Your 1st Telescope

Athena Rocket/Kodiak Island
(author: Nasa image source)
Buying Your First Telescope 

Buying a telescope is not rocket science.  That doesn't mean you should buy a telescope at that science store in the mall, though.  (By the way, binoculars are a great option also, so see my page on choosing binoculars before you spend any of your hard earned money.) 

This article will tell you enough about telescopes in 10 minutes to make the difference between having a scope you will enjoy, and having a piece of junk that makes you decide to never look at the stars again.  Believe me, the latter happens all the time.  So...let's blast off!



Four Rules to Remember

1.  When it comes to telescopes, you don't get what you don't pay for, but you can still shell out big bucks for garbage.

This is the first rule for a reason.  It means two things:

First, a good scope will cost you a little, no way around it.  If your budget just won't allow much of an expenditure, I recommend binoculars.  If you can afford it, I recommend having both.  More on that later.

Second, if it comes in a pretty, rectangular box showing a kid looking through a small white telescope with marvelous pictures of all the cool things you will be able to see with it, says it magnifies 400x on the side and costs around $100, run in the other direction as fast as you can.  Or...

If it comes in a pretty, rectangular box showing an adult looking through a bigger black or teal colored telescope with marvelous pictures of all the cool things you will be able to see with it, says it magnifies 600x on the side and costs around $200 (or considerably more), run in the other direction as fast as you can.

Both scopes are garbage and will render fuzzy images on a rickety mount that will make you want to do like that bushman with the Coke bottle in "The Gods Are Crazy" and toss it off the end of the world.  They are usually right next to each other in the store, and the people who work there know less about them than the box it comes in.  Run.

2.  If it is a pain in the backside to drag it outside and set up, it's going to sit in a closet gathering dust.

A quality scope you can easily carry and set up quickly is the one you will use over and over.  The remaining rules mean nothing if you don't observe this rule of thumb.  If you stick with this hobby long enough you will probably own several scopes, but for now we are talking about your first telescope.

3.  Bells and whistles do not always make a telescope commendable.

Being able to find an object on your own is what exploring the night sky is all about!  Like any adventure, getting there is half the fun. If you can't enjoy taking the time to manually find M1 in Taurus, you probably aren't going to enjoy looking at it much either. The sense of discovery is missing.

A Celestron 130SLT Goto-Scope
(author: Bowlhover  image source)
I think larger goto-scopes are a fine option for someone with a continuing interest in exploring our universe, even a necessary investment for the serious astrophotogragher.  For the beginner though, having a small robotic telescope is like fishing in your aquarium, or spearing a steak at the supermarket...where is the sense of accomplishment?

Modern technology can turn any telescope (no matter how small) into a robot you can look at the stars with.  They can automatically (and accurately) point to 64,000 or more (not kidding) objects ranging from the planets in our solar system, to individual stars, to far flung galaxies.  You can even interface them with a laptop and move them from object to object by clicking a mouse on a map.  Amazing, right?

What less reputable retailers don't tell you is:

Nothing you look at in your relatively small telescope is going to look anything like the pictures you have seen, except for the moon

Without a really dark sky, a much bigger telescope (read...not very portable at all), and time exposure photography (a major undertaking), you can't even see 90% of the objects your smart-scope can point to.  At all. 

4.  Optical quality, stability, and mechanical precision are paramount.

If you don't have these three qualities in a reasonably portable, easy to set up telescope, you won't use it often enough to warrant buying it.  The mechanical qualities should be smooth and silky, a pleasure to use.  The mount the telescope moves around on should be solid and stable.  Last but not least, you want optics that provide a clean, crisp image that snaps into focus.

A Few Terms You Need To Know

Objective:  The biggest mirror or lens of the telescope.

Aperture:  The diameter of the objective of a telescope.

Eyepiece:  Magnifies the focused image.

Focal Length:  The distance between the objective and the point where the light comes into focus in the telescope.

f/ratio:  An expression derived by dividing the focal length of the telescope by the objective diameter.  The smaller the number, the "faster" the instrument.  For instance, a telescope with an objective of 100cm and a focal length of 700cm would have a focal ratio of f/7.

Equatorial Mount: A telescope mount which has two axes of rotation, one parallel to the earth's axis, and one perpendicular to it. When polar aligned it allows for an object to stay centered in the eyepiece by turning the telescope on only one axis (usually motorized so that it automatically tracks the object once centered).

Dobsonian: A type of reflector telescope, usually not computerized or motorized. Smaller ones are very portable, optically very good, and a pleasure to use. VERY kid friendly, but adults like them too. Larger ones are still fairly portable, and inexpensive in comparison to similar apertures of other designs.

