telescope techniques

Mastering Polar Alignment
When you set up your telescope’s equatorial mount, you need to align it

an illusion — it’s the Earth that turns.
Picture the Earth as a rotating globe at
only well enough to do the job you want. By Alan MacRobert
the center of the celestial sphere, as in the
diagram on the facing page. Because the
ost amateurs use a port- telescope along every few seconds. And world feels motionless as it smoothly carable telescope, whether in most cases, a well-aligned mount is es- ries us along, we perceive the sky turning
they carry it to remote, sential for astronomical photography.
instead, in the opposite direction.
dark-sky hideaways or to
The axis on which the sky seems to roAs performed by many amateurs,
a familiar spot in the backyard. But if polar aligning is too much work. You can tate is simply the axis of the Earth exyour telescope has an equatorial mount- waste a lot of time getting it more pre- tended to infinity. Imagine the Earth’s
ing, this means you need to realign it on cise than you need for what you intend latitude and longitude lines ballooning
the celestial pole every time you set up. to do. Mastering polar alignment isn’t outward and printing themselves onto
Doing so can seem like a lot of work.
just a matter of knowing the techniques. the sky sphere. They become lines of
An equatorial mount has many bene- It’s also knowing when not to bother.
declination and right ascension, respecfits. It can easily compensate for the
tively. These serve to locate stars on a cemovement of celestial objects as the The Basics
lestial atlas just like cities on a map.
Earth turns. Its motions show you which The first step in understanding a teleA telescope mounting is called “equaways are celestial north-south and east- scope mounting is to understand the mo- torial” if one of its two axles can be made
west in your eyepiece view, making it tion of the sky. This motion, of course, is parallel to the Earth’s axis. When this is
easier to navigate with a sky map.
done, the sky’s motion can be canWith a motor drive, an equatorial Above: The sky is always turning, so a telescope needs to celed out simply by turning the
mount can make objects stand still turn the opposite way to keep a star in view. Stefan Bin- axle at the same rate as the Earth
in the eyepiece even at high power, newies took this 8-hour exposure of stars circling the ce- but in the opposite direction, eiso you don’t have to nudge the lestial pole from below the equator in Namibia.
ther by hand or by a motor drive.

