Practical Astronomy for the disabled by Ian Candler
My name is Ian Candler. I am 49 years old and for the last 9 + years have been disabled due to a bad back injury. Sadly my disability has gotten worse over the last few years and restricted me a lot more in what I can and can't do. I am pretty much housebound, and not able to get out much further than my local shops (by car) at best, at worst in the winter I can be stuck indoors for long periods. Walking wise I am severely restricted, as am I in carrying any weights. All of my astronomy is carried out either inside or just outside my doors in the garden. I have no affiliation with any company and only ever quote/recommend based on personal experience of a product.
I think the best way to approach this is to break the topic down into several sub sections and deal with each, one at a time. There are several things that affect the astronomy you can do just as much as your physical abilities, but let's take a look at your physical abilities first.
The first thing you need to do is accept the limitations your physical abilities place on you. It sounds simple enough but as anyone disabled who is reading this will know, accepting your limitations is one of the hardest parts of dealing with physical disability; we just don't want to accept that we can't carry on as we did before.
We will still try to do things, regardless of how many times we fail or how much it hurts, but when it's going to hurt your pocket as much as this hobby can, it really does pay to sit down and be honest with yourself.
There is no point in purchasing that nice shiny 10" SCT, large Newtonian, Dobsonian, or refractor when you will struggle with the counter weight, let alone the OTA and tripod, and what about being able to reach the eyepiece? All these considerations can go out of the window when you see the glistening dream machine that you are sure is going to afford you fantastic views of our universe.
If you can only pick up and carry 5kg in weight, then limit yourself to an all up weight of around double that for ALL your equipment, unless you are sure you can make more than two trips carrying 5kg without getting out of puff, or hurting too much.
So that means the mount (unless you have a permanently fixed mounting), OTA, diagonal, eyepieces, accessories, camera, star charts, torch and warm clothing.
Personally I prefer to err on the side of caution and go as light as I can, but then I get out of puff very easily.
As can be seen by the above, our choice of telescope is going to be somewhat limited unless we can afford to have a telescope permanently mounted and with some level of automation.
Our options increase if we can have a permanent mount fixed outside, as then we only have to carry the OTA assembly and the weight of the mount ceases to become an issue. I thoroughly recommend this, where finances permit as though it might not seem it give a much wider choice, the options it allows us are a welcome addition.
For those not using a permanent mount I would recommend the following:
These are often over looked. A decent pair of 7 x 50 binoculars can give excellent views, though can make your arms tired when used sitting or standing, even at that small size. Coupled with either a specialist mirror type mount, or a parallelogram mount you can comfortably use both that size and larger sizes, only really being limited by what you can safely carry. For wheel chair users a parallelogram type mount could be readily adapted to bolt or clamp onto the back of your chair.
Short focal length refractors up to 80mm diameter.
The most notable that come to mind are the William Optics ZS 66, ZS80 and their clones, as both are not only excellent visual instruments but also world class imaging telescopes when coupled to either a CCD camera or a Digital SLR camera.
Of course there are many more makes and models of this size of telescope, such as the excellent little skywatcher refractors, that are cheaper.
Small maksutov's up to 90mm (102mm at a push) can be managed on a lightweight mount, though the greater inherent magnification can give issues when using higher power eyepieces due to wobble.
It's very rare to find an SCT of 4" or under these days as most have been replaced with the maksutov design.
Mounts are going to be restricted, with a lot of German equatorials being too heavy to manage on your own. Personally I feel they are best left to a permanent installation.
For purely visual use a good alt/az mount with slow motions takes some beating.
These days it can take many forms from a purely manual type such as the AZ3 or Orion porta mount system to an electrically driven mount that will track the stars, good examples of this type include the Acuter Merlin mount, and the skywatcher supa-track.
There are many others out there worth investigating if you have a little more money to spend on the mount.
For purely manual use I think the Borg ultra lightweight mount takes some beating, being fairly solid and having the benefit that it can be used equatorially as well as in alt/az mode.
For a driven high quality lightweight mount, you need look no further than the Kendrick astro-trac. Coupled with a decent tripod and head such as those from Manfrotto (the 405 geared head is ideal) it gives you a rock solid mount that can handle both small telescopes and camera's, with a tracking accuracy that will allow long exposure astro photography.
Finally let's not forget the humble and often overlooked photographic tripod. A good solid metal one will carry most small scopes, and whilst not the best solution, is more than adequate to start with. Look out for names such as Manfrotto, Velbon, and Gitzo etc. but avoid the cheap ones with plastic heads sold on ebay and bargain shops.
I have several tripods, including an old all aluminium tripod that will carry a ZS80 and a Velbon Sherpa that will do the same.
With the installation of a permanent mount our options are opened to the delights of modern SCT telescopes as well as larger maksutov's and refractors. In fact we are only limited by the weight of the OTA and its physical size, the prime factor here being that we can carry and lift it onto the mount without risk of dropping it.
We can safely up the diameter to 90mm here and possibly slightly larger in the short focal lengths, but please bear in mind if it needs a 2" diagonal, that item will be around 3-4 times heavier than a light weight 1.25" diagonal.
Here I don't see why 6" of aperture shouldn't be available to most, as long as the OTA isn't too heavy it should be manageable.
Once again I would say up to 6", I think moving up to 8" or larger the OTA's are getting a little on the heavy side, but please try one for weight at your local dealer as your capabilities may be greater than mine.
You will notice there has been no mention of Newtonians or Dobsonians so far. There is a very good reason for this. Namely eyepiece placement, (The need to rotate the tube in the case of a Newtonian) and the fact that all bar small Dobsonians (6") can be hard to manage weight wise as well as hard to reach the eyepiece, often involving a lot of bending around.
