Tips for Buying a Telescope

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Taking the leap into buying a telescope can be both thrilling and frightening, but it doesn’t have to be. Confused as to what to buy and from where? I’ll walk you through it…

My 10" Orion Dobsonian peering sadly into cloudy skies - Photo By Skip Owens
My 10″ Orion Dobsonian peering sadly into cloudy skies – Photo By Skip Owens

1. Passing Interest or Serious Hobby?

The first question you have to ask yourself is who is this telescope for and for exactly what purpose? Is this is a gift for child who has shown an interest in astronomy or is it for yourself and you know you are “all in” and are dedicated into seriously getting into astronomy? If the telescope is for yourself or another adult and you are looking for a very serious piece of astronomy equipment, then I have a bit of advice for you later, but I can’t possibly answer all of your questions here. However, if the scope is for someone just getting into astronomy the answer is a bit more simple.

2. Binoculars Are an Excellent Place to Start

I did not want to hear this when I got the “bug” and the money to buy my first scope. I was ready to jump right in and buy the biggest and best telescope I could afford. After all, why would anyone settle for binoculars when they could just buy a telescope? It’s quite simple. Binoculars have a very wide field of view, meaning when you look through them you can see a larger portion of the sky than you can through the average eyepiece of a telescope. Ironically, many amateur astronomers spend quite a bit of money adding a “bino-viewer” insert to their telescope as a way to get this incredibly wide field and immersive view with their telescope.

My Trusty Binoculars - Photo by Skip Owens
My Trusty Binoculars – Photo by Skip Owens

Not only does a decent pair of binoculars get you an amazing view of a larger portion of the sky compared to a telescope, but they also make things easier to find. A single object in the sky is easier to get into the field of view of the binoculars than it is to get that same object in the field of view of a telescope. Binoculars are also extremely easy to set up, just hang them around your neck and walk outside with a lawn chair. I just spend this past Friday night at my local astronomy club’s star party, and even though I took over $1000 of telescope equipment out with me I ended up spending just as much time looking through my $20 pair of binoculars and just looking up at the sky with no equipment at all.

If you pair a decent set of binoculars with a guide-book like this one, you will be amazed at how much quality astronomy you can do. It’s a great way to learn your way around the sky, determine if this hobby is really for you and take in some amazing views all at the same time. I would suggest at least 40 mm or larger binoculars, image stabilized are great but expensive and not necessary to get started. You will also want a good guide-book specific to binocular astronomy like this one to help get you started.

3. Avoid Department Store Scopes

My first telescope as a young kid was a Tasco telescope that we bought from a department store. I was able to see the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn but it wasn’t good for much beyond that. Unless you are buying a telescope from a professional astronomy store or photography store you are most likely not getting the most telescope for your money. Most of these “bargain” telescopes come with sub-par optics, very flimsy and unstable mounts (stands or tripods) and they come with non-standard eyepiece barrel diameters so that it makes it nearly impossible to ever buy another eyepiece that will work with your telescope. Just don’t do it.

4. Avoid Go-To Scopes

Although “Go-To” scopes have come a long way in recent years, I still recommend staying away from them for a couple of reasons. A “Go-To” scope is a telescope that has a motorized drive built into the mount that it can both point automatically to any object in the sky for you (with the aid of small computer controller) and it can compensate for the rotation of the Earth so objects don’t move out of the field of view of the eyepiece once you do find them. Sounds great, right? But it adds cost to the telescope, meaning that for the same amount of money you could get a much larger diameter telescope without all the fancy “Go-To” features.

It also adds complication. Even though “Go-To” scopes are becoming easier and easier to calibrate and setup, they do still require a little bit of time spent fiddling with them. If your first telescope is a “Go-To” scope you also don’t learn how to find objects in the sky yourself. There is nothing more satisfying (if you have truly caught the astronomy bug) than finding an object in the sky with just a simple star map and your wits. That being said, if you know you are going into astronomy for the long haul and want to do astrophotography, then you are going to need some kind of motorized mount anyway so “Go-To” may be the right path for you.

5. Ditch the Traditional Finder Scope

If you stay with the manual approach then I have two pieces of advice for you. Whatever scope you end up buying, remove the small “finder scope” that comes attached to the outside of the main telescope and replace it with a TelRad viewfinder instead. The best way to find objects quickly and learn the night sky all the same time is to “star hop.” This is a method where you use relatively bright stars and hop from one easily found star to the next using them like breadcrumbs to find your way to your final target. This method is so much easier when you don’t use a magnified finder.