M

106

September 1997 Sky & Telescope

©1997 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

you may discover that not available. All rights reserved. Leave it out for all +30° subsequent steps.3 The declination setting circle. declination and right ascension are similar to latitude and longitude on Earth. The mount’s other motion. loosen the declination dial. because turning the telescope on it sweeps the view in right ascension (celestial east-west). the object ought to be at least 600 feet away. re- On the celestial sphere. but many telescope owners will want to work through the whole series to get everything shipshape. scope is locked at a declination of 90° minus your latitude (as . But first you need to do some preliminary adjustments to your telescope. This may require loosening the latitude adjustment — the pivot that sets the angle the polar axis makes with the ground — and tilting the One way to set an equatorial mount to your latitude. This needs to be done only roughly for casual observing. A treetop works fine. turn the little adjustment screws in the diagonal’s back until it is. . Clamp the scope in right ascension. By movpolar axis so it’s nearly ing the latitude adjustment. If you are using the finder. should stay centered in mated correctly. such as a Polaris sighter. Turn the telescope to 90° declination as indi. as 0h shown. Center an object at least a quarter mile away in the telescope’s high-power view. proba–30° bly needs adjustment to make it read correctly the setting of the mount. they can eliminate the need to polar-align altogether. If a telescope’s polar axis is made parallel to the Earth’s axis. Here we’ll discuss several generic polar-alignment methods. then rotate the either the optical or the right-ascension telescope in right ascension while looking axis is not exactly at a right angle to the through either the main eyepiece or the declination axis. Sky & Telescope September 1997 107 . Take out the diagonal and center an object while viewing “straight through. If it’s not.000 feet away. It mirror-images the 10h view. Astrophotography usually demands the highest precision of all.no declination setting completely elimicated by the circle.22h Polar axis To P olar is +60 C°e les tia lE qu at or 18 h move it and repeat step 6h 1. whether a star or a First recheck that the optics are collidistant treetop. Aim the finderscope to point in the same direction as the main telescope. –3 The axle of the mounting that points at the celestial pole is called the polar axis. Then try adding thin the view. If a level is 3. from quick and rough to very exact. you can aim at an object nearby. sight on something more than 1. level the tube while the telehorizontal. If the diagonal fails this test and is unadjustable. When angle the tube makes with its cradle. The object should still be centered. which is graduated in degrees. move the telescope shims of metal or cardboard to change the in declination slightly and repeat. perpendicular to the first. Some telescopes have built-in alignment aids. ©1997 Sky Publishing Corp. . The tube should now nates image drift as you turn the telebe parallel to the polar axis. the North Star. the Earth’s rotation can be canceled out by turning the telescope in 4h the opposite direction. Still greater precision is needed if you want to use conventional setting circles to point the telescope at hard-to-find objects. For a telescope on a German-type mount (standard for equatorial reflectors). Equa tor Don’t use a diagonal 8h on the finderscope at all. swings the telescope north-south around the declination axis. This means that declination axle tight. or optical alignment. or the scope stays aimed at the same object try otherwise tinkering with the mount. check that it does not shift the direction of view. Computerized mountings are a whole different category. For rough alignment only step 5 is required.) 1.2 If you use a right-angle star diagonal (eyepiece prism) on the main telescope. Then use the thumbscrews on the finderscope mount to center the object in the finder’s cross hairs. finder. If it doesn’t. Sight along it (as in the diagram at right). and they can be carried out during the day. you aim its polar axis at the pole.4 In carrying out step shown by the setting circle) and pointed due north. Any object. (In these instructions we’ll assume that collimation. turn it to read exactly 90°. making it nearly imCele stial possible to compare the star Equato r 0° –6 patterns you see with those 0° on a map. Better alignment helps in tracking objects carefully at high power. of the telescope’s lenses and/or mirrors has already been done. 16h 12h CHUCK BAKER 0° Preliminaries The following adjustments need to be done only once. as it spins in right ascension (at least as If your telescope does not allow for best you can do). A commercially made telescope on an equatorial mount will come with instructions. eyeball judgment will do. Note: If you’re sighting through a fork-mounted telescope. and you should see Polaris. To make an equatorial mount work as intended. It’s also called the right-ascension axis.” Then insert the diagonal and look again. and tighten permanently.

Advertisement Rough Polar Alignment For ordinary visual observing. The next steps are done outdoors at the beginning of each observing session. All rights reserved. you can choose one of the following two methods: A. why make life complicated? Better Alignment For a quick improvement. (High precision is not required. If they don’t. Then turn the entire mount until Polaris is as nearly centered in the finder as you can get it. sweep from one star to the other while looking though the finder. Set up the telescope on a level surface and turn it in declination so the setting circle reads 90° minus your latitude. if you live at 40° latitude.) Clamp the right-ascension axle. and for following the sky’s motion easily with or without a motor drive. With both axles locked in place. find it on a map.B If you don’t have setting circles. . south. Now turn the telescope in right ascension to make the mount’s declination axis lie as nearly horizontal as you can judge.this. and tighten permanently. east. 5. just carry out step 3 as best you can. move it until the tube is exactly level. turn the telescope to 50° declination. That’s it! You will probably be no more than 5° or 10° off. Clamp the declination axle tight. You can now locate difficult objects by the offsetting method: moving 108 September 1997 Sky & Telescope ©1997 Sky Publishing Corp. and west in your field of view. (If you don’t know your latitude. See the photograph on the previous page. Both stars should go through the finder’s cross hairs. use your star charts to find two stars 10° or more apart that have either the same declination or right ascension. and direction finding in the eyepiece becomes more precise. This adjustment determines how high the polar axis points above the horizon. Turning the scope on only one axle.) For example. The telescope should now be aligned to within a degree or two. put a carpenter’s bubble level on the telescope’s tube. move the whole mount around until they do. . Swing the telescope to 90° declination and clamp it there. just plunk the mount down so the polar axis is aimed at Polaris as best you can judge by looking. A motor drive will follow an object much longer. The final task is to match the angle of your polar axis to the latitude where you live. If that’s all you want to do. loosen the latitude adjustment (carefully!). This is good enough for using the mount’s motions to tell celestial north.