In the case of the previously mentioned telescopes this can be taken care of when setting the mount up and by rotating the focuser or diagonal when needed.
I had a 10" Dobsonian myself and whilst I loved the views it gave me, there were two main issues:
I couldn't get it out on my own, so could only use it when others where with me.
I found the bending to reach the eyepiece very painful, to the point where it detracted from the pleasure of the object I was viewing.
More on Mounts
If leaving your mount permanently set up, then what you decide to buy is only limited by the depth of your wallet. I could go on here to recommend several mounts, but suffice to say, buy the best you can afford and site it securely.
This could be in a shed you have converted into an observatory, or even on some hard standing with a good quality all weather cover. You of course don't have to install a pier or pedestal for permanent mounting and can use the tripod that comes with the mount, though the former is better if you can afford it.
Whatever you decide to get make sure it's secure, weather proof and alarmed if possible.
My pedestal is securely fixed as well as being locked to the gas main via a heavy-duty cable and alarmed with a motion sensing alarm. It's better to be safe than sorry no matter how nice your neighbourhood.
If your location is secure enough and you feel happy about leaving an expensive telescope permanently mounted then as far as optics go the skies the limit.
An 8"-12" SCT on a GOTO Equatorial mount will really open up the skies, or add to the mount a guide scope, a couple of camera's and a laptop for imaging and automation. (You could even use a large Newtonian in this situation.)
Going further you could even automate the whole lot by using a home network and control all from the comfort of your lounge, but for most of us this is what I term a "lottery dream," I.E. only achievable with some luck in winning the lottery.
As we come to the end of this section lets go over the main points again.
Know your physical limitations, work within them not against them.
Whatever the temptations stick with what you KNOW you can manage on your own.
Buy the most solid mount you can readily manage.
Don't rule out camera tripods if that's all you can carry. (It's far better to have a lighter mount you can manage than a larger one you can't.)
If going for a permanent mount ensure its secure, weather proof and alarmed if possible.
Your observing site.
Whether you have a permanent mounting or a portable one, a little common sense goes a long way when it comes to observing sites. Whilst our able bodied friends only have to worry about whether or not the ground will support their equipment, we also have to think about the nature of the surface and its risks to us.
A nice dark site situated in a green field a few miles from home is a lovely prospect, but no good at all if we can't access it, or are likely to fall prey to its hazards once we get there.
Look into parking access and choose areas with good solid ground and as few obstacles as possible.
A well-drained metalled car park is ideal, where as anything involving damp grass or wood is an accident waiting to happen.
The same applies at home. Make sure you can get to where you're going to set your telescope up safely, ensure you have lighting to cover your access and avoid wooden surfaces such as decking like the plague. Try to keep things at ground level and on a well-drained part of the garden.
If you favour one area of your garden in particular then it's worth considering getting a concrete slab laid and levelled if there isn't one there. A simple ramp and handrail leading onto it is all that's needed to make it easy to get on and off, and helps even those who don't use a wheel chair
Make sure you have warm enough clothing, as even a summer's night can be colder than you realise and do get in the habit of carrying a mobile phone so you can summon assistance if the worst does happen. (Yes even in the garden or your home observatory.)
If you're going to a star party then make sure the organiser knows you're disabled and reserves you a suitable spot. Also make sure you have friends on hand to help if needed. (Though I can't see anyone at a star party ignoring you if you need help.)
A little thought and common sense is all that's needed to ensure you have an enjoyable night at the eyepiece.
I can't get outside.
It seems an odd title, but there are a large number of disabled people who can't get outside, me included sometimes. Most assume that if they can't get out, they can't take up astronomy, yet they couldn't be further from the truth. Though it places a whole new set of obstacles in your way, it's not beyond the realms of possibility to watch the stars from indoors.
Often in the winter I find I can't get outside for various reasons and up until a little while ago, resigned myself to just sitting in watching the TV or looking longingly at my planetarium software, at what I was missing.
Then one night I decided to take a look through my telescope and was surprised at what I could see. We tend to look out of our windows and just see the darkness, yet when you look at the same view through your telescope, the sky is filled with stars. It's just too good to be missed.
There are of course a few simple rules in order to gain the best from this method.
Turn ALL the lights off; turn off the TV and computer monitor as well.
If you have a door or window that opens in the direction you want to look, open it and look through it.
Give the room time to cool down and avoid looking out over the top of radiators and heaters.
Don't expect miracles; the best you are going to do is bright objects and star fields.
Don't use short focal length eyepieces; this is not an occasion to push the magnification. My best results have come from using 40mm - 9mm eyepieces in the ZS66.
Get your windows thoroughly cleaned, inside and out.
An old blanket draped over your head will help cut out any extraneous light as will using a dew shield on your telescope.
Double-glazing shouldn't be an issue with no lights on, but leave a light on and you'll get reflections in the glass that will ruin your view.
Make sure you are warm enough and comfortably seated. (A fleece blanket over the shoulders keeps me as warm as toast)
With the right positioning you can even lay in bed and look at the stars through your small telescope or binoculars, your only limit is your imagination and cunning in coming up with ways to defeat your disability's limitations.
I have had some lovely views whilst stuck indoors, one highlight being M42. (The Orion nebula.) I also found as I was in a relatively warm and comfortable environment I could spend longer at the eyepiece than I usually did. It also forced me to "browse" the sky a lot more, resulting in some lovely star field finds such as those above M42 and those to my northwest, an area out of view from my outside viewing areas.
Though the disabled astronomer has to take account of certain limitations such as size and weight of the instrument as well as the area's he or she has access too, there are still plenty of options there that allow you to see our wondrous universe. With a little thought, preparation and often a little ingenuity, most of the obstacles can be overcome.