This article (and the several sub-articles it points to) gives general advice on initial set up and alignment of a beginner-class telescope. It is just personal opinion and experience, and doesn’t replace your owner’s manual. However, in my experience, many owners’ manuals don’t provide the right level of detail or background explanation for beginners; the information in this article is the kind of thing I often end up discussing with a confused beginner who asks for help.
Why Setup is Important
Poor setup (poor alignment of telescope components like the finder, and poor alignment of the telescope and mount to the sky) is a major source of frustration for beginners.
A poorly aligned finder scope makes it impossible to find anything except, with luck and frustration, the moon. Almost every time I hear a beginner complain “I can’t find anything except the moon”, it turns out they didn’t know they had to align their finder, or how to do so.
Poor mount setup causes inaccuracies in tracking objects — they drift out of the field of view even with your motorized scope; and it causes go-to systems to miss their targets, a major frustration for the beginner who was expecting the go-to to be magically accurate.
Setting up consumes time and, since the activity usually starts at dusk, it eats into observing time when it takes too long through lack of practice or inefficient technique. Worse, poor setup may force you to stop observing and correct.
Finally, you need to be proficient enough at setting up that you can re-do it quickly in the dark. Eventually you or a visitor will trip over a tripod leg or pull out a power cord, ruining your established alignment. To continue observing you will need to be able to re-align quickly, and in the dark, while fending off mosquitoes and boy scouts.
Setup is different for every scope and every mount, so it’s important you read your manual. You may find it shallow or over-detailed or poorly-written, but read it anyway. Then read it again. Then go through a setup routine with the manual at your side. After you have done a few setups, read the manual again, and it may start to make more sense. If you purchased a used telescope and it didn’t come with a manual, don’t despair. Manuals are available online for practically every telescope and mount ever made, and a search of the manufacturer’s web site or a few Google searches will usually turn them up.
In addition to the manual, read any other user guides you can find. Every telescope and mount model has a user group somewhere — often in Yahoo Groups — and you will find many users have written their own user guides, usually in an attempt to make the information beginners need clearer and more accessible.
Finally, be patient. Setting up a scope and mount accurately is a complex process, and it will take time. It also improves and accelerates dramatically with practice, so give yourself time to develop the skills. For example, I remember the first time I set up my first complex equatorial go-to mount it took several hours and I still wasn’t getting good results. After reading more documentation and, most important, frequent practice, the same process now takes me only 10 to 15 minutes, with better results.
How the Sky Moves
Aside from simply holding the optics steady, the main reason for the setup and alignment of your telescope and mount is to enable it to help you locate objects and track them across the sky. This is especially important if you have an equatorial mount, or any kind of mount using a go-to system. The setup steps will make much more sense if you have a basic understanding of how the sky moves, and you should before working through the setup procedures.
Aligning Your Finder Scope
Setting up Your Mount
A beginner may be able to find simple objects with a misaligned mount, but you won’t be able to follow them for long, or find difficult objects. Here are articles on setting up your mount, by mount type:
What about Dobsonians?
I’ve never owned a Dob and, since this collection of articles is all first-hand experience, I have nothing to write. Should I ever own one, I’ll write up the procedures.
This is by no means a recommendation against Dobs. They are excellent — probably the ideal beginner scopes, and certainly the standard among serious amateurs with huge-aperture scopes. It’s just that my equipment preferences were set, and my budget spent, long ago, before Dobs were readily available, and my personal priorities for the various factors that determine the ideal scope tend to push me toward tripod-based mounts.
Aligning a Go-To System
You might have a telescope with a go-to feature, or digital setting circles, or some other kind of computer-assisted object locator system. Despite what may be implied by their advertising, most such systems require you to do some careful setup and alignment before they will work well for you.
Here is an article on the basics of go-to mounts and digital setting circles.
Engraved Setting Circles
Most equatorial mounts have fancy, precise-looking “setting circles”: dials on the mount engraved with markings in degrees, and a pointer that follows the scale as the scope is moved. How do you set up and use these? (Warning: you won’t like the answer.)