“Setting Circles: Using Them Right. allowing long-exposure photography. A motor drive will keep the telescope on an object indefinitely. note where the true celestial pole lies with respect to Polaris and its surrounding stars. If the star drifts south in the eyepiece with time. This method requires a movable “slip ring” right-ascension setting circle.” Sky & Telescope. You may be able to use the setting circles to find objects simply by dialing in their coordinates. 38. 246. Otherwise put the star on the north or south edge of the field and defocus it a little. You can take full advantage of the benefits it offers for whatever level of observing you do. it’s most appropriate for permanently mounted telescopes or those that can be replaced in exactly the same position on future nights. Use either of these two methods: A.skypub. Method B automatically places the right-ascension circle at the correct value to start an evening’s observing. Again. Now go back and repeat from the beginning. If the eyepiece has cross hairs. Turn on the clock drive.” Sky & Telescope. Sky & Telescope September 1997 109 . because each adjustment throws the ©1997 Sky Publishing Corp. First aim the polar axis roughly at Polaris. Polaris’s declination.html. which is nearly the right ascension of Polaris. If the star drifts north. Set the telescope to 90° declination and clamp it there. September 1995. repeat from the beginning. and ignore any eastwest drift. Put in a highpower eyepiece.sky pub. If the star drifts north. Since it takes some time. turn it to the right ascension of the object you’re currently viewing just before swinging the telescope to a new reading. So there’s no reason to be intimidated by an equatorial mount. Align roughly. B. Further Reading “Understanding Celestial Coordinates. Turn the whole mount sideways until the finder’s cross hairs appear either directly above or below this point among the stars. Turn the right-ascension circle (the slip ring) so it reads the correct value for this star. Part of becoming initiated is knowing that most of them can be ignored most of the time. If your eastern sky is blocked. the polar axis points too low. previous one slightly off. If the star drifts south.Fine Alignment This is the stage of accuracy most amateurs mean when they say a telescope is “aligned. If you’re in the Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. provided on many telescopes. Using the circles.com/backyard/celcoord. swing the telescope to 2 hours 30 minutes. A finderscope will take in most of this field. Now move the tripod and the latitude adjustment to center Polaris in the finder’s cross hairs. Now loosen and tilt the latitude adjustment (or move the tripod legs) to aim the cross hairs up or down exactly at this point. The current position of the pole is where to aim when doing fine alignment of an equatorial mount. Now aim at a star that’s near the celestial equator low in the eastern sky. Using the chart below. DENNIS DI CICCO the correct amount of right ascension and declination to get from an easy-tofind star to the desired object.com/backyard/ setcircs. to +89 1⁄4°. The polar axis of a German equatorial mount properly aligned on the celestial pole. Best Possible Alignment The two methods above are limited by the accuracy of the setting circles and how well you were able to do the preliminary steps 1 through 4. shift the polar axis left or right accordingly until there is no more north-south drift. http://www.html. the polar axis is pointing too far east. http:// www. the polar axis is too far west. When all northsouth drift is eliminated the telescope is very accurately aligned.” All these procedures may seem complicated to the uninitiated. you can use a star low in the west and reverse the words “too high” and “too low” in the instructions. reverse the words “north” and “south. The telescope is now aligned to a fraction of a degree. If the circle is driven by a motor drive. The following method is independent of these factors. September 1990.” Corrections are made for Polaris not being quite at the pole and for the telescope not resting on perfectly level ground. center the star on them. All rights reserved. and you can take long exposures for deep-sky photography. and 6 To Big er’s Dipp ers t Poin Polaris 2000 1950 1900 To Ca ssiop eia h h 0 12h North Pole δ UMi Litt a er ipp le D To Veg 1° 18h The north celestial pole moves slowly against the starry background from year to year due to the Earth’s precession. If the mounting had to be moved a lot. If it’s undriven. shift the polar axis accordingly. Now point the telescope at a star that’s somewhat above the celestial equator and nearly due south. it doesn’t need to be touched again. Moving the whole mount. the polar axis points too high. then aim at a bright star of known right ascension fairly near the equator.