What You Need to Know Before Buying a Telescope

Here is some stuff I think every person should think about before buying their very first telescope.

Published by Tony Darnell on 25th Oct, 2006

The telescope I use the most

I'll never forget my first telescope, an Edmund Scientific Astroscan 2001 that I paid $329.00 for in 1984. I still have it and will probably pass it on to my sons. It is bright red and has this big ball on the end and every time I take it out, people ask, 'What the hell is that thing?'.

At home, it sits in a corner of my living room where I unceremoniously dump it when I've come in from the backyard or back from a quick trip to the mountains. When we have company over and they see it sitting there, they usually say something like: 'Oh, when are you going to put a plant in your unusual planter there?'

For over 20 years that scope has become the one I take out when I just need to get out under the stars, or I want to try to find the latest comet. I also take it with me on July 4th when we go to the fireworks show, on camping trips, on picnics, it goes fishing with me, I've even checked it in as luggage on an airplane.

I can't imagine my life without that little scope. It is a small, four inch reflector that is easy to set up and use. It has no clock drive, no fancy go-to computer interface, not even a finder scope.

I own many telescopes, some of which are large, complicated and computer-controlled. I have all kinds of attachments, imagers, eyepieces and other optical accessories - all of the bells and whistles that many amateur astronomers have. I have spent more money that I will ever admit on my telescopes.

Yet, I still use that $329.00 telescope more than any of them.

The simple reason is that it's just so darn trivial to use. All I have to do is grab it and go, put it up on the hood of my car, point in the direction I want to see and look through the eyepiece. Time from setup to viewing is about three minutes.

I want your first telescope experience to be like mine. I want the first telescope you buy to be the one you use the most, one that you can build fond memories of, one that you can pass down to your kids.

The great thing about good telescopes is that they last a lifetime, many lifetimes, in fact. If taken care of, optics do not wear out or deteriorate and clock drives can last forever. Most telescopes these days are pretty good, with a few notable exceptions which are pretty easy to spot. The real trick to buying a telescope, especially if money is an issue, is to buy the one that best suits you and your interests.

I want to guide you on a path that will allow you to choose a telescope that you will use, one that doesn't languish in a closet after you buy it. The first step on that path is to get you thinking right about what to expect from one and to point out things many people don't think about when they buy their first telescope. When Halley's comet came around in 1984, I was selling telescopes at a local store and we were flooded with people who wanted to buy a telescope to see it. The best telescope for doing that was a simple one like the Astroscan, or a pair of binoculars. While many people did buy an Astroscan, many more did not.

It was the perfect scope for viewing comets, especially for beginners because of its ruggedness and ease of use. Many advanced amateurs own one because they are one of the best wide-field scopes out there.

Still, a lot of the people who came in and wanted to buy a telescope to see the comet - almost all of them had never used a one before - wanted the bigger, more complicated ones. They spent thousands on some of the best telescopes we had in the store.

Sadly, after the comet passed - and for about a year afterward - a very large percentage of them came back to be put up for sale on consignment. I bought a couple of them myself at a pretty good discount. I'd wager that many of the scopes that didn't come back are sitting in a closet or garage somewhere.

It bothered me that so many people returned their really nice telescopes. What would cause them to do that?

My theory is that they had unrealistic expectations about what the scope would show them, they were difficult to learn to use properly, and last but not least, they were heavy and a pain to drag out on a cold, clear night.

Many, many people (myself included) when faced with the choice of hauling out and setting up a 70 pound telescope on a really cold night or staying indoors and looking at images on NASA's website with a cup of coffee in hand, would choose the latter more times than not.

Telescopes that are easy to set up (or set up all the time so you can just open a door and start observing) are the ones that get used. Even on really cold nights (when the observing is the best, BTW), I'll happily go out and look through the eyepiece if all I have to do is bundle up, take off some covers and start looking. I think most people are like that. So, before you run out and spend thousands of dollars on a telescope that you may never use please consider the following:

Telescopes are heavy, especially the larger Schmidt-Cassegrains. My 10 inch Meade weighs 70 pounds, and that's just the telescope.

