Cheap Astronomy - The Case Against Kits

Joe Shuster

I was all set to write a column about how I didn't think most astronomy accessory kits fit into the practice of "cheap astronomy" when a funny thing happened. I asked the opinion of someone - a veteran astronomy friend - who was CERTAINLY going to endorse my position. And he didn't. In fact, he tried to convince me kits are good things. So I thought about it a while and after I thought about it a while, I realized I was completely wrong: I shouldn't have asked for his opinion. But I will try to present the pro's and con's of kits and let each of you decide.

Almost all major vendors offer kits: optics kits, communications kits, miscellany kits. The quintessential example of an astronomy kit is a kit that Celestron has Lake County Astronomical Society Night Times Page 5 been offering in various forms. It includes five eyepieces (4mm, 6mm, 9mm, 15mm and 32mm), some filters, a 2x Barlow lens and a case. You might have one of these kits and you might be very satisfied with it. That's fine. The vast majority of people who have an opinion think the Celestron kit is a great bargain at the $120-140 retail price. This includes novices and veterans. This kind of combination has some advantages, so let me be fair and present those advantages.

First, the collection of pieces is offered at a huge discount. Bought alone, the eyepieces, filters, Barlow and case would cost almost $300. So a buyer "saves" $170 by getting the kit. If the buyer doesn't have a collection of eyepieces or filters beyond the stock products that came with the scope, this represents an instant collection of stuff with just one simple purchase. Heck, the stuff is even self-contained in its own case. The eyepieces range in length from very short to moderately long, so you can view at high power and low power. The Barlow lens is reputed to effectively double your eyepiece collection (because each eyepiece can be additionally used at half its labeled focal length). Frankly, if you will never have more than $140 to spend on telescope accessories, this is a good deal.

Aside from the bargain nature of the kit, some veterans recommend kits to newbies because a kit tends to counteract the common "accessory voraciousness" of newcomers to astronomy or any hobby. The theory is that the newcomer is sated by the quantity of accessories for a variable period of time during which he can take some time to learn more about what he wants during the next buying binge. Kits prevent "chain buying", so the theory goes. Interesting astro-psychology.

So why would I be against such a kit? Well, let's start with the eyepiece collection: The quality of the eyepieces is on the "south side" of average in Celestron's line of eyepieces. Priced about $35 each, they might be better quality than a stock eyepiece that comes with your telescope, but maybe not, too. So in addition to the typically unspectacular one or two eyepieces that came with your new telescope, you have 5 more unremarkable items. The high-powered eyepieces are 4mm, 6mm and 9mm. Under most conditions, you should be able to use the 9mm. The 6mm might be usable a few times a year. The 4mm, though, will almost never get into the game because of the limits of seeing. (Bad seeing makes high-power viewing ineffective, regardless of optical quality.) The low magnification eyepieces are 15mm and 32mm. This can complement the standard 20mm-26mm stock eyepiece. So, in my opinion, the kit really only has three eyepieces you'll normally use.

The Barlow that comes with the kit is the lowest quality Barlow offered by Celestron. Now, most companies have a "lowest quality" Barlow and often these are the versions that give the Barlow a bad name. They're notorious for taking a small, sharp image and turning into a wobbly, grainy, dim, but bigger, image. These can be so disappointing that many new astronomers never try the higher quality extenders and they miss a great optical treat. Celestron makes a really good, "keeper" Barlow, the 2x Ultima. It's a bargain at $62 street ($50-55 used). Televue makes the incredible 2.5x Powermate. It's pricey at $175 retail - but its fans (me included) count it as one of the best products in the optics case.

But even if the Barlow was a great 2x model, it doesn't really help the eyepiece collection that much. If you Barlow the 32mm, you get 16mm - pretty close to the 15mm. If you Barlow the 9mm (unlikely with most seeing), you get 4.5mm - in the neighborhood of the 4mm and seeing will almost always chase it away. And don't even think about putting the 4mm or 6mm through the Barlow unless you want to see a blurry blob

This means that the alleged combination of 10 focal lengths (4, 6, 9, 15, 32mm at normal and 2, 3, 4.5, 7.5 and 16mm at 2x) is effectively reduced to 4 (7.5, 9, 15, 32) - a 60% drop in effectiveness of the kit's eyepiece set. . So the Barlow that should double your collection probably won't.

The filters are nicely representative of filters, but if you check with serious observers and imagers, virtually none of the filters have a frequent role. I've never heard someone say "My night of observing is ruined because I forgot my set of colored filters", or "Please, I beg you to lend me your Moon filter." Some of the kit's color filters might help with planetary viewing. (But many people report filters don't help them at all.) The lunar filter might protect your eyes a little from lunar glare, but most folks doing deep sky work just avoid the moon. There are dramatically effective filters, such as OIII, UHC, etc., but those aren't in this kit.

Finally, the case holds the pieces of the kit and supposedly you can squeeze in another one or two eyepieces before it's full. But the case (minus the Celestron logo) can be purchased for a low price at most hardware stores. I don't think the Celestron logo is worth $10-$20 - the difference between the Celestron case and a case without the logo.

So why not buy the kit and simply sell what you don't want? Well, so many buyers have thought of that that Lake County Astronomical Society Night Times Page 6 you'd be facing a buyer's market. If these eyepieces and other items were jumping off the shelves you can be sure they wouldn't be included in a kit. (Celestron has some nice lines of eyepieces, like the Ultimas and Axioms, that are much more "keeper-like", but of course, they're priced higher. You are unlikely to see them in kits.)

If you take an arithmetic approach, this kit (and many other similar ensembles from other vendors) is a huge financial bargain. If you're looking for an accessory snack to suit your hunger, the kit will satisfy or start to satisfy your appetite. If you have the kit and love it, fantastic!

But my goal with "Cheap Astronomy" is to guide folks away from the detours of kits - and other buying distractions - and steer them into buying items they will use now AND in 4, 6, 9, or 15 years from now - or even right away! For example, the money spent on a kit could be better invested (with more immediate and long-term payback) in a good mirror diagonal to replace the cheap prism diagonals that come with most SCT's. You might be able to get a good diagonal AND an Ultima Barlow to help you with expanding the telescope's original eyepiece(s).

So there you have it - I'm against kits. It's a minority opinion by a wide margin. But that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Next up - Save on free and cheap astronomy software.

Published in the September 2004 issue of the NightTimes