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.
"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.