Top Ten Tips for Buying a Telescope – AstroGear Today
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The three main types of telescopes on the market, from left to right: a Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector, a Newtonian reflector, and a compact refractor. Credit: Alan Dyer

If you are in the market for a fine first telescope, here are tips I think most veteran stargazers would agree are wise guidelines to follow. They will help you get the best value for your money, rather than a telescope that never gets used again after a disappointing first night out.

Learning the sky first with binoculars and a guidebook helps you get much more out of a telescope when you’re ready to buy. Credit: Alan Dyer

TIP 1: Don’t Buy a Telescope!

Advice in my previous Ten Steps to Success article on AGT also applies here as a number one top tip when buying a telescope. In short, don’t! Not until you are ready.

You buy a telescope and excitedly set it up. Now what are you going to look at? The Moon is easy to find and spectacular! But after that? Do you know where the planets are?

Even if you buy a high-tech telescope that promises to find celestial wonders for you, getting it going often requires that you correctly identify bright stars. Telescopes that can auto-align without you “having to know a star in the sky” can still leave you lost in space, wondering what to look at. Do you know what a Messier object is? And which ones are best to look at?

Getting the most out of any telescope requires you have a basic familiarity with the sky. You’re ready for a telescope when: 1) You can identify the brightest stars by name, 2) Find the major planets, and 3) Point to the main constellations, and 4) to the locations of popular targets such as the Andromeda Galaxy and Orion Nebula.

That pre-requisite “Astro 101” knowledge comes from first spending a few months exploring the sky with a simple star chart, guidebook, and binoculars. Don’t spend money; spend time. That’s true whether you are buying for yourself or for a child. Help them (and you!) learn the sky first in family stargazing sessions under the stars. Discover the sky together.

Simulations of views of Jupiter and the Orion Nebula through a typical backyard telescope, showing what you can expect to see. Credit: Alan Dyer
TIP 2: Temper Your Expectations!

Lured by images from Hubble and NASA planet probes, and by colorful photos taken by amateur astronomers that grace social media, many buyers expect that’s what they’ll see in the eyepiece of a telescope. Sorry!

Planets will be small, and distant objects such as galaxies and glowing nebulas will all be colorless. Even with the aid of a telescope, such deep-sky objects are not bright enough to excite the color receptors in your eye.

To discover what a telescope can show, seek out a star party staged by a local astronomy club, planetarium, or observatory. You might be impressed with the views. Or not! Either way, it’s free! A hastily chosen telescope is not.

An old telescope ad: Wow! It’s 450 power! Pity they won’t see a thing through it, as the scope is set up all wrong, a common problem with beginners using such equatorial mounts. Credit: Alan Dyer

 TIP 3: Ignore Magnification Claims

When you are shopping, ignore any and all claims about how powerful a telescope is. In fact, dismiss any telescope model (likely ones on show at your local big box store, or sold for appealing prices at on-line retailers) that is advertised on the basis of magnification: “Powerful 500x Observatory Telescope!” Such claims are sure signs the telescope is junk. That’s the rule. Trust me.

The magnification of a telescope is unimportant. By changing eyepieces any scope can be made to magnify by anyamount required. Powers of 25x to 150x are all you need. Over 200x even good telescopes often can’t provide sharp images anyway, as all scopes are limited by the blurring effects of our atmosphere.

What’s important is the aperture — the diameter of the main lens or mirror that collects and focuses the light. The bigger the aperture, the brighter and sharper the view. As a general rule, a refractor with a 70mm (2.8-inch) aperture or a reflector with a 100mm (4-inch) aperture are the minimum sizes for a decent starter scope. A 150mm (6-inch) reflector can show enough to keep you occupied for years, and for just $250 to $350 for no-frills models.

Refractors (left) use a front-mounted lens to gather light; reflectors (right) use a mirror at the bottom of the tube, which reflects light back up to a small diagonal mirror at top. Credit: Alan Dyer
TIP 4: Don’t Fret over Refractor vs. Reflector
Ask Facebook advisors about which of the two main types of telescope is better and you are bound to spark endless debate and incite Facebook fisticuffs! Refractors use lenses; reflectors use mirrors. Each has its fans. And detractors. Refractors are compact, durable, and easier to maintain (and they look like telescopes!), while reflectors offer more aperture for the money. Either style can provide excellent views and years of satisfying use. There is no one best type (or brand!) of telescope, despite what fans on Facebook might insist. The best telescope for you will depend on your circumstances, site, and budget.
These 80mm and 90mm refractors from (L to R) Explore Scientific, Meade and Orion are good starter scopes that are sturdy, sharp, and simple to set up and use. Credit: Alan Dyer
TIP 5: Portability is Paramount

There is a best telescope — it is any scope you will use most often. Period. The biggest and fanciest telescope is of no value if it never gets out under the stars to show you anything, likely because it is too much effort to set up, or too big to lug around the backyard or out to the car.

