People often wonder, “do telescopes will work in the city” or, more to the point, can they be of any use when matched against the so-called “light pollution” that comes with living inside a major metropolitan area. Yes, they can! Obviously, telescopes work better for heavenly observations when they are being used out in the middle of a distant desert on a dark, moonless night, but the key factor to remember is that telescopes are a method of amplifying an image that might be invisible or only indistinctly visible to the naked eye.
There Are More Factors Than Just Light Pollution
While light pollution can certainly reduce the view that people have of the stars, no matter what sort of visual aid they employ or eschew, it cannot eliminate that view entirely. The stars will always remain, no matter where on earth you reside. There are, however, several factors equally or even far more limiting than that of light pollution when it comes to telescopic viewing.
The first factor is the weather. If the skies are socked in with storm clouds, you won’t be able to see anything, no matter where you live. Another limiting factor is that of the moon. A bright, clear night with a full moon can generate far more light pollution than even the densest metropolis. These factors can of course be cumulative. A full moon and a brightly-lit big city will do a tag team on visibility that either one in solitary cannot match.
Yet this is not necessarily bad news, particularly for those who are just getting into astronomy as a hobby. One of the hardest things to figure out when one first starts looking up at the night sky is where all the constellations are. Most of the really interesting features to look at are items such as distant galaxies and star clusters. Even in clear, dark conditions, these are not always that easy to locate. This is especially true if you cannot establish where all the major constellations are.
Say you wanted to take a look at the remnants of the Great Supernova of 1572 in the constellation of Cassiopeia. The first thing you would need to know is where Cassiopeia is located in the night sky. Oddly enough, it is easier to identify constellations under light pollution conditions than it is out away from all civilization. The reason for this is that man-made light washes out much of the illumination coming in from the more distant stars.
In a metropolitan area, you will only be able to see the brightest stars with the naked eye. Perhaps you can view several hundred of them, depending on the season of the year. Out in the country, that several hundred quickly jumps up into tens of thousands and it will seem like millions. Under those conditions, the principal stars of a constellation can get “lost” in the crowd unless you have learned how to spot them under less favorable conditions such as are found in a city.
Of course many modern telescopes have geostationary alignment devices on them. You simply set up your telescope, get it calibrated, and then tell it what you want to look at. The machinery turns and points you directly at what it is you want to see. This can open up many of the wonders of the universe, but it also dilutes much of the fun of learning about the skies the old-fashioned way.
Nor does it allow you to view large objects, only small ones. Yes, you can find the Crab Nebula with no effort at all, but you miss much of the context involved in the search for it. If you want to see the great Andromeda Galaxy, your telescope can take you right to it. But you miss the great mythological tale of fair Andromeda chained to her rock and you miss seeing the constellation of Andromeda where the nearby galaxy is located. Not to mention Perseus with the head of the Gorgon in his hand or the great winged horse Pegasus.
Also, not all telescopes are equipped with such devices. Only the more expensive models offer these features. For many people just starting out, a simple straight-line refractive telescope will show the silent wonder of the Andromeda Galaxy just fine as soon as you train your eye to find Andromeda herself in the night sky. This is much easier in the bright skies of the city.
A telescope is a very important element of learning how to star gaze and view the wonders of the universe, but it is less fun and educational if it is the sole method of observation. Perhaps one day you will be out in the wilderness and lost. Learning how to find the constellations can help you chart a course back to safety. It can also make for brilliant conversation when you are out on a date. Being able to point out the stars and tell a little bit about their highly romantic history is a fine way to spend an evening with someone you care about.
Yes, They Do Work In The City!
The bottom line is that there is a positive answer to the question: Do telescopes work in the city? Yes they do, but they are far more enjoyable when taken as part of a unified effort to learn about the heavens above us. No matter where you live, it is never too late or too unfavorable to start learning about the cosmos. Telescopes open up vistas that are unseen or just barely discernible with the naked eye.
Yet one of the tricks of using a telescope in the city is to know the most propitious time to do it. Later at night after traffic has died down and most people are in their beds is the best time to do your stargazing. Before the moon rises or after it sets also makes a difference, unless you want to look at the moon. In that case, its presence is indispensable. Start out with a simple instrument and a good star book or program, then work your way up to the real hidden wonders. They are there for the city dwellers as well as for the country folks. It just takes a little more work.