Advice for Beginners: Should You Get a 'Go-To' Telescope Mount?

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Typical Go-To telescope.
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Typical Go-To telescope.

Should I get a Go-To Telescope?

These mountings have computer controlled motors that find objects for you from a list on a hand-set, sometimes the list contains a mouth-watering 40,000 objects.
They are usually Alt-Az (Up/Down/Left/Right) movement mountings. Which claim to be easy to set up and use.
There is a Go-To version of the Equatorial, which is useful once you have learnt your way about the sky.
Once you are very experienced you can consider if this type of mounting will help you.
Until then please leave Go-To mountings well alone!

If you want to learn to be an 'amateur astronomer' and know about the night sky Go-To is not the way to go!

Go-To Refractor.
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Go-To Refractor.

Read on to find out why.

These Go-To mountings promise to make everything easy-peasy when you are just starting out in the fantastic and absorbing hobby of amateur astronomy, but the reality is you still have to set them up and that can be problematic.
Some versions don't function with the required degree of accuracy.  Even when they do work properly they take all the fun and skill out of amateur astronomy and will not allow you to advance beyond 'telescope user'. You will have seen lots of things but you don't know how to find them, or much about the sky, because you will have had everything put on a plate for you. (If you can get it working correctly in the first place!)

Let's look at the points raised in a little more detail

The List of Observable Objects:

The majority of the 40,000 objects in the observable objects list will be stars (in a small telescope a star's a star, pretty much) and 95% of those you'll never need or want to look up.

Another consideration about the object list is that they include the whole of the celestial sphere – up to around 30% of which we can't see from the UK/Europe/North America (For example). So that leaves a list of about 2,000 objects you might want to see and only 1,400 that you possibly can see (from the UK/Europe/North America).

They often include the bright objects in the NGC catalogue (say 1,000 objects) which is useful, because they're really hard to find. The Messier objects (110 objects) are relatively bright and can be hunted down, but they will definitely be in the list. Then there are the planets (7) which, unless you're a complete dunderhead, are mainly obvious to the unaided eye! The minor planets (Maybe the brightest 10) which require a telescope to find them, and some regular comets. The rest might be made up of interesting double-stars.

So, the list at least includes the thousand or so objects you're likely to want to see and give you the promise that the telescope will automatically move to the position of each object on demand and track it.

The thing is, that there's not much detail with these objects and merely ticking them off, in many cases, is all you can do. So, what's the point of having a computer find the object so you can look into the eyepiece and say, 'Yep - Seen that.' and move on? Surely the sense of achievement comes from tracking the object down and finding it for yourself? Then you can tick it off and say, 'Yep – I found that – Now I've seen it!'

Your choice!
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Your choice!

Here we go with one of my analogies!

It's a bit like your enjoyment of a sporting event:

Here's the amateur astronomer's way:-

The excitement of the build up, which players will be chosen, and what the managers will do. Watching the teams struggle and vie for supremacy. The referee's awful decisions. The injuries and the effect this will have on the next game. The singing of the crowd and the rivalry between the fans.  The emotional roller-coaster of the last minute goal. Then, finally, the whistle after the excitement of the game! You have a complete memory of the journey to the result, and what a journey!

Now the Go-To version:-

Liverpool 1 - Everton 0 (Where's the sense of fulfilment in this experience? Rubbish experience, but Great Result by the way YNWA.)

In my opinion, the Go-To is a cheat that robs the would-be amateur astronomer of that title. If you buy one of these you would become a 'telescope user' at best, and that's all!

The Set-Up Process:

These mountings demand that you align the telescope on up to three stars, for example, Arcturus, then Altair and finally Deneb, in Summer.  Would you know which they are?  And they change at different times of the year, of course.   In winter might be Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Pollux.   So it's not a simple as they make out, for the beginner.

After the initial set-up the tripod has to remain in the exact same position or the objects will not appear in the eyepiece and you'll have to align the scope again!  Suppose your site is compromised with trees and buildings (so many are) You have to move your telescope arond the site to see different parts of the sky.  You have to go through the set-up process each time.

Once you have it set up properly, the telescope should slew to point exactly at any object selected from the list and that object should be visible in the low power eyepiece.

Photography - Note:

The Alt-Az Go-To is also not suitable for long exposure astro-photography because the field rotates as you track an object smudging the detail.

Most people at some point want to see if they can capture the things they're looking at with a camera. The quality of the result possible in an Alt-Az Go-To telescope will always be poorer than that possible using a 'proper' equatorial mounting.

In its Favour:
If you are just observing by eye and you need to share the telescope - For instance if you are observing with your children or you are teaching some aspect of astronomy to a group then this type of mounting can be useful.  You still have all the setting up to do, and hope someone doesn't nudge the tripod out of position, but you might get some benefit from being able to talk while the mounting finds the objects automatically.

Also, if you want to observe the planets in daylight (Yes - it can be done - Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Mars are all bright enough at times).  The Go-To mounting, when it is set up correctly, can find planets in daylight and save the danger of trying to sweep the sky manually.  This is a consideration that has some merit if you think you would be trying to spot Venus on inferior conjunction!

On a Personal Note:
I Wouldn't buy one.  I'm a bit of a purist and like to do things manually.  I dislike automation, mainly because it's very easy for things to go wrong and the automation not function correctly.  Give me manual controls every time. :o)

So - You have the facts and the opinion.  The rest is your choice. 
Would you buy these?  Yes? Further reading is for you!
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Would you buy these? Yes? Further reading is for you!

Further Reading:

I have written a guide to setting up the Equatorial which will make interesting reading now you know that the Go-To mounting is not for beginners.

Choosing Your First Telescope: Complete Essentials.

Setting Up an Equatorial Mounting (Simple!)

Best Value Beginner's All-Rounder Telescope  (a 130mm Newtonian Under £180)

Best Value Planetary Telescope  (a 90mm Refractor under £150)

What Size Telescope Will Show Jupiter's Moons? (You'll be surprised!)

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I do not sell telescopes professionally (I do sell on eBay from time to time as I upgrade)
I will answer as soon as I can and it's no bother – Honestly.

More information? Google "supercooper telescope help".

Clear skies and good seeing... I hope this guide has been useful. :o)
All text and images © Barry Cooper 2008-16 unless otherwise credited.
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