As per Tip 6, a smaller, lighter telescope will likely be used more often than a big scope. Yes, the latter’s wider aperture can show you more, but only if it gets set up and used. Don’t become afflicted with “aperture fever,” buying more telescope than you can handle.

The Celestron Nexstar SE6 Schmidt-Cassegrain provides good aperture in a compact, portable scope with computerized “GoTo” finding ability. Credit: Alan Dyer

TIP 6: Consider Your Site

First-time buyers often get entranced by specs and features, forgetting the most important factor to consider: where will they use their scope? If your primary site is a light-polluted backyard, then the Moon and planets are likely to be your main targets. A large-aperture (more than 6-inch) telescope is partly overkill. Even a 6-inch reflector might be too long or heavy to be practical at your site, or to fit into your car and still take the family!

On the other hand, if your main site is a darker rural location where fainter deep-sky objects will be seen to advantage, and you don’t have to haul a scope far, then by all means go for a bigger scope that will show those objects well.

But for use in most suburban backyards, a smaller (under 8-inch) scope might be best. It can be carried out to the yard more easily, for quick sessions when clouds clear and to move around the yard to avoid trees and lights.

The Sky-Watcher Heritage 150 (left) is a compact, tabletop reflector on a simple-to-use Dobsonian mount. The Celestron AstroMaster 130 (right) has a complex equatorial mount that can be hard to aim, as parts collide in many positions of the mount. Credit: Alan Dyer

TIP 7: Keep It Simple, but Solid

Telescopes with mounts that sport all manner of dials, knobs and locks look high-tech and scientific. I’m talking here about the equatorial mounts sold with many beginner scopes. In practice many can be hard to use, align and aim, and are often shaky. Ditto on mounts on very low-cost scopes that are no more than flimsy camera tripods. Avoid those. A wobbly mount or tripod will be a constant frustration, no matter how attractive the price might be.

Computerized scopes are tempting and can indeed find and track things for you — but only if they are set up and aligned correctly. Many beginners find the process a challenge. Contrary to what you might expect, such scopes cannot find things at the mere flick of a switch. Few are that automatic. Most “GoTo” scopes require you start with some skills and knowledge, as per Tip 1.

The Celestron StarSense DX102 series offers computerized aiming using your phone, without the complexity of GoTo alignment and the cost of motorized scopes. Credit: Alan Dyer

TIP 8: Start Modest, Then Upgrade

No one telescope can do it all. An 80mm to 100mm refractor or a 130mm to 150mm reflector on a basic but sturdy mount is a great, economical way to start. Use it for a couple of years. If you get hooked on stargazing, and develop a passion to pursue a specialized goal, then upgrade to a bigger or more complex scope later. Your faithful first scope will still have its use for quick “grab-and-go” sessions. Or it will retain value as a used scope to sell, or to pass along to a new aspiring astronomer.

When shopping, look for these features as signs of a good starter telescope. Just as important as the optics is the mount, and the ease of aiming it at targets in the sky. Credit: Alan Dyer

TIP 9: Buy Locally for the Service

Yes, on-line retailers offer tempting prices and free shipping, but if there’s a problem with the scope, or you just need advice on how to use it, the big box supplier will be of no service to you.

If there is a telescope store in your area, do buy from them. They will provide invaluable service both before and after the sale. And chances are their prices aren’t much different than what the on-line outlets sell for. And please do not “showroom” — asking a local dealer to spend their time advising you, then buying from another outlet with no after-sale service just because they are 5% cheaper.

For those who wish to delve into long exposures of deep-sky objects, a low-cost star tracker like this Star Adventurer 2i is a great way to start in astrophotography. AGT has reviews of several models. Credit: Alan Dyer

TIP 10: Forget Photography

A common quest of newcomers is for that mythical telescope that can do it all: provide excellent views of all kinds of objects, and allow them to connect their camera for fabulous photos just like they see on the web. All for $250!

Forget it. A good telescope rig for astrophotography can cost upwards of $2,000, or much more! And the best scope for imaging isn’t necessarily the model that will provide the best views visually. Certainly not for the budget of most beginners. And as a rule, entry-level scopes don’t have mounts and drives good enough for the demands of imaging.

Impressive shots of the Moon can be taken with a phone camera using any telescope (some models come with adapters for attaching a phone). However, the photos many beginners aspire to shoot require complex and costly gear beyond what any novice stargazer should consider.

Keep it simple and enjoy just looking through your new telescope. It opens up a vast universe to explore by eye that you’ll never exhaust in a lifetime of viewing.

You’ll find many reviews of telescopes for all budgets and interests here at AstroGearToday.com. Check them out to help you make a choice. Start with some articles for getting started selected by AGT Editor Mike Simmons.

NOTE: This article is based on buying tips and a market survey included in Chapter 7 of new edition of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer.

 

About Alan Dyer

Alan Dyer is an astrophotographer and astronomy author based in Alberta, Canada. His website at www.amazingsky.com has galleries of his images, plus links to his product review blog posts, video tutorials, and ebooks on astrophotography.

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