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Star Points: Get hands-on experience with a telescope before you buy it

If you've been considering purchasing a telescope for yourself or a loved one, then this may be the month for you to finally make a commitment. We'll get back to finding out about telescopes after a brief wrap-up of events from October.

During the last week of October, NASA attempted to launch a rocket filled with supplies destined for the International Space Station. The Antares rocket was launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport located on Wallops Island, near Chincoteague, Virginia. Seconds after lifting off the pad, the rocket lost power, fell back onto the pad and exploded in a stupendous twilight fireball.

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It would have been a spectacle to behold, like the Fourth of July in October. Instead, I was at home 144 miles from the launchpad standing on the hill in the back yard. Wallops launches are visible from Carroll County and I've observed them both at night and during the day. The launch time came and went with no visible rocket plume rising in the southeast. I waited for the 10 minute "launch window" to close before heading inside. I assumed the launch had been scrubbed for the night but learned about the disaster from online coverage.

One week earlier we had a partial solar eclipse that occurred at sunset. From New Windsor there were low clouds near the horizon obscuring the sun. Only glimpses of the solar disk were visible through breaks in the clouds using proper filtration. But even these short peeks revealed the sun's dented right side where the darkened moon was passing in front of it. Westminster Astronomical Society (WASI) member Slava Muryhin posted a timelapse video on his blog that documents the sun's peek-a-boo game (slavaastro.blogspot.com.

Skies were a little clearer farther south. Astronomer Alin Tolea saw the partial eclipse clearly from Georgetown in Washington.

The October encounter between Mars and Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) went off without a hitch. NASA put out some Photoshopped images of the two together. They were a difficult pair to image because of their brightness difference. Either Mars would be overexposed to make the comet look good, or the comet would be excessively faint to make Mars look good. Thus it was necessary for NASA to employ the darkroom to make them both shine.

In early October there was a sunrise lunar eclipse. The night before brought heavy rain to the area, so it was a surprise waking up at 5 a.m. to a full moon in a clear sky. The moon slowly slipped into the Earth's shadow as morning twilight increased. Near the end, shortly before sunrise, the totally eclipsed moon set beautifully into a colorful cloud bank.

I've posted a few photos taken at both eclipses on the Starpoints web site (starpoints.org. Scroll down to the "Features" section and look for "images of lunar and solar eclipses in Carroll County during 2014." The images of the lunar eclipse were shot through a telescope lent by WASI.

You heard that right: WASI has telescopes that its members may borrow. It's a good way to get some hands-on experience with a telescope so that you can try before you buy. For membership information, visit its website at WestminsterAstro.org.

Another good way of learning about telescopes before buying is by attending WASI's annual Telescope Buyers' Workshop at Bear Branch Nature Center at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12. Gary Hand of the Hands-On-Optics telescope store in Damascus will be on hand to share buying tips for first-time telescope buyers and talk about what's new for current telescope owners. No matter what experience level you are, he has plenty of useful advice and will answer all of your questions.

If you're a Santa Claus looking for a telescope for Christmas, this is your chance to do it right. It doesn't matter who you're buying it for or where you're buying it from. The important thing is that you learn as much as you can before parting with your hard-earned money. But be careful — you may end up with the telescope you need instead of the one you want.

Curtis Roelle is a member of the Astronomical Society. His column appears the first Sunday of each month. His website is http://www.starpoints.org, and he can be reached at starpoints@gmail.com.

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