A Guide to the Sky, Telescopes, and Telescope Programs
The primary purpose of computers on telescopes is to allow the user to find objects in the sky.
The computer must be aligned with the sky in order to know where to point the scope. There are two types of computers:
Computerized mounts are either "Go To" or "Push To".
All computerized scopes require user-input, generally via a hand controller. Once aligned, many computers have a "Best Tonight" tour that gets the observer looking at objects with little required expertise. Self-aligning scopes allow the user to start observing with almost no sky or computer expertise. This advantage is somewhat offset by the more complicated mounts and battery requirements (because they are Go To scopes).
Note that many computerized scopes can work with and even be controlled by iPhone or iPad apps. These apps provide a wonderful way to not only see heavenly bodies, but to learn about them and see graphically what lies around them in space. (Safari Pro by Southern Stars is a great mobile app that can control scopes).
Computer or Not? (for a library program)
The first goal for a library program should be to provide an enjoyable experience to the novice observer. Making the experience overly complicated can easily lead to a negative experience.
There are a number of considerations about using a computerized scope. Some computers are easier to use than others. On the plus side, they allow finding many objects without deep knowledge about the sky. They also provides an interesting technology backstory to science side of astronomy.
The downside is that it does add quite a bit to the observer's learning curve. In addition to the fundamental visual observing skills, the user must learn the menu systems, perform alignments, and be able to do some troubleshooting. That translates to a dramatically increased support burden.
Note: Orion's Computerized Object Locator (COL), if desired, cannot be purchased as an add-on to the non-computerized Starblast model (the encoders are sold with the base, not the computer).
High School Only?
It's my recommendation that we do not, due to its added complexity, offer the computer to the elementary and middle school students. The high school level students, however, are probably capable of using the computer, with some practice. (Note, after the first year of use at Curie Elementary, no users tried the computer without training; I'm considering doing some computer training to see if it gets used).
Due to the fact that it's hard/expensive to retrofit the scopes after purchasing a non-computer scope, it may or may not be a good decision to buy the computerized version and withhold the COL pending evaluation of how well the program is running.
One option with the computer is not include it during a student's first or second "rental". Once the student has achieved some comfort with the sky and the scope, the computer is pretty easily mastered. Doing it all in the first night out can be overwhelming.
Note, the computer is about 5" x 4" x 1" and plugs into the scope. It can be withheld with no effect on manual operation or included with the checkout package as desired.
There is a concern for checkout/library staff on determining computer checkout eligibility: does it increase the support burden on staff to screen eligibility? Is "two checkouts without a computer first" a sufficiently valid threshold?
Questions or comments? Email:Jeff Martin