Editor's Note: This story is part of a three-part series about the basics of equipment used in astronomy, part of our coverage for India's #Chandrayaan2TheMoon mission launching in July 2019.
The night sky will always be the gateway to the answer of who we are in this universe and where we come from. While that answer requires several rounds of drinks and several more decades of research, astronomy is something one can jump into almost immediately and experience a slice of that amazement and bewitchment that is our universe.
From humble backyard sessions to mini observatories for the more dedicated, the scope (pun intended) of astronomy is vast and can often dissuade new people from partaking. Not to mention the cost of astronomy, where you could spend anywhere from a few thousand to a mid-range SUV's worth of cash on gear.
This handy little guide should help you spend your money more wisely.
Astronomy isn't all that complicated. Image: Lucas Pezeta/Pexels
Before you buy anything
There's a lot to learn in astronomy without even going near a telescope. Learning about the night sky, the positions of the major constellations, the seasons during which they appear, the list goes on. For this reason, the first piece of kit you should consider procuring is a star chart.
A star chart is a map of the night sky and the positions of objects at a particular point in time. Star charts can be found for free, at websites like Skymaps for example, or in the form of apps like Google Sky Maps. Familiarizing yourself with what you can expect to see from different areas is also a good idea.
A starchart used during the Apollo 11 mission plans at NASA. Image: NASA
So now you have an idea of what you, as an amateur, can observe. Time to rush to the nearest hobby store and buy the first thing they have! Not.
Despite popular opinion, a telescope is almost always a bad investment if you've never used any sort of equipment to look up at the night sky. Even base models are quite expensive, they're confusing to use, and results are often never what you expect to see.
The planet Jupiter, for instance, will look like a large dot with 4 smaller dots next to it. Saturn will appear as a dot with a fat line through it. It's important, as an astronomer, to figure out what you'd like to observe, and that comes only with experience and practice.
Until then, the most recommended tool for observing are a good, sturdy pair of binoculars. That's right, the things you usually use to watch birds with.
Equatorial mounts: Equatorial mounts work differently. Instead of alt-az, they are aligned along a celestial coordinate system called Right Ascension (RA) and Declination (DEC). EQ mounts work by aligning the axes to the Earth's poles. This means that you can then track and find objects easily using their RA and DEC coordinates. However, beginners will find them hard to use, and thus, these are more commonly used for astrophotography, which is an entirely different article.
Dobsonian mounts: Dobsonian mounts are a variation of alt-az mounts. Instead of mounting the telescope on a tripod, it is mounted into a cradle box, which is then mounted on a swivel. The mount was invented by John Dobson, a popular American amateur astronomer who believed in the art of DIY. It's extremely simple to manufacture and use, and so are by far the most popular mounts among amateur astronomers. But they're bulky to transport
There are other goodies that you can swap out in your telescope, like the focuser, eyepieces, viewfinder and so on, but all that merits another entire article.
Just tell me how to get one already!
Now, after all this, what brand of telescope is best? The best ones are not easily available in India. The ones we do have that are widely popular are Skywatcher and GSO Optics. Meade is a very popular brand globally but is expensive, and imports are a nightmare. Celestron has the biggest e-commerce presence in India but I would not recommend their basic telescopes at all to amateurs as they're of inferior quality and are exorbitantly priced.
Buying a telescope in India is not as simple as clicking checkout on a store page; few companies actually stock them (although the number is increasing yearly), and you have to place an order with them via bank transfer.