As experienced amateur astronomers we are often asked, "What telescope should I buy?" However that question would be better phrased as follows, "What telescope should I buy that meets my needs and budget?" The key words are 'Needs' and 'Budget.'
You can certainly find a lot of information on the internet about buying a telescope, especially a beginner telescope. Not all of it is necessarily in your best interest, though. I started out in 2004 as a complete beginner and have slowly worked up to a level of experience and knowledge where I am able to teach others how to get started by running the Raleigh Astronomy Club's Telescope Tune Up Clinics for the past several years. Let me share my own experience with you in hopes of saving you a lot of time, money and frustration.
A FEW KEY POINTS:
I would be remiss if I did not at least try to convince to you start out in astronomy with just a good set of binoculars. This was the advice I was given and I promptly ignored; I just wanted a telescope! I find a lot of beginners also feel like I did, they really want a telescope and do not see any value in using binoculars to start. By the way, I eventually bought two pairs of binoculars and really enjoy sometimes just observing with them and not using a telescope.
If you follow in my foot steps and jump right into buying a telescope, be sure you understand aperture. Aperture is the size of the main mirror or lens, this is usually the diameter of the opening or clear part of the telescope. The larger the aperture the more light a telescope collects. Contrary to popular belief, an astronomical telescopeâ€™s main purpose is to gather light not magnify. So the more light your scope gathers, the dimmer the object you can see in your telescope. You will want to maximize the aperture for your given needs, budget and portability/storage requirements.
For more great advice on getting your first telescope, here is a great video on purchasing tips for you to view. Our own Raleigh Astronomy Club member, Doug Lively, was interviewed for this segment on a local Raleigh TV show, http://www.mycarolinatoday.com/2010/08/telescope-101/.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
Which is the best type of telescope to get? That is a lot like asking, "I want to buy a screwdriver, what is the best kind?" The correct answer is "that all depends on what screws you will be using, Phillips, Slottled, Allen, etc." Below are some questions you need to ask yourself in order to guide you to the best telescope for your individual needs:
- How much should I spend? The sky can be the limit here so you need to set a realistic budget. There are good scopes available even for modest budgets. However you should devote at least 25% of your budget for accessories like eyepieces, reference material (charts, books, planispheres, etc.). You can always purchase additional accessories later but you will need a few eyepieces and other basics to start.
- What do I want to look at? Do I want to get into astrophotography? The rationale behind this question is that certain types of telescopes are better for viewing certain objects than others. Also, certain equipment is better suited for astrophotography.
- Where will I use my telescope? Will I use my telescope in overly light polluted skies, suburban skies or very dark skies? Even the biggest aperture telescope cannot compensate for light polluted skies. On the other hand even a small aperture telescope under really dark skies will amaze you.
- How portable does my telescope need to be? Do you live in an apartment on the 3rd floor or in a house with a good sized garage for storage? Carrying an 8' Dobsonian scope up and down several flights of stairs will get very tiring very quickly. Does your telescope (and gear) need to fit in your car for transportation to other sites?
- How much "help" do I want from my telescope? Some telescopes automatically calibrate themselves and with very little input from you and align themselves quite accurately. These fully automated scopes are almost fool proof and will find objects for you and track them as the Earth rotates. However this may not be the best way to learn the night sky. Other telescopes have motors that once you find the object through the telescope, the motors will keep up with the rotation of Earth. Still other scopes are completely manual and you must do all the finding and tracking. Naturally, the more automation, generally the more money you will spend.
The first question addresses how much you want to spend. If you set your budget too low, you get into a price point where the quality of telescopes is just plain poor. You'll be hard pressed to find quality telescopes on the used marked for less than $150.00 and brand new under $250. Don't be afraid to buy used, just make sure it's coming from someone who knows about the telescope and astronomy, took care of the telescope and is reputable. Sites like www.cloudynights.com and www.astromart.com are great sites for buying used equipment. In a nutshell, be prepared to spend at least $200 for a used telescope and accessories and at least $300 if you by new.
On the otherhand, it is possible to over spend. The last thing you want to do is spend $2,400 on a full featured telescope only to realize astronomy is not your cup of tea.
Remember to earmark about 25% for accessories like eyepieces, barlows, charts/planispheres and dew prevention.
Types of Telescopes:
The second question is targeting what type of telescope will best fit your needs. There are 3 main types of telescopes: Refractor, Reflector and Compound or Catadioptric. Rather than go into the differences here, there is great 4 minute video on YouTube posted by Orion that best explains the differences between the types. Check it out by clicking > HERE.
Each type of telescope has its pros and cons. Some telescopes excel at planetary observation while others are more suited to deep sky work. However since many beginners will not know what objects they will prefer to view, it's hard to try and make the decision to by which telescope. Therefore I recommend not even worrying about that just yet. Instead, focus on the portability and ease of set up. Certain scopes are more portable than others and certain mounts are easier to set up than others. Dobsonian reflectors are the easiest to set up but tend to be the biggest of the scopes but also offer the most bang for your buck.. Catadioptrics are the most compact type of telescope and are considered the 'jack of all trades' telescope but they are more expensive. Refractors offer some of the best contrasts and are great for imaging but are the most expensive per aperture. One recommendation I feel very strongly about is for beginners to stay away from equatorial mounts for your first scope. While there are great for tracking, they are complex and are not beginner friendly to set-up and use.