Use a TelRad finder instead. A TelRad projects a kind of heads-up display in the form of a few red concentric circles. The circles are a way for you visualize the field of view of what you will be seeing once you look through the eyepiece of the telescope. Once you have done the initial calibration of the TelRad on a bright object (i.e centered it) you just move the telescope until the center of the red circles are on your target… just like a bullseye. It is so much easier to learn how to find objects using a TelRad than it is a standard finder scope.

Typical finder scopes project an inverted image, so you have to get used to seeing everything in the finder upside down compared to how they look when just looking up with the naked eye. Not being able to find objects with a new telescope is the number one reason people only use their telescopes once or twice and then let them collect dust. Start with the star hopping method and a TelRad and skip the frustration.

You will also want to buy a good set of star charts, preferably ones that have been laminated so when you are out at night the dew doesn’t ruin them. I ended up making my own by printing out these charts made specifically for use with a TelRad and laminating them at home and having them spiral-bound at a local office store. If you don’t have a laminator at home your local printing store can do that for you also.

TelRad View Finder with Printed Star Charts - Photo by Skip Owens
TelRad View Finder with Printed Star Charts – Photo by Skip Owens

6. A Good Starter Scope

If you roll up everything I just wrote about above, one of the best options I can give you as an entry-level telescope (especially for a kid) is the 4.5″ Orion Fun Scope. Don’t let the name and nifty graphics on the tube of the scope fool you; this is a very capable telescope. I know a lot of serious amateurs that will still go pull this out of the closet because it gives them a very quick and simple yet quality view of the cosmos (Orion has changed the name of this scope, it used to be called the Star Blast).

The Fun Scope has all of the qualities I just talked about: a manual drive (i.e. human-powered), with a very stable dobsonian base, a very adequate 4.5″ primary mirror, and a non-magnified finder that will allow for easy star hopping. This is the telescope I wish existed when I was a kid instead of the Tasco I was stuck with. This isn’t a throwaway telescope. Even if you or your child really take off into the hobby of astronomy, this little scope will serve you well for many years to come.

7. And If You Want Something a Little Bigger…

If you already know that astronomy is your thing and have a pretty good idea the type of telescope and mount that you want, I have one more piece of advice for you. It’s okay to buy your telescope from a specialized brick-and-mortar style telescope store… yes, they still exist.

Years ago I lived in Laurel, Maryland, and while I was there I spent quite a bit of time in a telescope shop called Company Seven. Company Seven has an amazing reputation as THE place to go when you want to buy a telescope. Sadly, I didn’t have the funds to purchase a telescope while I lived just down the street. However, a few years later when I was ready to buy I called them up and bought my telescope direct from them.

What’s the advantage of the doing this? They order the scope for you and have it shipped to their store where they perform a few quick checks to make sure the primary mirror is in good shape and the tube, mount, and accessories are as they should be. As a first-time scope buyer, having that kind of experience on your side is huge. A word of warning though: dealing with Company Seven is a bit like traveling back in time. Their website looks like it is from 1999 (because it is, it hasn’t changed since I lived in Laurel) and they don’t believe in electronic ordering over the Internet. When it is time to make your purchase you will either need to fax (yes, they still exist) them your order form or pick up the phone and call them directly. This may seem strange, but there is a reason for this. They want to make sure you get what you really want and a slick modern internet storefront won’t ensure that happens. Sometimes you just need to talk to an actual human and this is one of those times.

In summary, advice on buying a telescope is extremely hard to capture in a way that fits everyone… it just can’t be done. The above advice is good for someone just getting into astronomy or has a curiosity and wants to give it a test run. Each telescope and mounting system out there has a slightly different purpose, so if your interests are very specific then so some homework on what types of scopes are best suited for the types of objects that interest you. I also highly recommend that you find a local astronomy club and attend a few of their public star parties. Head on over the night sky network website and go spend some time with a local astronomy club before you make a major telescope purchase. I spent about a year going to my local club’s star parties before I bought my first telescope (okay, second scope if you count that Tasco from my childhood).

Other than that, keep looking up and enjoy the night sky!

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