Types Of Telescopes

Refractors:  The kind every one knows about.  You look through one end and there is a glass lens (the objective) that resembles a magnifying glass in the other end.  These can be incredibly cheap, to incredibly expensive.  Dollar for dollar, a good refractor will set you back more than other types of scopes of similar quality.  The more expensive ones have fantastic images.  Plan on spending $500 and up for a quality scope and mount.  A cheaper one will be just that, cheap.  If your budget is limited, consider the next category. 

Reflectors:  Best bang for your buck.  The light reflects off of a mirror (the objective) in the bottom of the tube, back up to a smaller mirror (diagonal) near the top of the tube, which directs it out through a hole in the side of the tube into the eyepiece.  The best reflector can't match the best refractor of equal size in image quality, but it can come pretty close, and for considerably less money.

Schmidt Cassegrains and Maksutovs:  These designs use a base mirror (the objective) with a hole in it which reflects light to the a smaller mirror at the top of the tube(mounted in a corrector lens that seals the tube and corrects aberrations in the image), which in turn reflects the light back down through the hole in the first mirror to the eyepiece.  The tube is much shorter than reflectors and refractors of similar aperture and focal length.  Generally, a more portable design in larger apertures.  In between on prices with the other two designs. 

There are variations of each of the above designs, but those are the big three in general.  At this point, you are more informed than 90% of first time telescope buyers.  What follows are some recommendations based on budget, and your goals.

Where To Shop: The Three Bears Principle 

Ultra big mail order "camera" companies carry astronomy stuff, and everything else under the sun related to photography along with it.  My experience is that they can be a hassle to work with if there is a problem after the sale.  They can generally beat the price of a company that specializes in just astronomy stuff, but there is always after the sale to think of.  ~This soup is too hot~

Really small outfits that make and sell a few particular items of extreme quality tend to have some excellent equipment of a particular brand.  For instance, just telescope mounts, or optical tube assemblies for example.  You can purchase these items from only them, or maybe a couple of other retailers at most.  The problem here is usually a big backlog of orders.  Another problem is they sometimes go out of business with no warning. ~This soup is too cold~


Telescopes: Take Your Pick!
(author: Shizhao image source)


If I had to pick my favorite retailers for complete telescopes, it would be Orion Telescopes, OPT, Amazon.com, Highpoint Scientific, and Astronomics (not necessarily in that order).  All are well established, reputable companies which I have purchased from several times without a complaint.  There are many other good companies out there, some I have dealt with, so don't rush into anything without looking around.  You can pick up some good deals on excellent used equipment at Cloudy Nights.  Pick up a copy (or view online) of Sky and Telescope, or Astronomy magazine. Peruse the ads and companies. There are many fine products out there, just don't be hasty. If you find something you like, shop around and see who has the best deal. ~This soup is just right~

Orion has a complete line of their own equipment, for any budget, and also retails a few other lines of related items.  They have a large selection of quality items.  Customer service is very good.  They make a decent effort to accurately inform you about what to expect with different equipment, with a modest amount of exaggeration.

Astronomics retails the astronomy related equipment of several other makers.  Like Orion, they have a pretty good line-up of both high quality and budget minded items.  They even carry some of Orion's reflectors.  Customer service is great.  The descriptions of each item are usually quite extensive and informative.  They also have some great tutorials on equipment that are really helpful to beginners.

OPT carries a wider array of astronomy related items for sale, with good selection, editorials, and prices.  I always check them out when making price comparisons.

The same is true for Highpoint Scientific.

Amazon.com sometimes has the best deal on equipment (or shipping) available from several vendors so they are definitely worth checking out.  Returns are easiest here by far.

All of these companies want to sell you equipment, of course, but they also want to help you make informed decisions and be happy with your purchase.  They have great websites and are happy to answer questions you may have. 


What To Buy (keep in mind the four basic rules!)

First, a little more about rule #3 (goto scopes)--Manual movement can satisfy you for many years, but you will eventually want tracking, it is only a matter of time.  It is getting hard to find a small to medium sized telescope that will track the object you are observing without buying a goto scope.  That said, a goto scope can be a solid choice, if, you don't sacrifice in other areas.  The mounts on these scopes can be a little on the jiggly side, though.  I purchased the Celestron 130SLT scope pictured above (and put a real finderscope on it) for my 11 year old as a first scope.  I taught him how to do an alignment procedure, and I let him move the scope using the slew functions.  No "goto" allowed until he learns the sky using charts and a finderscope.  But, it tracks beautifully once he finds what he's looking for and that's pretty handy when you are learning the sky.  Keep this in mind as you read on.  Just because it can goto, doesn't mean you have to goto. 

If money is no object

Lucky you!  Check out the Questar line of telescopes.  It's hard to spend more on a really portable telescope!  They are functional works of mechanical precision.  A work of art.  Also of premier quality are Televue products, and Takahashi telescopes, among others.  Astronomics retails all three lines.  There are many other high quality refractors that are small, portable, and costs thousands. 

