Study the Night Sky
The best tools for learning about astronomy, most star buffs will tell you, are a simple cardboard star chart and a red flashlight. Too many people, they lament, have been turned off to the hobby by tinkering in vain with telescopes that produce nothing but cold hands and sarcastic comments from the peanut gallery.
That advice still holds, but now there is the Celestron SkyScout-a $400 "personal planetarium" that seems poised to revolutionize amateur astronomy.
Not actually a telescope, the SkyScout is a camcorder-size viewer equipped with a global positioning system receiver and an accelerometer that tells users exactly what they're looking at when they point it at a celestial object. It also explains the object with short text descriptions, and it can even guide users toward celestial highlights like Saturn or Polaris.
Rave reviews. Tech reviewers are raving about the new gizmo, and it's snagging awards left and right. Indeed, the device is so simple, you hardly need to read the manual.
Still, experts are quick to stress that astronomy is a learning hobby, not a buying hobby. Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, recommends studying the constellations and simply looking up before doing anything else. Learn the constellations with the naked eye so that you know them as well as the continents and oceans, he says. Once you've mastered the map, use binoculars. A decent pair offers about half the zoom of a good amateur telescope and is much easier to use.
If you've enjoyed all that, then you're probably ready for a real telescope. Don't skimp, the experts say; buy something you'll actually use. For a beginner, that probably means a $200 to $300 scope that's portable and outfitted with quality optics. If you're a technophile, you may be tempted by scopes with computers and motors that automatically locate celestial objects. Resist. Telescope tech can be neat, cautions MacRobert, but gadgets can get grumpy. And flying on "autopilot" takes some of the fun out of navigating on your own.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.