoculars to a tripod. Normally made of aluminum or high-impact plastic, it is designed to fit on the camera shoe of the tripod and has a hand screw that will mate with the front center of your binoculars. Here is an example from Amazon: Solomark L Type Metal Tripod Mounting Adapter for Porro Binoculars (about $8)

Now we’ll stabilize our binoculars with a tripod. There are literally hundreds of choices here and almost any of them will work just fine. I would recommend a sturdy one with a fluid head or Alt/Az slow motion controls. Here are a couple of examples I found on Amazon and made by Celestron:

Celestron 82050 TrailSeeker Tripod (Black) (about $90)
Celestron Heavy-Duty Altazimuth Tripod (under $90)

Next, I am going to recommend you buy a red light flashlight. It takes up to 30 minutes in the dark for the human eye to adapt to the dark and get the most satisfying views of the night sky. Just a flash of white (full spectrum) light will reset your adaptation to zero and you will need another half hour to readjust. Red light is much less damaging to your dark adaptation and is all that should be used when you are out observing. Any flashlight with a red bulb or film will do the trick. I like one that I can strap to my forehead so my hands remain free to do tasks. Here is one I found online: Tactical Headlight RED Hunting Light (about $25 at Amazon.com)

Finally, you are going to need to know something about the night sky so you can find the objects you would like to observe. Nowadays there are many paths to this knowledge: internet web sites, smartphone applications, magazines, and paper star charts. Here I am going to recommend a subscription to one of the big astronomy magazines and a smartphone app. The magazines are very useful to the beginner because they will point out binocular targets and tell you how to find them in the night sky. Each month the editors of Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines publish beginner articles and point out targets for small telescopes and binoculars. They also have extensive online tools and charts to assist the amateur astronomer. Here are the links to those publications:

Sky & Telescope – $38 yearly subscription
Astronomy – $42 yearly subscription

Both of these publications offer a digital-only option at reduced cost.

There are also many smartphone apps that can assist you in finding and identifying celestial objects. You can search your app store for “planetarium” and find the one that you like best. I use “Skyportal” by Celestron because it has an extensive data set and will interface with my telescope. 

That’s it! That is all you need to get out and start enjoying the night sky. Finding objects can be a bit challenging at first but stick with it. There is nothing like the satisfaction you will get the first time you center a planet or globular cluster in your field of view. I hope to see you out in the night sometime in the near future with your new toys and enjoying the beauty of our universe.

Clear Skies,
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory

Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)

##RVT813

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21 thoughts on “An RVer’s guide to gearing up for astronomy

  1. Elyse

    Cool article!! Makes me want to get all the gear and have an astronomy night with my students! I need your help though! Love you.

  2. Serenity Mobile Observatory

    Chuck, I forgot to mention that you will also need a device to hold your cell phone up to your eyepiece. Here is one from amazon for around $20. http://amzn.to/2x66kj2

  3. Serenity Mobile Observatory

    Chuck, I assume you are talking about a Parallelogram binocular mount? For astro-snapshots it will work fine. What I mean by that is a single snapshot like you would take of a landscape or person with your cell phone. This will work for bright targets like the moon or planets but not for deep sky objects. For deep sky, because the targets are so dim, you need to take long exposures and take many of them. To do this you need a mount that will “track” the object otherwise you get a smeared out image with “Star trails”. This is a somewhat complex and potentially expensive process, I myself have nearly $10,000 wrapped up in my gear but you can get into astrophotography for much less. If there is general interest in astrophotography I will do a series on it but I would like to hear from others who want to read about it because it is such a niche subject.

    1. Ricky adams

      I’d love to hear more about quality astro-photography. I love taking pictures at night and have been astounded what there is to see! I have a Canon 70D and 3 lenses (medium quality). I do not have 10k to invest but I’d like to know more about tracking systems. Trails can be cool but seeing the stars clearly (and more distinctly) would be awesome.

  4. Tim Boller

    Great article Chris. I have a pair of Celestron SkyMaster 15X70 and keep thinking “one day” I will get a Parallelogram-style mount but keep putting it off. You have renewed my interest in getting the mount now ! HMMM isn’t Christmas coming up soon???

    1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

      DO IT DO IT DO IT!!! You won’t regret it I promise.

      1. Crystal

        Wow great article

        1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

          Thank you Crystal, I am glad you enjoyed it.

          1. Chuck Dunn

            How well would these work for astrophotography?

  5. Steve Bailie

    Wondering if you can attach a camera to these binocular types. Just returned from Grand Canyon and Zion with some great photos. Would love to extend my range with something like this.

    1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

      You can! Here is a link to a little gadget that will hold your cell phone up to any eyepiece. I am going to buy one because all the kids who come to my star parties want to take pictures of what they see through the telescope. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me since they take pictures of their dinner and post them on-line. I haven’t used one of these yet but they seem pretty fool proof and best of all they are cheap! Under $20.00!!

      http://amzn.to/2x66kj2

  6. Kamwick

    Thank you so much for writing this helpful article (and thanks, Chuck for getting this feature started!). One of the joys of camping is the star viewing in remote areas. I’ve been using an app to check out “gee, what the heck is that group of stars I’m seeing?” This info will help me take it farther. Thanks again!