Schmidt Cassegrains like those from Celestron and Meade that are in this price range are probably less portable (bigger) than most people are looking for in a first scope.  Also, they are all computerized to the max for astrophotography applications.  Until you get pretty advanced in astronomy, you probably aren't going to go to the effort to set these scopes up often enough to justify having them.

The best 8 to 10 inch Dobsonian is probably a Teeter Dob.  There are some other excellent makers of larger less portable dobs that are very pricey also, like Starmaster, and Webster.  Portability becomes an issue in Dobs larger than 10 inches (for most people).

I want to spend between $500 and a $1000  

Refractors:
Go for the best optics you can afford, with a sturdy mount that is small enough to tote around and set up quickly.  Fast optics (f/4 to 6) of high quality are more expensive, but will have a shorter lighter tube assembly.  Objective diameters of 4 or 5 inches in a fast system will give you a lot of flexibility with field of view vs. practical magnification limits.  Buy the best optics you can afford in this category without skimping on the mount.

Reflectors:
Lots of options here.  You can easily get high quality portability, and several nice accessories of great quality (like eyepieces, which can be expensive), too. Dollar for dollar, reflectors in this category should equal or exceed the performance of refractors (because a comparably priced refractor will have a smaller objective).  Going this route will enable you to outfit yourself pretty well with some other things you will likely want, in addition to buying a scope.  Portable reflectors in this price range generally have equatorial mounts.  Again, don't skimp on the mount.  Medium-large dobsonians are in this price range also, but quick portability begins to be compromised along with aperture increase.  An 8 or 10 inch dob is still fairly portable though if you think it through.

Schmidt Cassegrains:
A Schmidt Cassegrain with a 4, 5, or 6 inch objective and a decent mounting is definitely in this price range.  Solid optics and very good portability.  Computerized alt/az mounts can be OK  if you stick to something sturdy, or try to get an equatorial mount of good quality with a motor drive.

Less than $500 please

Refractors:
You will have to sacrifice some optically to get a refractor in this price range.  You can get good optics with goto/tracking capability, but not great, or excellent optics.  The less you spend, the less you will get in quality.  Mounts are going to be flimsier as well.  If you are determined to get a refractor, you can (maybe) get a decent one towards the upper end of this range.  Equatorial mounts that come with telescopes in this price range are not that good.  I would probably opt for an alt/az computerized mount the that is sturdy enough for the optical tube it supports.  Many scopes use the same mount, even though the scopes are of different length and weight.  Keep this in mind.

Reflectors: 
Reflectors with equatorial mounts worth having will be at the upper end of this price range.  A goto relfector like the one pictured earlier is also an option if you want tracking of objects.  Dobsonians are the best choice here though, and probably your best value as far as design and aperture.  In this price range, there are basically two Chinese manufactured brands: Synta, and GSO.  They are sold under various brand names.  Orion telescopes sells the Synta version, and has the best dobs under 8 inches in my opinion.  They are well made and over the years have had most of the bugs worked out of the design.  Astro Tech and Zuhmell Dobs are GSO versions.  They represent the best value in 8 to 12 inch Dobs (12 inch Dobs a little above this price range).  Astro Tech is available from Astronomics and Highpoint Scientific, and the Zuhmell Dobs can be purchased through Telescopes.com.  Dollar for dollar, a reflector should optically outperform refractors in this category, hands down.

Binoculars:
A great last resort instead of, or preferably in addition to, a telescope.  Very decent binoculars for astronomy can be had for less than $200.  Or you can spend thousands if you want to. 

Last but Not Least

The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae
(Nasa image source)
Astrophotography is amazing stuff.  You can digitally record over long time periods much more detail than you can visually observe.  All the colors and wispy tendrils you can't otherwise see.  Beautiful pictures await you.  Proper equipment is essential and expensive.  It's pretty complicated, though.  Think about what you are trying to do.  You are trying to take a zoomed in exposure of a nearly invisible object, lasting several minutes, of an apparently moving object (earth's rotation), without any of that motion showing up on the exposure.  Simple, right?  Snapshots of the Moon and Jupiter, are easier and without a doubt where you should start, when it's time.  All the faint fuzzies like the one to the right?  Definitely Not. 

Do yourself a big favor.  Put astrophotography on a back burner for the time being.  Most of all, don't spend any of your money on anything specifically for astrophotography, yet.  It's a huge learning curve.  It can legitimately be a long term goal, but it is not where you start.  Get a good small scope you don't have to plug in to an outlet or battery.  Learn the sky with it.  When you have sufficient know how under your belt, the above resources can help you with your new obsession, astrophotography (it isn't just a pastime).  Just know in advance that astrophotography is much more than meets the eye.  Pun intended.


Thanks for tuning in.  Let me know if this has helped you out!

Dale