If astrophotography is something you want to pursue, I recommend that you study up and learn the basics first. Equipment specific to taking images can be very costly.
What size scope is best for you? If you plan to go observing from several different locations then you need a portable telescope but one that will offer at least a decent amount of aperture. A 6' telescope or 150mm is the minimum aperture I would recommend that you start with. Storage of your astronomy equipment is another consideration. If you can spare a corner in your garage or in a closet, a 6" to 8" dob will store nicely in a spot like that.
Beware of the idea that bigger is better. A wise man once told me that the best size telescope is the one you will use. If the scope is too much of a hassle to carry out and set up because it's too bulky, it won't get used. A 10" or 12" scope will provide some great views of dim objects but these size telescopes are heavier and take longer to set up and will also require more trips back and forth from where you store them to where you observe.
To GOTO or Not To GOTO:
The night sky is a vast and wondrous sight to behold, but how much do you want to know about it? Are you looking to only observe but not necessarily learn the night sky or understand celestial movements? It used to be the case that scopes with computers (GOTO or Push to-go) were more complicated and required a fair amount of knowledge to calibrate. This is no longer the case. An board computer or locator aid can greatly improve the productivity of your observing sessions as well as remove a fair amount of frustration in locating objects. However, there is still something to be said about first learning the basics first (i.e. - learning the constellations, how to locate objects, how to star hop). In school, you don't give children calculators and let them skip learning basic mathematical skills. Again, it just depends on your goals.
GOTO and Push-to-go features cost money. If you are on a modest budget, you'll want more of your purchasing dollars to be invested in the optics of the telescope and less to the mount and gadgets. Stay away from low priced GOTO/Push-to-go scopes (under $300 for new); the quality is just not there. Consider Orion's Intelliscope line of dobsonians with Push-to-go (aka digital setting circles), they start at the 6"range and go to 12". Another very good line of GOTO telescopes is Celestron's NexStar telescopes.
SPECIFIC TELESCOPE RECOMMENDATIONS:
Higher End (Over $1,200) - Celestron NexStar 8:
This 8" catadioptric, specifically a Schmidt Cassegrain telescope (or SCT) is actually quite portable, easy to set up and easy to use. As this telescope is a full GOTO scope, it will track objects as they move through the sky once the telescope has found them. If you want a telescope that will break down nicely and fit in your trunk, this is it. Smaller aperture (less expensive) models are available but 8"is a really nice size and will allow you to "go deep" with regards to astronomical objects. However with an SCT you'll need a few extras such as a dew shield or dew heater. Also consider a portable 12v battery to power the scope (and dew heater, if you use one) as those 8 on board AA batteries will go very quickly and can only power scope motors and the computer. If you have to navigate several flights of stairs, this might not be an ideal scope as you'll have to carry the scope, tripod, dew shield, eyepiece case and anything else (charts, reference items, red flashlight, etc. It's easily 2 or 3 trips to carry everything.
Mid Range Dobsonian ($500 to $1,000) - Orion's 6" or 8" IntelliScope:
You will be hard pressed to find a better manufacture of telescopes for beginners and intermediate astronomers than Orion (www.telescope.com). Orion's IntelliScope line is one of their best and is very well respected in the amateur astronomy field. The computer locator is fairly easy to set up and works quite well. Plus Dobs by nature are easy to set up and use. If you are looking for some good aperture, some help in locating objects and have the room to store a dob, then the IntelliScope line is for you. To align the computer you do need to be able to identify and center in your scope's eye piece on 2separate bright stars. The 8" version is about 6 to 7 pounds heavier and a bit more bulky. However the 8" scope comes with a focuser that accommodates 2" sized eyepieces as well as 1.25". Â The 6" will only accommodate 1.25" eyepieces.
Modest Range ($300 to $500):The Orion Classic Dobs or Zhumell:
XT8 is part of Orion's "Classicz" dob line. This is a pretty basic dob but it does everything it's supposed to do, it does it well, it's fairly affordable and it is built quite well. The 8' dob is a bit bulkier than a 6" but the tube will still fit across the back seats of your car or even your trunk. If your trunk is big enough, it might also fit the base. However if portability and a small storage foot print are critical for you, an 8" dob might not be the ideal choice for you.
The Orion XT6 is small enough to fit in the truck or hatch of most cars but still has enough aperture that will allow you to view deep space objects. I was treated to a very nice surprise a few months after buying my 6 year old son an XT6. Using it, M106 (the Sombrero Galaxy) was nicely visible from rural/suburban skies. As with the XT8, the XT6 has a handle on the base which allows you to carry the scope and base in one hand and an eyepiece case in the other. If you are looking for a scope that you can carry everything in one trip and set up quickly, youâ€™ll be hard pressed for find anything better than the Orion XT6.
In the 8" range, Zhumell also makes a good scope. I have heard good things about these telescopes, but I have only seen one once during the day; the build quality of the scope was very nice. Also for the money, the Zhumell scopes include more than the same sized Orion scopes. Zhumell scopes can be purchased through telescopes.com.
SOME CLOSING POINTS:
If you really want to do more research, check out this Report from CloudyNights:
One last piece of advice, join a local astronomy club! The amateur astronomy community as a whole wants to share their knowledge and experience with the public. You'll see evidence of this on just about any astronomy club's website in their outreach section. This outreach not only extends to the general public but more so to new members. You'll find experienced members are more than happy to answer questions and offer advice; all you have to do is ask. Remember, they were once beginners too.