Computers! We love them and hate them. But even when we hate them we know that they make many jobs much easier. So why should astronomy be any different?
Well, actually, the answer is that it is and it isn’t.
Commercially affordable computerized telescopes have been around for over 15 years at this point, but yet they haven’t become ‘the standard’. Most telescopes sold are still manually operated. Why is that?
The answer, is just simple economics.Sometimes it just is not worthwhile to computerize telescopes, especially at the beginner side of things.
Let me explain: First of all, a beginner telescope usually costs from $100-$500 (more if you are adventurous). That runs a gambit from a simple but effective 60mm refractor to a higher end 6″ reflector. Without any computers the money is used mostly on the optics with some concentration on the telescope’s mount. You get a pretty good deal if you shop for quality over price.
Now, let’s say you want to add a computer to that telescope. Well, here is where it gets sticky. A computer that can do this, with controller, operating motors and other items will cost about $150-$350 retail. On an expensive professional telescope that price is merely an added luxury, but on a beginner telescope you have just doubled the price! Even on the higher scale of beginners telescopes you can be looking at a %50 increase in the price.
Adding to that is the fact that most computerized telescopes really do not help beginners very much. Most of them need to be aligned on 2 bright stars – something a new astronomer with little knowledge of the night sky will have trouble doing. Even with tricks like GPS the viewer is still going to have to have some night sky knowledge to work properly.
There’s also the problem of power. Larger telescopes with computer motorized systems often draw off of portable 12V batteries to operate. These are not very different from the things AAA workers carry to jump start the dead battery on your car. The extra weight and cost compared to the cost of the telescope is no big deal. But again, on smaller telescopes they try to operate a computer and at least two motors using some D-Cell batteries. These can drain very quickly (especially in cold weather) and some systems give you no options for manual movement once the batteries are drained. Moving some of the models can actually damage the clutches and gears.
Now, Celestron has recently introduced a new line of telescopes that actually get around this by using cameras and other functions. But there is a price: The smallest telescope avaialble with this feature is a 60mm refractor that sells for just under $500! That is five time the price of a comparable non-computerized model. It might be worth it to some folks.
In our experience, the best computerized telescopes for beginners are the non-intrusive models – such as the Orion Intelliscope Dobsonian line. These have computers, but they are not required. In fact we suggest that the new purchaser not use the telescope until they have several sessions under their belt and want to see harder-to-find objects!
So unless you plan to shell out money far above the actual cost of the telescope, don’t think of computers as any kind of instant gratification. Think of them as helpers to those who take the time to figure out how best to utilize them – just like a regular computer!