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Bringing fuzzy blobs into sharp focus

Times Staff Writer

Winter’s short days can be a drag for outdoor enthusiasts, but there’s an upside to less daylight: more telescope time.

Binoculars bring the moon, planets and stars a little closer and work well for watching fast-moving meteors. But a telescope demystifies fuzzy celestial blobs that are much farther away.

The number of telescopes on the market is about as infinite as the cosmos -- and they don’t come cheap. Depending on size and the number of bells and whistles, a basic model can cost $300 and one equipped with GPS and other gizmos can be as expensive as a fine German automobile.

Tony Cook, an astronomical observer at Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, advises would-be astronomers to do their homework and avoid what he recalls as “Mars madness.” That was the summer of 2003 when people rushed out and bought cheap scopes that provided disappointingly puny views of the Red Planet.

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“Star parties” provide a way to try out different types of telescopes before you buy one. Members of astronomy clubs welcome newcomers, Cook says, and several clubs have get-togethers at Griffith Observatory or Mt. Pinos near Frazier Park, which at 8,000-plus feet offers stellar viewing far from city lights.

The main function of a telescope is to gather light, hence its nickname “light bucket.” The more light collected, the more detail you’ll see. A larger aperture -- the diameter of the objective, or main optical lens or mirror -- will gather more light and make for a clearer view. Those who want to see faraway galaxies should go for a large objective. How much better is the view? An 8-inch scope will bring in four times more light than a 4-inch, says Mark Pedersen, a salesman at Woodland Hills Camera & Telescopes.

Three types of telescopes gather light in different ways. Refractors collect light with a lens; reflectors use mirrors; and catadioptrics use a combination of both.

* Refractors are the priciest per inch of aperture of all scopes. They provide high-contrast images and are best for pinpointing the moon and planets. They’re also a good choice to use around the city or suburbs because they are bulky and not very portable.

* Reflectors generally are more affordable and simpler to use but can be fragile and require a bit more maintenance. Be prepared to tweak the mirrors -- they’ll need adjusting to keep them aligned, a process called collimation.

A 6- or 8-inch reflector is capable of illuminating faint images of faraway galaxies, nebulae and star clusters, but what you gain in aperture you lose in portability.

* Catadioptrics are squat tubes that travel well and are camera-compatible for those who want to dabble in astrophotography. They provide large aperture in a compact tube. Two popular designs (not brands) are Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Cassegrain. If you can afford it -- high-quality catadioptrics start at about $1,000 -- this is the scope to take to that remote campsite.

“It’s hard to pack a big Newtonian reflector in a compact car and drive 75 miles to a dark sky,” Cook says. “Whereas with a Schmidt you can do that.”

For beginners, many experts recommend a 6-inch reflector on a simple mount -- the connection between scope and tripod -- called a Dobsonian.

Such a rig is easy for one person to manage and lower in price than a scope on a more complex and expensive motorized mount, which allows you to track the motion of celestial objects through the sky.

When it’s time to buy, avoid nature stores and department store chains. Stick to shops that specialize in telescopes; your questions will be answered more expertly by salespeople who are also astronomy enthusiasts. If a scope’s box or ad touts its “power,” skip it. Well-made telescopes are not advertised by magnifying power, Cook says.

Reputable brands include Meade, Celestron, Orion and Tele Vue. The Astroscan by Edmund Scientific, which runs about $200, is good for beginners, portable and easy to use.

Once you’ve purchased your new toy, don’t expect to see Hubble-quality images. The fun is in learning about the sky and hunting for cosmic landmarks.

Don’t know your knee from a nebula? Good ways to learn include subscribing to magazines such as Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, or its newest entry for beginners called Night Sky. A sky chart that identifies how to find stars and planets is invaluable, Cook says: “Using a telescope without a star guide is like traveling without a map. Plus, none of the sky is labeled.”

New computerized telescopes allow users to download orbital data from the Web directly into the scope, which then finds the celestial bodies you’re seeking. These scopes require a bit of sky knowledge, such as how to find the North Star.

Viewing conditions in winter are far better than summer when the illumination of dust particles and heat vapor rising from the ground causes hazy views, astronomers say.

In mid-January the Comet Machholz will appear in the sky directly overhead near the Pleiades star cluster, Saturn shows off its best side and the Andromeda galaxy should be visible.

With a little knowledge, maybe a trip to Mt. Pinos with your new light bucket will result in discovering a comet of your own.

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Sites to see the sky

Griffith Observatory It’s closed for renovation until 2006, but a site south of the Los Angeles Zoo offers planetarium shows, evening telescope viewing and star parties. (323) 664-1191 or www.griffithobs.org

Los Angeles Astronomical Society Next star party takes place Dec. 18 at Griffith Observatory’s satellite site. (213) 673-7355

Riverside Astronomical Society Star parties are usually held Friday and Saturday nights closest to the first-quarter moon. Call (951) 342-2389.

The Andromeda Society The Yucca Valley-based group organizes star parties in the desert. Go to www.mysite.verizon.net/res6vljt/.

For a list of astronomy clubs in the area, go to www.astroplace.com and click on “clubs” and “California.”

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Gazers’ scopes of choice

Tony Cook, astronomical observer, Griffith Observatory

Cook favors a portable 5-inch-diameter Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain catadioptric as his general purpose telescope. An 8-inch Cave Newtonian he bought in 1976 for planetary viewing is another favorite. He uses the Cave Newtonian to spot details on Saturn, Mars and the moon. He also likes a 12.5-inch prototype (a scope that never made it to market) for viewing deep-sky objects. Cook considers himself lucky to be near the observatory’s 12-inch Zeiss refractor, which more than 7 million people have peered through since 1938.

Marc Hertz, Van Nuys attorney and Sierra Club Wilderness Travel Course instructor

Hertz likes to show students in his wilderness skills class Saturn, Jupiter and various nebulae and clusters through a Meade 2120 Schmidt-Cassegrain, a 10-inch catadioptric. The Meade features a clock drive -- a device that slowly turns the scope to counter the Earth’s movement on its axis -- that he sets up single-handedly. His favorite viewing spots are the end of the road to Mt. Pinos and Joshua Tree National Park. Both areas, however, suffer from increased development which causes light pollution.

Paul Wicker,

Manhattan Beach, member of Los Angeles Astronomical Society

Wicker, also known as the “Galileo Guy,” makes astronomy presentations at inner-city schools with a Sunspotter, a device that safely projects images of the sun. For night-time viewing, he uses a Celestron NexStar 80GT refractor, which is a small, portable scope he takes to Griffith Park for star parties. “When other guys using big scopes are looking at something way out in other galaxies, I’m showing people the moon and Jupiter,” he says. Wicker says the scope easily fits in a toolbox he can put in his car.

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To e-mail Julie Sheer or read her previous Outdoors Institute columns, go to latimes.com/juliesheer.


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