Are you fascinated by the night time sky? Have you spent hours memorizing and locating the constellations? Perhaps it's time to purchase your first telescope.
But how do you choose which one to buy? There are so many on the market. Telescopes cost anywhere from under $100 to tens of thousands! As a new astronomy enthusiast, you don't want to purchase a terrible scope, but you don't want to spend thousands of dollars on a piece of equipment you may not use too often. This guide will help you pick the right telescope for your level of enthusiasm and budget.
Before you decide on whether or not you want to purchase a telescope, ask yourself these questions...
- Have I ever looked through a telescope before? If the answer is no, stop reading and go observe the sky through one. You will be either amazed or disappointed. Better find out if a telescope provides the experience you're hoping for.
- Do I live in an area where I can see the stars? A telescope can't work miracles. If there are so many lights you can't see any stars, neither will your telescope.
- Can I, or can someone help me, lift a telescope? Telescopes can get pretty bulky. If you can't haul a telescope around, you won't use it.
- Have I been interested in stargazing for a while?
If you answered yes to all of these questions, continue reading to help yourself make a decision.
The types of telescopes
There are 3 main types of telescopes. Let's discuss them here.
- Refractors. Refractor telescopes gather the light from the stars and reflect them into the eyepiece with one mirror. They tend to have less aperture (explained below) for a similarly priced reflector, but the image quality is better. Refractors are best for looking at objects within the solar system like the moon, planets, and comets.
- Reflectors. Reflectors have more aperture than similarly priced refractors but the image quality isn't as clear. Since more aperture is needed to view deep space objects, such as galaxies and star clusters, reflectors are best for viewing objects outside the solar system.
- Cassegrains. Cassegrains look like a cross between a reflector and a refractor. They are basically reflectors with shorter tubes. The tube can be shorter because a more complex series of mirrors are used to get starlight to the eyepiece. This makes them more portable. Although Cassegrains are lighter and smaller, that convenience comes with a high price tag. Novice astronomers are advised to avoid Cassegrains. A similarly sized Dobsonian reflector will be at least half the price of a Cassegrain.
Though there are many types of telescopes, they all share some common features.
- Aperture. Aperture is how big the objective lens to your telescope is. The larger the aperture, the more light your telescope takes in. The more light you take in, the brighter objects will be. A typical refractor will be about 120mm (2.5 inches) in diameter while a typical reflector will be 6-8 inches in diameter.
- Magnification Power. Some telescope manufacturers will advertise a 60mm telescope as having 625x power. Do not purchase telescopes with such claims. Telescopes that have a high ratio of aperture to power will make your images very blurry. Magnification power should be no more than the aperture multiplied by 2. A 60 mm refractor can only magnify objects about 120x before the images become too distorted.
- Eye pieces. The eyepiece is the most important part to your telescope. Without it, you won't be able to see objects in the sky. The subject of eyepieces can get quite complex, but we'll keep it simple. Basically higher powered eyepieces make images brighter and crisper, but your field of view is smaller.
Choosing the right telescope
- Mounts. Every telescope needs a sturdy mount. If the mount is flimsy, you will have a difficult time keeping the scope steady enough to view a particular object. In a worst case scenario, the mount could bust and your telescope might fall and break when it hits the ground.
Choosing your first telescope depends on a number of factors. The most important ones are...
Ease of transport. If you only need to haul the telescope a few feet when you want to stargaze, you can purchase a larger one. On the other hand, if you need to pack it into your car and drive to a light-free area, you’re going to want a smaller one.
Evaluate your experience level. If you’ve been looking through a neighbor’s telescope and are genuinely interested, go ahead and purchase one that you know you will like. If you’ve only looked through one once or twice, either look through someone else’s a bit more or purchase some decent astro-binoculars. Decent binoculars can be purchased for under $200.
Cost. Telescopes aren’t cheap. The cheapest high quality models are at least $300. If you’ve got less than $250, you may want to look into binoculars. Preferably, you should have at least $400 to spend on a high quality scope.
Size. Bigger is definitely better, but smaller is more likely to get used. That’s because big telescopes are bulky and a pain to haul around. A small scope won’t give you as much light gathering ability but will probably get used more often. Leave the big scopes to the diehard enthusiasts and buy one you know won’t be a hassle to transport.
Quality. Buy a telescope from a reputable company like Orion. A cheap scope found in a department store will give you the optical quality of a scratched-up pair of glasses. Astronomy magazine offers telescopes from the most reputable companies.
If you want the most aperture for your money, look into an Orion Dobsonian. Dobsonians have simple yet reliable mounts that are inexpensive. A 6 inch Dobsonian will cost about $300, a perfect price for a first scope.
Have fun with the scope you get. Telescopes will reveal heavenly bodies most people have never seen. Enjoy the time spent outside viewing countless numbers of stars and galaxies. It's an experience many don't know the joys of.
Jason Kay recommends searching for telescopes on Amazon and ebay. Both sites often contain great telescope deals.