Picking the Perfect Telescope
Been thinking about picking out a starter telescope for a son, daughter or significant other? While you can certainly buy them during any time of the year, many people consider it an elaborate gift and therefore wait until the holidays, a birthday or other special occasion to purchase one. Whenever you decide to purchase your first scope, there is definitely more to consider than one might think. This piece will take you through the entire process, including the various aspects to consider and why you probably don’t want to buy one of the standard department store scopes so readily available at this time of year.
Before I get started though, I do have to confess. I have a secret source of information at home. My husband has been an astronomy enthusiast since childhood, and owns several scopes, including a solar one. In addition to constantly answering the “what scope should I buy” question while volunteering as a public outreach scope operator at the University of Arizona’s Flandreau Observatory, I’ve bugged him countless times to sit down and re-explain the basics to me whenever someone in one of my educational discussion groups raises the question. Finally, I decided to give him a break (and a shameless plug for his recently launched astronomy blog) and document the information publicly once and for all. So, without further adieu, here are the main areas you need to consider, as well as an affordable starter scope recommendation.
THE TYPE OF TELESCOPE: In essence, there are three main types of telescopes.
- Those made with lenses (refractor scopes). Technically called “refractors”, they are named so because of what the lenses actually do with the starlight when you view it through the scope. The light is actually bent, or “refracted” when you view it. Lens grinding is apparently far more technical than mirror making, which results in refractors (lens scopes) being a bit on the expensive end.
- Those made with mirrors (reflector scopes). OK, this one’s pretty easy to figure out. The mirrors reflect the light coming into the scope’s tube, which is why they are called “reflectors”. Although sales people at department and general science education stores are rarely able to point out this basic difference to you. For whatever reason, mirror scopes (reflectors) are less expensive to produce. This allows you to spend less money to get a decent amount of something called aperture. (Aperture is basically the diameter of the lens or mirror. The larger the diameter, the more light gathering capability you will have, allowing you to see space objects more clearly.) Another thing to bear in mind with reflector (mirror) scopes is that the greater your aperture, the longer the scope will need to be. The reason for this is really more appropriate for an entirely separate article, but I do think it’s important to be aware you’ll need a tiny bit more storage space. Not really a big deal though.
- Those scopes made with both mirrors and lenses (Cassegrains). These are not necessarily the cheapest scopes on the market, but if you really want to go for the gusto with your first scope, a Cassegrain will (through a process of combining attributes of both lenses and mirrors too complicated to address in this article) allow you some major viewing capability in a smaller size of scope (one that won’t take up your whole living room). In fact, this type of scope was the one that was our living room display / throw in the Jeep for a road trip scope when we were in Arizona. Numerous people didn’t even recognize it as a scope and asked us why we had a stage spotlight in our living room.
Where’s a newbie to start? I’ve asked him his opinion on this numerous times, and the answer remains the same. A reflector. Why? It’s really the least expensive start up option available, at least in the “serious scopes” arena. You may pay less for a basic department store scope, but he doesn’t recommend those to anyone, for reasons I’ll deal with a bit later in the article. For now though, suffice it to say a reflector will give you the greatest viewing capacity for the least money.
THE TYPE OF MOUNT: In general, two main types of telescope mounts are available.
- The Dobsonian Mount. This is basically a swivel and pivot type of set up, with an apparatus on the bottom very similar to a “lazy Susan” (allowing 360 degrees of horizontal movement), and a pivot style adjuster for the vertical angle for the scope. A Dobsonian mount is sturdy and simple to use.
- The Tripod Mount. Most people will at least recognize the general look of this one due to the same general design being used for photography and wildlife viewing. There are a couple of sub-types to the tripod set up, including one known as the “equatorial” which allows actual “tracking” of items in the sky.
My astro guy’s starter mount recommendation? The Dobsonian. Not only is it sturdier and easier to use, the Dobsonian also promotes the learning of basic preliminary astronomy skills, such as learning to track items in the sky yourself rather than having them auto tracked. Many folks assume when shopping for a starter scope that they are doing the recipient a favor by purchasing an equatorial tripod mount when they hear it will “auto track” celestial items they might want to view. In order to even configure the automatic tracking features, people need the basic skills reinforced by the Dobsonian. Basically, you wouldn’t be able to buy a guitar that automatically plays for you. You’d need to learn the skills first. It’s the same with astronomical instruments. Tripods are also more than a little touchy and sensitive to movement. Newcomers to the astronomy hobby may find that a tripod drives them more to drink than to further explore the night skies. Or, in the case of enthusiastic children, it might drive them away from a potential lifelong hobby before they even get started. Dobsonian. Definitely start with a Dobsonian.
DEPARTMENT STORE BUYERS BEWARE:
Why are we uncomfortable recommending the general department store scopes so prevalent at this time of year? In short, these telescopes are barely more than high priced “toys”. Are they totally without merit? No. Technically, you can usually spot Saturn’s rings, a few other night sky objects, do a bit of lunar geography, and maybe check out a few moon craters. But that’s about it. Why? Many of them are the basic 60 mm refractor scopes with very narrow-field eye pieces. People get confused and think it might be a smart purchase because the box (and quite often the uninformed sales person) is advertising “extremely high magnification”. While this might be true, these scopes have almost no aperture (diameter). Remember when I mentioned previously how critical this was to light gathering and seeing objects? Magnification without diameter is basically useless. It’s like looking through a pin hole, which makes it extremely difficult to find any sky objects. This is frustrating for new astronomers of all ages, which will lead to one of two things: quickly wanting a bigger scope, or rapidly abandoning what might have been a lifelong passion. What’s more, with a cost that can run up to a hundred and thirty dollars, you may have a hard time reselling it for a decent price.This is in large part why you see so many of these things at yard sales. Which is where, if you are determined to start off with one of these, you should pick it up. We found one once for five dollars, reconditioned it, and gave it to a friend’s daughter who was just starting to get enthusiastic about exploring the moon. If a child has been demonstrating serious continued interest however, consider picking up a more serious instrument if you are financially able.
A reasonably priced one that Orion is offering right now is this reflector scope on a Dobsonian mount for $239.95. Yes, it’s about a hundred bucks more than a high priced small refractor from the department store. But if the person you are buying it for loses interest, you’ll have a much better chance at reselling it for an excellent price. And although it is designed to be easily used by children, it is still a serious scope that an adult could enjoy. This makes it an excellent scope for the novice astronomer to grow into. It also meets David’s main recommendations for smart money spending on a starter scope: a mirror (reflector) system with a simple swivel (Dobsonian) mount. Do we own one? No. Nor do we make any referral commissions. This is just a simple yet serious viewing instrument we feel is an excellent buy for the money. Bonus? It comes from Orion, which is a reputable company in the industry. Two others are Celestron and Meade.
While no one telescope is perfect for every single purpose or individual, it is my hope that this article will go a long way towards helping you select the perfect start up option for you or your significant someone. Again, a special thanks to my husband for consulting on this one. With my astronomy skill level, it would not have been possible otherwise. Happy star gazing everybody!
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