Spending Green to See Red Planet 

By Suneel Ratan  |   Also by this reporter Page 1 of 2

02:00 AM Aug. 26, 2003 PT

Millions across the globe are expected to stay up late or get up early Wednesday to get a gander at Mars -- and they'll have plenty of relatively cheap, easy-to-use technology to deepen the viewing experience.

So-called "go to" devices -- equipment that automatically finds the item you are looking for in the sky -- enable even low-end telescopes to find celestial objects. The user doesn't need to understand esoterica such as right ascension and declination to point at the red planet, likely to be the brightest object in the nighttime heavens.

Constantly improving optics have lowered price points. Cannibalizing cheap webcams is enabling amateurs to create images of planets and galaxies that, a few years ago, only professional observatories could have generated.

Most of all, the Internet is enabling hard-core amateurs to share their latest discoveries and methods and collaborate on projects, such as detailed do-it-yourself red planet digital snaps.

Astronomy buffs advise newbies to resist the temptation to run out to stores this week for shiny telescopes and instead recommend leaning on them at one of thousands of viewing parties being held this week by amateur astronomical clubs. There are a few hundred thousand such fanatical amateurs worldwide, said J. Kelly Beatty, executive editor of Sky & Telescope.

"When I say amateur astronomer, I mean someone who has made an investment in the hobby," Beatty said. "It's not just a passing fancy."

The ranks of astronomy buffs are temporarily swelling due to this week's Mars mania. The red planet, at about 6 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday, will be about 34.6 million miles from Earth -- the closest in 60,000 years, longer than the span of recorded human history.

At the same time, telescopes have been reportedly flying off the shelves of retailers nationwide. Beatty said he believes most of those telescopes cost less than $300, with mechanics and optics that are actually worse than could have been had for the same price, in inflation-adjusted terms, say, 20 years ago.

Where things start getting interesting for a good beginner's telescope is at a price point of $500 and above, said Ed Flaspoehler, who heads the American Association of Amateur Astronomers in Dallas.

That may be a bigger investment than a casual, novice astronomer is willing to make, but scopes in that range offer computerized databases enabling users to easily find planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies, as well as battery-powered tracking and decent -- if limited -- mirrors and lenses.

Flaspoehler has been stargazing since 1980. He recently bought a Meade LX-90, which retails for about $1,600. He mates that with an array of lenses and magnifiers, depending on the kind of viewing he's doing -- nearby planets versus nebulae, or whether he's in a light-polluted city or in a darker, rural setting.

Other big telescope manufacturers include Celestron and Bushnell.

"One of the good things is that the planets like Mars are so bright that you don't need to concern yourself with darkness or city lights," Flaspoehler said. "The only things that matter are how stable the atmosphere is and whether there are clouds."

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