Tips for When You Make Your Telescope Purchase
by Susan & Alan French
Many first time telescope buyers are people who have had a long simmering interest in astronomy, but know little about telescopes or what to expect from them. If this sounds like you, please do not buy a telescope before you have done a little research! There are many poor quality yet relatively expensive telescopes available. We love amateur astronomy and it is very disturbing when a poorly chosen first telescope turns off an enthusiastic novice.
The best way to learn about telescopes is to visit a “Star Party” – a gathering of amateur astronomers and their telescopes. Our club schedules public Star Parties in at the George Landis Arboretum in Esperance (Sue & Alan French). The club also holds Star Parties east of the Tri-Cities at Shaver Pond Environmental Center in Grafton Lakes State Park and other locales (Bernard Cognon, 658-9144). At all these gatherings a variety of telescopes are set up to view the night sky. Attending a Star Party is an ideal way to learn about the various types of telescopes and what they can show you, and to get some expert advice.
Nightwatch, by Terence Dickinson (Camden House Publishing, Camden East, Ontario, Canada) is an excellent introduction to amateur astronomy and includes a chapter called “Stargazing Equipment”. For more detailed information try, The Backyard Astronomers Guide, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer (Camden House). Starware, by Phil Harrington, is a comprehensive guide to commercial telescopes. Building Your Own Telescope, by Richard Berry (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York) gives plans for five fine telescopes that almost anyone can build!
Astronomy and Sky & Telescope have done product reviews on a variety of telescopes. The reports are worth reading – especially if they cover a telescope you are interested in – but they often seem a little kinder to the products than they deserve. Check your local library for these magazines. You can search for articles by visiting the Sky & Telescope Web Site, where you can also download articles for a small fee (www.skyandtelescope.com).
Both magazines also have listings of astronomy conventions. There are several within easy driving distance of our area and they provide further opportunities to see and learn about telescopes, and have a good time under the night sky.
There are several web sites that feature reviews of telescopes. These include Ed Ting’s popular Scope Reviews (www.scopereviews.com), Cloudy Nights (www.cloudynights.com), and Astromart (www.astromart.com).
Please do not rely only on the opinions of others. While they can provide some wonderful advice and good insights into particular telescopes, they should only serve as a starting point. The only person who can decide which telescope is right for you is you.
The best value for the money and a popular starting scope is a Newtonian reflector on a Dobsonian mount (often just called a “Dobsonian”). This is an excellent choice if you are interested in visual observing and have no interest in astrophotography. We suggest a 6″ or 8″ as a first scope. This is enough aperture to start showing a lot of lunar and planetary detail, and enough light grasp to do a good job on nebulae, galaxies, star clusters, and other “deep sky” objects. Many consider the jump to an 8″ well worth the extra expense.
The Dobsonian is very easy to make yourself using commercial parts. You probably would not save any money by making it yourself, but you can make a better telescope than you can buy and it is a very interesting project. There are people in the club who would be happy to assist you in making your own telescope.
Many first time telescope buyers want to try astrophotography. Unfortunately, the requirements for doing photography through a telescope are more severe than for visual use. Getting into astrophotography requires a steadier mount and better drive, and generally precludes the simple and inexpensive Dobsonian mount. Many people who buy a scope with photography in mind never do any. We recommend buying a visual scope first, and getting into astrophotography with tripod mounted shots and inexpensive barn-door tracking devices. (For more on astrophotography, see the latest edition of The Backyard Astronomers Guide.)
If you do decide you want to do some astrophotography with a telescope, a Schmidt-Cassegrain would be a good choice. It is a versatile telescope, and is also a fine visual instrument. They are an excellent value for the money and are a popular choice for a first telescope. Both Meade and Celestron offer a range of apertures and computer control is common.
People with an interest in extreme portability or in a scope that can also be used for nature study and other terrestrial viewing often pick a small refractor with a short focal length. The high end and expensive versions provide the most performance in their sizes. The provide the ability to show wide, low power views and work very well at high powers.
There is a robust mail order market selling telescopes. Sky & Telescope and Astronomy have numerous ads for manufacturers and dealers. There is a good market for used telescopes, and many are listed on the Web at www.astromart.com and www.cloudynights.com. If you follow their guidelines, purchasing a used telescope through the mail is generally low risk.