All things being equal, the telescope that is easiest to set up is the one that'll get used. I cannot emphasize this enough. There have been plenty of times when I've gone out to observe without my big, expensive telescopes. The easy, small and simple telescopes get used several times a week.

You are not going to see anything remotely like what you see on the NASA websites or on calendars and posters. Those images were taken by multi-million dollar spacecraft that were processed by a team of scientists whose job is to make pretty pictures. With the exception of the planets and the Orion Nebula, you're going to see a smudge of light through even the largest amateur telescopes.

If you've never used a scope before, concentrate on the planets. They are exquisitely beautiful and never fail to please. You can see the bands of Jupiter as well as its moons. I love it when Saturn is up during a star party. I love being the guy who shows someone Saturn through a telescope for the first time, their reactions are always the same: "WOW! LOOK AT THAT! MAN, THAT'S AWESOME! OH MAN THAT'S COOL!" and then they get real quiet for about 5 minutes while they just stare into the eyepiece. It's usually that person who hangs around me for the entire night asking all kinds of questions and begging me to show them more stuff. The planets are breathtaking through even the smallest telescopes and binoculars.

Forget about magnification. It is a myth that high magnification equals good views. Looking through a telescopes at high power requires a rock-steady (expensive) mount, and things are very difficult to find through a telescope at high power. Imagine trying to look up at the sky through a drinking straw and trying to find one particular star, it's near impossible without a lot of experience or a computer controlled telescope. You also need an exceedingly steady atmosphere to see any real detail at high magnifications. Further, many of the coolest objects, like galaxies and nebulae, can only be seen fully under low power because of their size. I normally use my Astroscan at about 15-25x depending on the eyepiece. This magnification provides a field of view that is perfect for the Orion nebula. Sometimes I'll go to 50x to see a planet, but then the atmosphere starts boiling in the eyepiece and the view is not very good. Not to mention that a gnat farting 10 feet away will cause the scope to shake violently.

Imaging is hard, time-consuming, expensive and frustrating. The first thing people seem to want to do with their new telescope is take pictures through it. While I completely understand this desire, it's important to realize the this is a very hard thing to do. Even experienced professionals are frustrated by their imaging efforts. Imaging through your telescope means that you're spending all night tweaking focus knobs, dealing with laptops and software, setting exposure times, taking calibration images, guiding the telescope, and a whole slew of other things. Imaging is all about the equipment, observing is all about the sky. Before you start trying your hand at imaging, you need to develop basic telescope and observing experience. If you don't take the time to learn the sky and how to observe, I promise you that all the money you spend on imaging equipment with be wasted. Take your time, the universe will still be there when you're ready.

Think hard about why you want a telescope. This is so important, I wrote an entire article about just this topic. What exactly do you want to do with a telescope? What do you want to see? How much do you want to spend? The time you spend thinking about these issues, the better defined your goals in owning a telescope become, which means your first telescope experience is be more likely to be a positive one. Telescopes should never be an impulse buy.

Photo Credit: Brian Jolley

So there you go. I promise to write more specifically about which telescopes are good for what and how much you can expect to spend but I wanted to begin your quest for the perfect telescope with the right mindset. It would be tragic if you bought a telescope and then never used it because it was too big of a hassle to setup or too heavy.

If you come away with anything from reading this, I hope it is that, when starting out in amateur astronomy, simple is best. The night sky has a serene, simple beauty that doesn't require a lot of gizmos to enjoy. The telescopes I use the most are the ones I can just grab and set up in minutes. I have to really plan out my observing nights with my larger scopes or for an imaging session, and if it's really cold outside, sometimes I just forget it.

I want to set you up to be in a position to really get the astronomy 'bug' and starting simple puts you in the best position because it leaves you wanting more and you can more easily measure your interest level and commitment. If the scope bug bites you hard (and I want it to), you'll eventually end up with all the big toys anyway, so don't be in too big of a hurry to part your money from your bank account. I strongly believe however, that 'the bug' will never bite you if you don't start out with the right experience.

If you're outside looking at the stars without a big smile on your face or a feeling of awe in your heart, you're not doing it right.

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