Sometimes, a journey across the galaxy just takes a trip to the library.
And we’re not talking a trip to the science-fiction aisle. Head instead for the reference desk at the Missoula Public Library and ask to check out its Orion StarBlaster telescope.
“At our workshop last week, one woman made a reservation on the spot,” said library spokeswoman Mary Drew Powers. “She had something she wanted to see that weekend.”
That might have been Jupiter, which was nearing the end of its opposition – the time when it’s closest to Earth and most easily visible. Or perhaps she wanted to use Venus’ proximity to the Pleiades to see if what westerners call “The Seven Sisters” star cluster is also the inspiration for the Subaru auto logo.
“A lot of people get intimidated by telescopes,” said Nick Wethington, who coordinates the spectrUM museum next door to the library and is president of the Western Montana Astronomical Association. “They think about the computers attached to them, and how much they cost. But with this program, you can get a telescope for free and get used to it. You don’t need something that costs thousands of dollars to look at the sky.”
The Orion StarBlaster comes in an intimidatingly large, white carrying case. But Powers lifted it with ease and had the telescope focused on the eaves of the Missoula Symphony Association across the street in less than a minute. One unfortunate challenge of sky-watching in Missoula in April is the frequent overcast weather.
Fortunately, the telescope comes with plenty of instructions to peruse while waiting for dark. A pile of flip-cards explains the basic operating procedures, such as adjusting the focus and activating the laser sighting tool.
After that, users can choose from booklets, a DVD, simple star charts or more complex astronomical glossaries to guide their observations. Powers said she’s found different users have different levels of advising they’re comfortable with, and the library tries to match as many as possible.
The Orion is a reflecting telescope, meaning it uses an internal mirror to gather light and bounce it back to an eyepiece. The design tends to be much more accurate for astronomical watching than the more straight-line series of lenses in a pair of binoculars or rifle scope.
“The moon is really rewarding to look at, and the planets,” Wethington said. “They’re easier to find, and the view you get from them is very nice through that telescope. For galaxies and nebulae, the library scope is a great starter scope.”
Wethington got interested in astronomy as a high school student.
“I still remember writing a check for $200 for my first telescope,” he said. “That was the first time I wrote a check that large.”
College classes diverted him for a while, but he found himself drawn back to the dark skies after graduating. Wethington spent several years as a reporter for the Universe Today astronomy blog, and joined an amateur astronomy club in Iowa. When he moved to Montana, he found plenty of fellow sky-watchers.
“It’s really easy to get into,” Wethington said. “Especially in Montana, where you have really dark skies.”