    1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

      You are very welcome and I hope that any information I provide here will help our community to better enjoy the night sky. Smart phone applications have been a huge boon to amateurs wondering what is up tonight. I encourage everyone to find one they like and use them while they sit around a campfire. You will be amazed what is up there.

  7. Larry

    I received as a gift a Celetron binocular and tripod but find it very awkward to use above a certain inclination. Are there right angle adapters you can put on the eyepieces so you can look down into the device instead of craning your neck uncomfortably.

    1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

      You have discovered one of the more challenging problems with binocular astronomy. Anything you try to see with a mounted pair of binoculars over about 45 degrees above the horizon can have to contorting yourself into very awkward and uncomfortable positions. There are several solutions to this problem that I can recommend. First and best is an accessory for your tripod called a parallelogram mount. This device will enable you to move your binoculars away from the tripod legs and change the height to be in a better position for viewing high objects. Here is one made by Orion http://www.telescope.com/Mounts-Tripods/Altazimuth-Mounts-Tripods/Orion-Paragon-Plus-Binocular-Mount-without-Tripod/c/2/sc/35/p/5376.uts
      You can also use tricks to better position yourself like chairs and lounges to get yourself into a position that is more comfortable under the eyepieces. I have laid on my back on a picnic table with my head hanging over the edge looking through a pair of mounted binoculars upside-down (don’t try this for too long as all the blood will run to your head, trust me). If you are a handy-person and want a project I found this article on how to construct your own binocular diagonals http://davetrott.com/oversize-binoculars/big-binoculars/
      Lastly let me direct you to a great binocular article published by Sky and Telescope a few years back. http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-equipment/binoculars-for-astronomy/
      Don’t give up! there are a million challenges associated with astronomy and you need to look at them as challenges not barriers.

  8. Jay Crisford

    We visited McDonald Observatory in west Texas
    earlier this year and were fascinated by the sites
    we saw. Since then I look up more often but
    its not as interesting. Your info has helped me see
    how I can take charge of my own star search.
    Thank you.

    1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

      I also visited McDonald last year and had a great time on the tour (http://mcdonaldobservatory.org/). They offer many outreach programs on their website and in fact are having a star party tonight! There are many national, state, and university run observatories that you can visit and I highly recommend you do. Here is a great state by state list of links to various observatories. http://www.go-astronomy.com/observatories.htm

  9. Bob Novak

    Great intro! We live in a small city on the East coast and can only see a few dozen stars on a clear night. We attended a star party at the Greenbank observatory a number of years back and it was the first time my wife had ever seen the milky way. We often look for a clearing where we can enjoy the night sky while in a campground. We plan to upgrade the RV and travel more after we are both retired. I have been wondering if I can take the telescope. Looking forward to reading your articles.

    1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

      Light pollution is a real problem in our modern society and has caused us to lose something important in our lives. There are a few groups, both American and International, that are dedicated to preserving or reclaiming the night sky. IDA (http://www.darksky.org) and the Dark Sky Society (http://www.darkskysociety.org/) are the more prominent groups working towards that end. The IDA publishes a list of Dark Sky Parks (http://www.darksky.org/idsp/parks/) that you should consider visiting on your travels. If you have never seen a truly black sky with your own eyes it is worth the trip.

    2. Ralph P

      Bob, glad to hear of your experience at Green Bank. We owe our passion of RV travel to that Star Party. My wife is passionate about astronomy so we got an 11″ SCT which ended up being a little to big for travel so we also purchased an 8″ SCT. Our first two Star Parties were in tents with the second being at Green Bank in 2013. It rained all 5 nights and we had to leave our dogs in a kennel. We met a guy (Tom) who showed us his RV, a 43′ beauty. We were hooked and that’s all we talked about on our way home; 3 days later we owned our first Class A. Since then we show up at Star Parties looking like “rock stars”. Nowadays some parties actually can accommodate people who need some hook-ups, 30 amp is nice. With the growing popularity of RV life combined with people in RV’s who love astronomy, I am an advocate for outreach. Yes, take your telescope, pack it well, preferably in a good case. If you set up in an RV park you won’t get the best dark sky condition but observing will still be worthwhile to get others interested.

      CHRIS: I am so excited about your future articles and look forward to someday running into you at a campground or event. I’m not on Facebook but I will try to get my wife to follow you. Look for us in the Class A with license plate “STRCHSR”

      CHUCK: great addition to your newsletter.

      1. Serenity Mobile Observatory

        Thank you Ralph, I am very encouraged by the response and feedback I have gotten on this first article. I have many ideas and plans for future pieces and hope the interest will continue. You can spot my class A by the Serenity logo on the passenger side or by the large telescope normally set up in front of it. 🙂
        Clear Skies

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