If you’ve spent any time at all perusing the headlines, you have undoubtedly heard of the comet Pan-STAARS, and maybe even comet ISON. If you’re like a lot of people, you have probably contemplated buying a telescope. Some free advice…don’t buy that telescope until you read this article!
One of the questions I most frequently get when talking to visitors at our outreach events is “What’s the best telescope to buy?” I’m a software developer by day, so I answer most questions with “It depends.” A good friend of mine, Art Zorka, who recently passed away used to say, “The best telescope is the one you’ll get out and use.” What he meant by that is if it’s too cheap, wobbly, heavy, or complicated, you won’t get it out and use it because you won’t enjoy getting it out and using it. For example, I have an absolutely incredible 5” apochromatic (pronounced “expensive”) refractor that I love to look through, but some nights I’m just too tired to set it up because of its size and the time involved getting everything out. So, I have a smaller telescope for those nights when I just want to look at the moon for a few minutes.
So why would you buy a telescope and not use it? Let’s look at the top 5 reasons I usually hear…
5) What I saw through the telescope didn’t look like what was on the box.
4) It was too complicated to set up.
3) It was too heavy
2) The kids lost interest in it.
1) It broke the first night I used it.
Let’s look at those one by one…
5) What I saw through the telescope didn’t look like what was on the box.
Most “real” telescopes come in boring brown boxes and don’t have incredible deep space images on the box.
Some of these issues can be addressed by setting reasonable expectations. No telescope that you can buy will ever show you things like the Hubble Telescope can. Why? There are two reasons. First, because we’re looking through miles of turbulent atmosphere and the Hubble Telescope isn’t. Second, the human eye isn’t capable of detecting the faint light coming from or reflected by most galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. But there are enough galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, planets, and satellites (e.g. the Moon) that you can see with the right telescope. But, I’ll go into more on that in a bit.
4) It was too complicated to set up…
Regardless of how much we try to simplify using them, telescopes are scientific instruments and have a certain level of complexity to them. There will be a learning curve to using any telescope you buy. Be prepared for this. Don’t buy a telescope for your 8 year old son or daughter and expect him to start using it without some help. It’s a great bonding experience. If you’re looking for a way to spend some quality time with your kids, a telescope can facilitate that.
3) It was too heavy…
My first “real” telescope was a 12″ Dobsonian. It was massive and even had its own spot in the garage because my wife didn’t buy into the idea of keeping it in the dining room. I used it quite a bit, but it weighed over 100 pounds and there were many nights where I was just too tired to lug it out of the garage and set it up. If I had gone with a smaller version of that telescope, I would have used it quite a bit more. If your kids are going to use it, you’ll want to make sure that its light enough that they can set it up on their own if they’re old enough, or at least with a minimum amount of supervision, once they’re interest has grown to the point that it doesn’t depend on your level of interest.
2) The kids lost interest in it…
When I hear this, the parent usually bought their kids a telescope, handed it to them, and walked away. If you want them to have an interest, you’re going to have to cultivate it to some extent. If you’re not willing to do that, save your money and take them to a local astronomy club outing where they can look through some really nice telescopes for free.
1) It broke the first night I used it…
I have fixed many telescopes. Some of them were very nice instruments, some of them were junk. Usually, you get what you pay for. That $20 telescope at the Super Center is usually going to be a waste of money. You’re better off saving your pennies and buying a quality telescope that you’ll be able to use for several years rather than buying something that you’ll throw away. Buying quality doesn’t have to be expensive, but there is a cost entry point, and that’s usually around $75-$100.00. If that just won’t fit into your budget, start going to your local astronomy clubs’ meetings and look through their telescopes for free. Trust me when I say that we love it when visitors show up and look through our “scopes.”
So, what telescope should you buy? Here are a few recommendations. I have no affiliation with any of these companies, by the way.
Celestron Astromaster AZ Series
These telescopes are generally well made, are mostly metal, and have a decent tripod. The AZ series is easy to set up and they start at around $75 and go all the way up to $250. The 70AZ is a good model for looking at the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. The downside to this telescope is that you’ll have to get good at nudging it to keep the object in the eyepiece at high magnification. Remember, the Earth is rotating, so the Moon will appear to drift out of the eyepiece. Bigger versions of this telescope won’t make things look bigger, but they will make them look brighter, allowing you to see more detail. If you want to make things look bigger, use a shorter focal length eyepiece. The higher the number on the eyepiece, the lower the magnification.
Celestron Astromaster EQ Series
Again, generally well made, mostly metal, and with a decent tripod. The EQ series is a little harder to set up, but because it has what we call “setting circles,” finding objects using the Right Ascension/Declination coordinate system is easier. The EQ models also come with what we call “slo-mo” controls, or knobs that you turn to track an object across the sky. Do a search on YouTube and you’ll find dozens of videos on how to set up an equatorially mounted telescope. Celestron also has a very informative and helpful video. It takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to set it up in a few minutes. These models start at around $100 and go all the way up to $300.
