Buying Your First Telescope: Advice from the Experts

Amateur astronomers observe the crescent Moon and Mars. Credit: Babak Tafreshi/Dreamview.net

Choosing a beginner’s telescope is a daunting task, but with a little guidance you can choose something that is perfect for your needs. AGT spoke with two experts* to get tips for beginners. Here’s an edited version of what they had to say.

Philip Plait, “The Bad Astronomer” on Syfy

I am commonly asked, “What kind of telescope should I get?” but this is like asking someone you don’t know “What kind of car should I get?” It depends on what your goals are! Do you want to see the planets and the moon? Then you’ll want a small refractor, which can magnify objects better than reflectors. But if you want to see fainter nebulae, big galaxies, and clusters, then you’ll want a reflector, which is stronger at gathering light.

But there are more questions to think about. How much are you willing to spend? Is the learning curve a big issue for you? Would you rather find these objects yourself or have the telescope automatically point to them for you? How much space do you have to store it? (That’s a more important question than you might think, since some ‘scopes get big and there are accessories to store as well).

Your best bet, like buying a car, is trying out different ‘scopes before taking the plunge. Normally I suggest attending star parties or local astronomy club/society meetings, but with the virus everywhere I certainly can’t recommend that!

An easier jump for a beginning observer is a good pair of binoculars. Binoculars are typically less expensive, afford a great view of big bright things like the Orion Nebula (M42) and Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and are also useful during the day to watch birds and other wildlife. I keep a pair by my window all the time for that reason.

When you use a telescope, whatever you choose, don’t expect to see things like you do on the web – sprawling gas clouds lit up with a hundred different colors. Through the eyepiece, most objects are subtle, and take practice and patience to see well. But that patience pays off when you see your first faint nebula, the moons of Uranus, or features on the Moon that come and go with its phases. A little time behind the eyepiece is a small price to pay for, literally, the Universe!

Kelly Beatty, Senior Editor, Sky & Telescope magazine

Anyone looking to buy a first telescope should remember one important “don’t” and two important “dos”.

First, don’t buy a telescope from someplace that doesn’t specialize in telescopes, such as “big box” stores, eBay, Amazon, and even camera shops. If you’re not very familiar with telescopes, then you’re going to need some honest advice.

The first do is to seek out a local astronomy club. Ideally, you can tag along some night when its members get together to observe. This not only lets you pick their collective brains about telescopes and accessories, but it also lets you look through different telescopes to get a feel for their performance and function. The second do, especially if getting to a local club isn’t possible, is to contact one of the dozens of manufacturers and retailers that really know telescopes. Sure, they’ll want you to buy their products, but they’re going to work with you to make sure you have a scope that’s well suited to your needs — and they’ll stand behind their products.

No matter what telescope you buy, take it outside to practice with it during the daytime. Trying to figure out how to switch eyepieces, or which knob does what, while fumbling around in the dark is bound to frustrate you. Instead, go out in daylight and focus on some distant trees to make sure your finder is aligned with the main scope. If you end up buying a computerized “go-to” telescope, run through the setup procedure during the daytime to understand how the computer works, and what inputs you’ll need to make. Your scope won’t care that no stars are visible. It will still go through the alignment as if there were.

Remember that virtually every new telescope comes with just one inexpensive eyepiece — two if you’re lucky. Once you get comfortable with using your scope, consider upgrading the eyepieces. Doing that can make a huge difference in the quality of what you’ll see. Good eyepieces can serve you well for a lifetime, because they’re designed to be used with virtually any telescope. It’s like buying your first car and then upgrading to Michelin tires.

How-to books can be great resources for helping you learn about telescopes, but they can only take you so far in teaching you how to be an educated and even savvy telescope buyer. So seek out reviews of various telescopes, whether online or in magazines. A detailed review can help you know what to look for, and what to avoid. For example, you can tell a lot about the stability of a telescope’s mount by just tapping the side of the tube while you’re looking into the eyepiece. If the view shakes for more than a second or two, move on to something else!

My favorite book for someone who’s a first-time scope owner is Turn Left at Orion by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis. For something a little deeper, I suggest Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe by Terence Dickinson.

More to help you choose a telescope from telescope guru Ed Ting of ScopeReviews.com: on AstroGear Today:

Comparing Telescope Types

Buying Your First Telescope

A Closer Look at Reflectors

A Closer Look At Refractors

A Closer Look at Catadioptric (Compound) Telescopes

A Beginner’s Guide to Telescope Eyepieces

*Our experts:

Phil Plait is an astronomer, author, and science communicator. Phil has worked as part of the Hubble Space Telescope team, as well as engaging in public outreach advocacy for NASA missions. He wrote and hosted Crash Course Astronomy, was the head science writer of Bill Nye Saves the World on Netflix, and has appeared as a talking head on approximately a bazillion Discovery Channel shows. He currently writes the Bad Astronomy blog on SyFy where he covers the entire Universe: Real science, astronomy, space exploration, and even the politics of science. Phil

Kelly Beatty joined the staff of Sky and Telescope magazine in 1974 and served as the editor of Night Sky, a magazine for beginning stargazers. Kelly conceived and edited The New Solar System, a standard reference among planetary scientists. He taught astronomy for six years at the Dexter Southfield School in Brookline, Massachusetts. Kelly has received many honors for his contributions to the science of astronomy and science journalism. He is a regular guest on The Weather Channel and National Public Radio, and his work has appeared in numerous other magazines, newspapers, and encyclopedias.

 

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is one of the few science journalists in Canada to focus on space exploration, with bylines in dozens of publications in the United States and Canada. She has attended several human spaceflight launches in Florida and Kazakhstan, and simulated a Red Planet mission at the Mars Desert Research Station. She also teaches technical writing and does consulting.

Related posts