GOTO and Computer Controlled Telescopes

Ever since Galileo first pointed his telescope at the heavens, these devices have been used by astronomers, professional and amateur alike, to study the stars.

One of the more recent developments of the last 20 years in astronomy is the GOTO or computer controlled telescope. Since the first computer controlled telescope was built in 1986, GOTO telescopes have created a buzz in the astronomy world that has still not gone away, with proponents and opponents to the new technology.

What is a GOTO Telescope?

A GOTO telescope is a telescope that is automatically controlled by a computer. The computer tells the telescope exactly where to look, so it can precisely and accurately find any number of stars, planets, galaxies, etc., without requiring the manual operation of the user.

This means that even an amateur, not terribly well-versed with astronomy is able to see objects that they might not normally be able to see. The computer has the locations of all these objects stored in a database, which it then uses to direct the telescope.

Although it might seem that anyone can see anything in the night sky with this sort of telescope as easy as pie, some skill is still required in handled a computer controlled telescope. Firstly, one must be able to work the program. In order to work the program must be precisely calibrated to the exact location of the user, the date, time, etc., so that it can know exactly where the objects are in the sky. Some basic knowledge of astronomy is also very helpful in this.

Basics of How a GOTO Telescope Works

The actual telescope aspect of a computer controlled telescope is essentially the same as any other telescope. Because of the fact that it is a GOTO telescope, however, the aperture of a GOTO telescope will generally be smaller than a non computerized telescope in the same price range.

It is the mount that is the important part of the GOTO telescope. Unlike a manual mount, which requires actual hands on operation, the GOTO mount is mechanized so that it moves at the control of a computer. Non GOTO mechanized mounts also exist, and these are controlled with a special hand pad.

The GOTO telescope generally also uses a special hand pad to allow personal control over the scope. Besides this, the mount is also connected either to a computer or microcontroller that is programmed with the astronomic data that tells the telescope how to move. In some more advanced systems the computer and the hand pad are one and the same, and the hand pad is the computer that controls the system.

In order to use the GOTO aspects of the telescope, the astronomer must work with the GOTO software to first calibrate it to the exact settings of his location and the time. This will allow the computer to know where in the sky certain objects are, as the position of stars is always relative to time of night, season, and actual physical location.

Once the software is calibrated, the astronomer is able to search through the databases of the software, and determine what objects he wishes to look at. Once he has set his choices, the computer will automatically set his telescope to that position. He can set the telescope to track a certain object as it moves through the sky. He can also have some personal control over the telescope himself through the hand pad.

Pros and Cons of the GOTO Telescope

Many people have praised the development of GOTO telescopes, believing that they will bring more people into the field of astronomy. By making it easier for people to find objects that might otherwise take a great amount of study, it makes an instant impact upon the new astronomer. Even more advanced amateur astronomers can benefit from the use of a GOTO telescope.

Others have argued that GOTO telescope do a poor job of selling telescopes that are actually able to see many of the objects that they have included in their databases. There are many things to see in the night sky, however many of them are not visible to the naked eye or even to a moderate telescope. In order to make these computer controlled telescopes affordable to the beginning astronomer, the size of the aperture and power of magnification of the telescope is often sacrificed.

This means that while the telescope can be directly pointed at a number of different heavenly bodies, the astronomer will be barely able to see it if at all. Many people believe that this will ultimately turn people away from astronomy, and that a beginning astronomer’s money would be better spent purchasing a telescope with a higher aperture.

Many of these devices are also very difficult to take apart once purchased. For example, if one wants to take out the lens for any reason, or make any minor modifications, it can often be far more difficult with a computerized telescope than with a more traditional scope.

These things said, however, even for an intermediate or advanced astronomer computer controlled telescopes can be useful. For example, if one uses the automated control to track a particular body in the night sky, it frees up the astronomer from having to deal so closely with just keeping his telescope trained on an object and be able to actually study it.

GOTO telescopes can often be useful in video astronomy or astronomic photography, even being able to take pictures without the user’s direct input at all!

Types of GOTO Telescopes

The majority of computer controlled telescopes are sold as single units, made directly by the manufacturer as a complete computerized unit. This means that the telescope and mount have been designed directly together to insure smoothness and quality of operation. Most major manufacturers of telescopes offer at least one type of computer controlled telescope.

It is also possible to buy a separate GOTO mount for your telescope. Since it is the mount and not the telescope that actually needs to be computer controlled, it is possible to buy this special mount separately. If you want to purchase your own telescope of any type, it is possible to add a mechanized computer controlled mount on after the fact.

This option can be more problematic. Because the mount and telescope are not integrally designed together, the mount might be less efficient at moving the scope and movement may be more jerky or more choppy. Generally it is best for the consumer, especially first time telescope buyers, to go for a complete GOTO telescope option rather than simply buying a computerized mount.

It is also possible to build your own computer controlled mount. Plans for these exist on the internet, and some sites even offer free software that can be used to run your computer controlled telescope. This is a fairly advanced option, however.

Tips for Purchasing Your First GOTO Telescope

While GOTO telescopes can be beneficial, it is also important to make wise decisions when purchasing one.

The most important aspect of any telescope is the size of the aperture. The larger the aperture, the more light is able to enter the telescope and thus the better quality of picture. While you can buy a GOTO telescope that has sophisticated software capabilities, if the aperture is too small you will hardly be able to see any of the objects that you are looking for.

If you are on a limited budget, it is generally best to go for the highest aperture that you can afford rather than attempt to purchase a GOTO telescope. While you won’t be able to automatically see many far off distant objects, the objects that you do find on your own will be far clearer and visible to you than if you had a smaller telescope.

This is especially true with discount GOTO telescopes that promise, for example, 10,000 objects in their database. While the software might be able to direct you to 10,000 different celestial objects, chances are at the prices they are charging the telescope will be unable to see the vast majority of these 10,000 objects.

When purchasing a GOTO telescope, look at the size of the aperture. Also check out the physical integrity of the device. GOTO telescopes are more easily damaged than normal telescopes, and it is important to make sure that the telescope you buy is sturdy and is not going to break on your third trip out to look at the stars.

For your first computerized telescope, it is generally best to go with a more well known telescope manufacturer, such as Orion or Celestron. While they might be a little more expensive, you can rest assured that you are buying a quality product with your money.

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