Why are Dobsonian Telescopes a Favorite Among Amateur Astronomers?

Dobsonian Telescope
The Meade 16" LightBridge


Welcome to the scary and expensive world of buying your first, or replacing your old telescope!

I am asked all the time “What telescope should I buy” or “What telescope do I need to see X with?” Nine times out of ten, I recommend a Dobsonian Telescope.

So what is a Dobsonian telescope and why are they so good? Read on to find out why.

A Dobsonian is simplicity in itself; a simple set of optics on a simple mount. But don’t be fooled by this simplicity. Dobsonian telescopes are incredibly good and are great for amateurs and professional astronomers alike. They are also very economical compared to other telescopes.

The optical part of the telescope or OTA (Optical Tube Assembly) is the same as a Newtonian reflector telescope. It consists of a primary parabolic mirror and a flat secondary mirror in an open ended tube, with a focuser for an eyepiece set on the side. Light enters the tube, reflects off of the primary mirror at the base and is then focused onto the smaller flat secondary mirror and then finally, into an eyepiece. Simple!

Credit Skywatcher.net

The benefit of this type of optical arrangement is the telescopes light gathering ability. The more light gathered, equals more fainter objects to be seen. A light bucket!

Dobsonian/Newtonian telescopes have a big advantage over telescopes with lenses such as refractors and Cassegrain telescopes, as mirrors are a lot cheaper to make than lenses. Plus they can be a lot bigger!

Both Dobsonian and Newtonian telescopes are measured by the size of the diameter of their primary (big) mirror. Dobsonian sizes range from starter scopes of 6 inches up to 30 inches, but common sizes are 8 to 16 inches in diameter. They can be many times larger and less expensive to produce than scopes with lenses.

The second part of a Dobsonian telescope is the mount. As with the optical part the mount is just as simple, if not more so! A basic manual mount which supports the optical tube and can be manually moved by hand in the Altitude (up/down) and Azimuth (left/right) axis.

The mount is usually made from wood or metal with bearings and support for the two axis of movement. More so lately, some manufacturers have put GoTo systems with motors on some Dobsonian mounts. Personally I think it’s a bit over kill for a Dobsonian, as finding objects manually by star hopping or other manual methods helps you learn the sky better and can be fun.


Resist the urge to spend lots of money on small computerized scopes that will eventually never get used, as they can be too complicated or you may not see much through them apart from the brightest objects such as the Moon. A Dobsonian is a great all-around telescope, and are available in almost all telescope stores. Some people make their own homemade Dobsonian scopes too!

Due to the nature of the Alt-Az mount, Dobsonians are not suitable for long exposure astro imaging. For that you will need an equatorial mount, which will track the stars equatorially. You may have some success with webcam imaging with some of the GoTo Mounts though.

Skywatcher 10 inch Dobsonian Credit sherwoods-photo.com

Dobsonian telescopes are designed to be simple, easy to use and gather as much light as possible. Because of this robust simplicity, they are very economical and popular with astronomers of all levels of ability. My own and most favourite telescope is my Skywatcher 10-inch Dobsonian and I will probably be using it for many more years to come, as it is difficult to beat!

The name of the Dobsonian telescope comes from its creator John Dobson, who combined the simple design of the Newtonian telescope with the Alt-Azimuth mount. He originally made simple homemade scopes from household materials and ground mirrors out of the glass of old ship portholes.

John Dobson is the grandfather of Sidewalk Astronomy and co-founder of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers.

Credit cruxis.com

Coming to a Sky Near You: The Realm of Galaxies

The original Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (Credit NASA, ESA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team).


We live on a planet which orbits a star, and along with a hundred billion other stars, our Sun orbits the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. It doesn’t just stop there; our galaxy is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in our Universe that gravitationally clump together in groups or clusters.

Throughout Spring in the northern hemisphere, astronomers and people interested in the night sky are going to be in for a galactic treat, as this is the time of year we can see the Coma/Virgo Super cluster or “Realm of Galaxies”.

Galaxies are massive islands of stars, gas and dust in the Universe; they are where stars and planets are born and eventually die. Galaxies are cosmic factories of creation — where it all happens on a very grand scale. To give you an idea of size, it would take you roughly 100,000 years to travel across the disc of the Milky Way at the speed of light!

Andromeda Galaxy.

The Milky Way is the second largest member of our local group of galaxies with Andromeda being the largest. Other members of our local group include the Triangulum galaxy and large and small Magellanic Clouds.

Virgo Galaxy Cluster - NOAO/AURA/NSF

The Coma/ Virgo Super cluster dominates our intergalactic neighbourhood; it represents the physical centre of our Local Super cluster and influences all the galaxies and galaxy groups by the gravitational attraction of its enormous mass.

Unfortunately galaxies are almost impossible to see with the naked eye, so you will need powerful binoculars or a large telescope, such as a Dobsonian to see most of the brighter galaxies in this region.

