Ryan Wick/Flickr

Ready to buy a telescope? Good for you! A telescope can be your gateway to a lifelong journey of learning and exploration. This guide will help you get on your way, and help you avoid common mistakes.

Before you do anything, it helps to do the following:

  • Learn to recognize a few constellations in the night sky, without any optical aid. It can help to get a star atlas. There are also apps for your phone to teach you the night sky.
  • Visit an astronomy club, and attend one of their public star parties. An hour to two spent looking through and using a variety of telescopes under real-world conditions is one of the best investments you can make.

The more time you spend doing the above, the easier a time you’re going to have when you finally go shopping. 

  • Don’t have a lot of money? Try these two tips: First, buy a pair of binoculars. Cheap binoculars are almost always a better buy than cheap telescopes. Second, see if your local library has a telescope for loan (in my home state of New Hampshire, over 150 libraries now have telescopes to loan out.)

Ready for a bona-fide telescope of your own?  Keep these things in mind:

  • All other things being equal, buy the telescope with the largest aperture (opening.) A telescope is a light-gathering device. The more light the telescope gathers, the more you will see.
  • Most amateurs start with a telescope with an aperture of 6” to 8”. Such a telescope will be enough to show you the craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn, the moons and cloud belts on Jupiter, star clusters, and the brighter nebulas and galaxies.
  • Telescopes come in two types of mounts – the alt-az (a simple up/down/left/right manual motion device) and the equatorial (a electronically-driven device that tracks the stars.) Many beginners, when hearing of this difference, often state that they prefer the equatorial mount, but beware. These devices are heavier, more complicated, and involve more setup time.
  • Modern telescopes often have computerized mounts that will locate objects automatically at the touch of a button. Again, if you buy one of these, you must spend a little extra time learning the menus and the operating system.

Two additional caveats:

  • Stay away from telescopes in department stores.  Such telescopes are often little more than toys. Buy from a dedicated telescope dealer.
  • Do NOT look at the sun without proper filtration.  Serious and permanent damage to your eyes can result. Safe solar filters are available for those who are interested in solar observing.

Expect to spend $300 – $750 on a manual alt-az telescope, and upwards of $1000 for a computerized model. Whatever you buy, be sure and get out under the night sky and start exploring!



Above: New observers using an Orion XT8 reflector telescope for the first time.

Image: Ed Ting

 

About Ed Ting

Ed Ting is a well-known amateur astronomer. His work has appeared in Sky & Telescope, Night Sky, Skywatch, Amateur Astronomy, Discover, and Popular Mechanics magazines. His web site, www.scopereviews.com, is a widely-read telescope review web site. He is a National Science Foundation Ambassador to Chile and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

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