Captivated by the night sky

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Rory Bentley, 16, pictured viewing a telescope at BREC's Highland Road Observatory, has completed two apprenticeships at the observatory and has been named co-secretary for BRAS.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Rory Bentley, 16, pictured viewing a telescope at BREC's Highland Road Observatory, has completed two apprenticeships at the observatory and has been named co-secretary for BRAS.

When Rory Bentley looks at the heavens, he sees so much more than twinkling lights.

The 16-year-old sees the opportunity to become an explorer with just a telescope and an encyclopedia of the night sky.

“It’s just interesting because there’s so much possibility of what it all could be,” said Bentley, a floppy haired Baton Rouge teen who has been stargazing since he was 2.

Our solar system captivated him from an early age when a gift of a child’s placemat printed with the planets and their moons piqued his curiosity. For 14 years now he has loved to view the clusters of stars and clouds of dust and gas in space.

The night sky provides thrills for backyard astronomers of all ages.

Merrill Hess, vice president of the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, became amazed at the stars when he was 13 and first looked through a telescope.

“There’s a sense of wonder and curiosity, things that drive most people, and, certainly, me,” he said. “That’s what got me interested, the curiosity in what’s up there.”

Standing firmly on Earth and seeing glimpses of stars and planets light years away captivated him.

“It was something you don’t normally see every day and the beauty behind it,” he said. “‘Wow that’s so beautiful. I want to see more.’”

One of Bentley’s current favorites is the cluster of stars called Omega Centauri, a glob of stars that was probably once an entire galaxy. To see it, Bentley has to travel to a dark rural area far from city lights and then wait until 2:30 a.m. Even then, it appears as a fuzzy little star low on the horizon.

“It’s fun to get,” said Bentley, who plans to become an astrophysicist. “It’s challenging.”

Today is one of the best times to become involved in amateur astronomy, Hess said. Between the Internet and the area astronomical society’s Highland Road Observatory, which houses two large, powerful telescopes and has smaller portable ones available for use, there has never been a better time to search the heavens.

“If they really get their curiosity, then they’ve got a wealth of resources, far more resources available now than ever,” Hess said. “You’ve got everything right there at your fingertips.”

First steps

Before ever looking through a telescope, backyard astronomers need a basic knowledge of the night sky, Hess said. National Geographic’s Map of the Heavens costs $17.99 at NationalGeographic.com, and astronomical encyclopedias are available at libraries.

The best telescope for an entry-level astronomer isn’t a traditional telescope. A binocular (the word should be singular, not plural, Hess stresses) costs less than a good telescope and provides a great view of the heavens.

“You’re going to see quite a bit (with a binocular),” Hess said. “But they’re not going to see spectacular views. You can see the great nebula in Orion and tell that it’s a cloud. It’s not going to be magnified much, but you can see it.”

While a good binocular costs $50 to $100, a quality telescope will run $200 and higher.

A firm foundation

When picking out a telescope, the base or tripod can be just as important as the scope. Telescope technology has gotten cheaper as the cost of producing lenses has fallen, Hess said, but a good telescope mount will allow you to follow an object across the night sky without dropping the scope.

This is the area where cheaper scopes cut corners, Hess said.

“Most people find that if they have a good mount, they will get more enjoyment from even a mediocre telescope than they would from a good scope on a poor mount,” Hess said.

Picking a scope

For beginners, Hess recommends a reflecting telescope, which works by reflecting light off a mirror. These cost less than a refracting telescope, which uses two glass lenses.

When purchasing, the size of the lens or mirror in the scope is important. Hess’ recommendations have mirrors and lenses that are 102 millimeters and larger. Magnification strength, which companies often tout in advertisements, is less important and can be changed later.

The best value in reflecting scopes, Hess says, is the Edmund Scientific Astroscan, which looks like a toy, but is high quality and rugged. It costs $289.

A good deal for a refracting telescope is the Celestron Omni XLT 102 mm for $450.