Orion Starblast 4.5
This is a very well made telescope that is great for looking at deep space objects like galaxies and nebulae, and ok for looking at the Moon and the Planets. Orion’s technical and customer support, in my experience, is very good. This is a type of telescope known as a Newtonian Reflector, so you’ll eventually have to learn how to collimate it, which is a process to align the mirrors. There are plenty of great resources on YouTube to show you how to do this. It’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds. It should be noted that there’s quite an active online community devoted to customizing these telescopes. People have done some very cool stuff with them, much of it related to improving the functionality and usability of the telescope. It’s important to note that this is a table-top telescope isn’t generally used on a tripod, although it’s possible to mount it on one.
Orion StarMax 90
This is another well made telescope that is ok for looking at deep space objects like galaxies and nebulae, but superb for looking at the Moon and the planets. The optics on this little scope are superb and don’t require collimation. Collimation is the process of lining up the optics so light passes through at a particular angle or on a specific path. It’s not hard to do, but takes a little practice.
Celestron NexStar SLT and LCM Series
This is a line of entry level computerized telescopes that are of generally good quality. These telescopes start at about $200 and go all the way up to $500. The LCM 80 is a good starting point. This is a good, general purpose telescope that is well-suited for looking at just about anything in the sky. When you set it up, you enter the date, the time, your location, then tell it where two stars are by using the arrows in the handset which moves the telescope. Then, the computer does the rest. You can literally pull up The Andromeda Galaxy from the list of “Named Objects” in the handset and the telescope will automatically point to it. The latest version of the firmware, which can be updated by the user, only requires that you point to three bright stars in the sky without even having to know their names. It works, and works surprisingly well!
Ioptron is a relative newcomer to the market, but they have some very nice products. We jokingly refer to these as the “Barbie” telescopes because of the toy-like appearance attributed to the color options, but there’s nothing toy-like about them. They’re well made, accurate, light weight, and easy to set up. The Ioptron firmware isn’t as intuitive as Celestron’s, but it not difficult to use. These telescopes typically start at $300 and go up from there.
Celestron NexStar SE
This is a line of entry level to intermediate, computerized telescopes that are a step up from the SLT and LCM series both in quality and price. They start out at $400 for the 4SE and go all the way up to $1200 for the 8SE. All of the NexStar use the same firmware, so everything about the LCM and SLT telescopes applies here. You can even control your NexStar telescope with your iPhone with the Celestron SkyQ module!
Celestron VX Series
This is a line of intermediate to advanced computerized telescopes that are equatorially mounted. The VX line starts at about $1200 and goes all the way up to $3000 for top of the line optics. Celestron’s firmware for equatorial mounts is hard to beat. Set up isn’t simple, but it’s not all that terribly complicated either. Additionally, this is a great platform for getting into astrophotography. The firmware is a little different than the SLT, LCM, and SE firmware, but the differences are limited to setting up the telescope.
Celestron CGEM Series
These advanced, computerized telescopes are big and heavy and built like tanks. If you plan to use your telescope a lot, consider a telescope like one in the CGEM series that’s built to handle the use. The CGEM starts at $1300 for the mount without a telescope and goes from there. I have a CGEM and love it. But, it’s heavy and I occasionally find myself opting to use a smaller, lighter setup, so keep that in mind if you’re considering one of these. If you’re looking to get into astrophotography, this is generally considered to be the standard entry point for long exposure work. There are, of course, other options, but the CGEM is popular among astrophotographers for a reason.
Ioptron IEQ 30/45
The IEQ 30 and 45 are in the same class as the VX and CGEM series respectively, but are usually sold with the telescope, so you’ll have to buy the OTA or optical tube assembly separately. Like the VX and the CGEM, these telescopes are for the advanced user and I don’t recommend them as a first telescope unless you’re relatively technically inclined and don’t mind climbing a learning curve.
Regardless of what you buy, I would encourage you to spend your money locally. There aren’t a lot of telescope dealers with store fronts left in the country, but they’re out there. In Atlanta area, we like to hang out at Camera Bug. Tim is always eager to help, usually has everything in stock that we need, and his prices are competitive with the online telescope stores. Make sure you tell him Steve sent you (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)!
If it seems like there is a lot of information to digest, that’s because there is. I would encourage you to find an active astronomy club near you and attend a few meetings. Some clubs set up telescopes on the same nights they meet, while others have separate nights dedicated to observing and meeting. Either way, getting involved with a local astronomy club will give you access to a wealth of knowledge and experience that you won’t find anywhere else. I learned more in the first night of hanging out with the Charlie Elliott Chapter of the AAC than I figured out on my own the first two years in the hoibby. You’ll also have the opportunity to look through different types of telescopes and decide what you want. If purchasing a telescope just isn’t in your budget, getting involved with a club will allow you to enjoy the hobby until you can fit a telescope or a pair of binoculars of your own into your budget.
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