The cluster contains approximately 2,000 elliptical and spiral galaxies of which approximately 20 or more are observable using amateur equipment. This includes 16 Messier objects such as the Black eye spiral Galaxy M64, and elliptical galaxies, M86 with its plume, massive M87 at its centre and beautiful spiral M88, to name just a few.

From Left to Right M64, M86 and M88 (Credit NASA)

To find the approximate location of the Realm of Galaxies, first find the constellation of Leo – the lion — easily found in the South East this time of year with the backwards question mark overhis head. Go past Leo’s rear end and you will be in the bowl asterism of Virgo, to the bottom left of Leo and the faint constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenices hair) top left of Leo. This is the Realm of Galaxies!

Star Chart to help you find the Realm of Galaxies (Credit Adrian West)

Download a map of this region or use a star atlas to find your way around this area and try and spot as many galactic delights (faint fuzzies) as you can. As a bonus, the ringed Planet Saturn is just below this area too at the moment!

Give yourself plenty of time, wrap up warm and just think, you are looking for the largest structures in the Universe, hundreds of millions of light years away from Earth.

The Supermoon Illusion

You’ve probably all seen it before, a huge Full Moon sitting on the horizon and you wonder why it looks much bigger than at other times? It isn’t, really; it’s an illusion.

And now, if you have heard about the close approach of the moon, or so called “Supermoon” on March 19th and are concerned about the disasters and mayem it may cause, there is no need to worry. And surely, when this so-called “Supermoon” occurs on March 19th — at its closest approach to Earth in two decades — people will indeed report that the Moon looks much bigger than normal. But it won’t really be much bigger in the sky at all. It’s all an illusion, a trick of the eye.

The moon does have an effect on the Earth with its gravity affecting ocean tides and even land to a lesser extent, but the moon on the 19th won’t interact with our planet any differently than any other time it’s been at its closest (also known as perigee).

If anything we may get slightly stronger tides, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The Moon orbits the Earth in an elliptical orbit, meaning that it is not always the same distance from the Earth. The closest the Moon ever gets to Earth (called perigee) is 364,000km, and the furthest is ever gets (Apogee) is around 406,000km (these figures vary, and in fact this Full Moon on March 19, 2011 will see a slightly closer approach of 357,000km).

So the percentage difference in distance between the average perigee and the average apogee is ~10%. That is, if the Full Moon occurs at perigee it can be up to 10% closer (and therefore larger) than if it occurred at apogee.

This is quite a significant difference, and so it is worth pointing out that the Moon does appear to be different sizes at different times throughout the year.

Moon at Perigee and Apogee Credit NASA

But that’s NOT what causes the Moon to look huge on the horizon. Such a measly 10% difference in size cannot account for the fact that people describe the Moon as “huge” when they see it low on the horizon.

What’s really causing the Moon to look huge on such occasions is the circuitry in your brain. It’s an optical illusion, so well known that it has its own name: the Moon Illusion.

If you measure the angular size of the Full Moon in the sky it varies between 36 arc minutes (0.6 degrees) at perigee, and 30 arc minutes (0.5 degrees) at apogee, but this difference will occur within a number of lunar orbits (months), not over the course of the night as the Moon rises. In fact if you measure the angular size of the Full Moon just after it rises, when it’s near the horizon, and then again hours later once it’s high in the sky, these two numbers are identical: it doesn’t change size at all.

So why does your brain think it has? There’s no clear consensus on this, but the two most reasonable explanations are as follows:

  1. When the Moon is low on the horizon there are lots of objects (hills, houses, trees etc) against which you can compare its size. When it’s high in the sky it’s there in isolation. This might create something akin to the Ebbinghaus Illusion, where identically sized objects appear to be different sizes when placed in different surroundings.

Ebbinghaus Illusion – the two orange circles are exactly the same size

  1. When seen against nearer foreground objects which we know to be far away from us, our brain thinks something like this: “wow, that Moon is even further than those trees, and they’re really far away. And despite how far away it is, it still looks pretty big. That must mean the Moon is huge!”.

These two factors combine to fool our brains into “seeing” a larger Moon when its near the horizon compared with when it’s overhead, even when our eyes – and our instruments – see it as exactly the same size.

Source: “Moon Illusion” on Dark Sky Diary Special thanks to Steve Owens

Choosing a New Telescope – GoTo or not GoTo

Guide to Meade Telescopes

I am often asked by people “I’m a beginner, so what telescope should I buy?” Or more often, what GoTo telescope would I recommend for someone starting out in astronomy?

When venturing out and buying your first telescope, there are a number of factors to consider, but because of glossy advertising and our current digital age, the first telescope that people think of is a GoTo.

Do you really need a GoTo or would a manual telescope suffice? In order to make a good decision on what telescope to buy, you need to decide on what you want to use the telescope for — observing, photography, or both and does it need to be portable or not? This will help you make the best decision for the mount of your telescope.

GoTo telescopes are usually advertised as being fully automatic and once they have set themselves up, or are set up by the user, they can access and track and many thousands of stars or objects with just a simple touch of a button. These features have made GoTo scopes are very desirable with many astrophotographers.

Manual telescopes are not automatic or driven by motors as GoTo scopes are. They are predominantly used for observing (using your eyes instead of a camera) and the scope is moved by hand or by levers by the user to find different objects in the eyepiece. Manual telescopes usually have a finder scope, red dot finder or laser finder to aid in finding objects in the eyepiece. They are unable to track objects, which can make them unsuitable for photography.

GoTo Vs Manual
Compared to GoTo telescopes, manual telescopes are much more economical as you are basically buying a very simple mount and an optical tube assembly (the telescope tube, or OTA). With GoTo you are adding electronics and control mechanisms to drive the scope, which can add heavily to the cost. A small GoTo telescope could cost the same as a lot larger manual Dobsonian telescope.

Good GoTo telescopes make astrophotography very accessible and enjoyable, especially with the addition of cameras and other kits. As opposed to manual scopes, GoTos can be used for long exposure astrophotography. Be aware though, that much astrophotography is done with very expensive imaging equipment, but good results can be achieved with web cams and DSLR cameras.

Manual telescopes are brilliant at helping you discover and learn the sky as you have to actually hunt or star hop for different objects. I once met a person who had been using a GoTo telescope heavily for a year, and at a star party I asked her to show some kids where a well known star was with my laser pointer, she didn’t know because she was used to her GoTo scope taking her to objects.

So which one should you buy?
I would recommend for pure visual observing a manual telescope such as a large Dobsonian or Newtonian telescope. The human eye needs as much light to enter it as possible to see things in the dark, so a big aperture or mirror means greater light gathering and more light entering your eye, so you can see more. What you saved by not having GoTo, you can spend on increasing the size of your telescope.

If you want to add photography or imaging capabilities then I would definitely recommend a good quality GoTo scope or mount. You will get a smaller aperture compared to the manual scope for the same money, but the scope will track for astro-imaging and can also be used for visual observing. Be prepared to spend a lot more money, though.

Consider how you want to use your telescope and the size of your budget. Avoid buying low end, cheap, budget, or what is known as “department store” telescopes to avoid disappointment. Save up a little longer and get a good telescope. Visit your local astronomy store or telescope distributor and before you buy ask an astronomer, they will be glad to help.

I hope you enjoy your new telescope for many years to come 🙂

Dobsonian Telescope

How To See NanoSail-D From Your Own Backyard

Artist concept of Nanosail-D in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA


The night sky has many wonderful objects to look at on a clear evening, including many man-made satellites, and the always impressive International Space Station (ISS). Now there’s a new addition to these artificial delights: the first ever solar sail to orbit the Earth, NASA’s Nanaosail-D Satellite. Want to know how you can see it?

The 10m x 10m reflective sail is designed to act like a brake and gradually create drag in the upper atmosphere, slowly pulling a satellite down and de-orbiting it at the end of its working life. Nanosail-D is testing the potential of this technology to reduce space junk and debris.

NanoSail D. Image credit NASA

The satellite has a huge reflective sail and could potentially be many times brighter than the planet Venus when it catches a glint from the Sun. Unlike the International Space Station (ISS) and other satellites, the sail will not be visible when it is directly above us as we will be looking at it edge on, It will be more visible when closer to the horizon.

The Nanosail-D satellite will be visible from now and for the next few months. To see it you will need to know exactly when it will be visible from your location. To do this, go to heavens-above.com or spaceweather.com where star charts with times and pass details will be displayed after you enter your observing site.

Once you know the time and location in the sky of the pass of the satellite, make sure you are able to get a good view of the horizon, or part of the sky where the satellite due to appear. Give yourself plenty of time, go outside and get ready. I always set a 30 second reminder on my watch or cell phone, so I don’t have to fumble around or guess the time.

Unlike the ISS and most other satellites, Nanosail-D passes may only last a few, or a few tens of seconds, so make sure you are looking in the right place at the right time. You will see an amazingly bright star-like object rise up, get brighter and then suddenly disappear. When it “disappears” it is still passing over, it’s just no longer at the right angle or is no longer being illuminated by the sun. NanoSail-D has few reflective surfaces compared to many on the ISS.

To enjoy the Nanosail-D passes:

• Make sure you know the right place in the sky and the time of the pass, by checking on the web.
• Make sure you will be able to get a clear view of it from your viewing location.
• Set an alarm or get ready for the pass as it only lasts a few seconds.
• NASA expects NanoSail-D to stay in orbit until April or May 2011.
• If you are an astrophotographer, don’t forget, NASA and SpaceWeather.com are having an imaging contest of NanoSail-D. Find out more here.
• Most of all, get your friends and family outside with you to watch Nanosail-D and enjoy!