Aiming a telescope at the night sky has been one of my hobbies for quite a few years. Ever since I was a kid I spent many evenings gazing up into the Milky Way and wondered how many? How far away and how big must some of those stars be? As I got older and my interest in astronomy persisted, I decided it was time I bought a telescope. I started shopping around and found not only are there many types, but of course different features and accessories. I had no idea there were so many choices.
If this is your first telescope, the choices can be overwhelming so I’ve included suggestions and some of the questions you may want to ask telescope dealers and yourself before you actually buy your first scope. If you already own a scope, these tips will still come in handy if you’re thinking a buying a new one.
- First, think of the reasons you want a telescope. Are you part of a stargazing club or planning on joining one? Has it been a passion since childhood? Do you plan on giving it as a gift to a budding young astronomer? Maybe you want to catch a glimpse of the space station as it darts across the night sky! If you plan to get a lot of use from your telescope, the best bet is to buy a larger scope with more features. You’ll want one that doesn’t limit your ability to explore the heavens. The better the quality, the more you’ll enjoy the experience and further your interest. If, on the other hand, you’ve just read the paper and found out there’s going to be a lunar eclipse this weekend, a smaller scope with less features is the way to go. You won’t want to lay out big bucks for a great telescope with all the bells and whistles for something you’ll get only occasional use from.
Bend, Bounce Or Both?
- What kind of Telescope should you get? The 3 types are refractor, reflector and compound, or catadioptric.
A refractor telescope collects light at the top of a long, slender tube and bends or concentrates it to an eyepiece at the bottom. It’s popular with observers whose main interest is the Moon and planets within our own solar system. They provide sharp, high-contrast views at higher magnifications and are less bothered by atmospheric disturbance and than the reflector or compound types. Because of this it makes an excellent choice for observation in a city setting.
The reflector telescope uses a concave mirror at the bottom of a tube, rather than a lens at the top, to gather and focus light. Newtonian reflectors, the most common design, reflect (bounce) the collected light to a smaller secondary mirror at the top end directing the focused light to an eyepiece on the side of the tube, making for a comfortable upright viewing position. These scopes are perfect for those living in an urban or country setting and who wish to explore deeper into the cosmos. They are usually larger and a little bulky in size making transport more difficult.
The third type, a catadioptric, employs a combination of lenses and mirrors to gather and focus light. Its design allows for a larger aperture mirror in a smaller space. Like the Newtonian, light is collected by a mirror in the bottom of the scope. Unlike the Newtonian, the tube is much shorter, making handling and transport easier. The light reflects off the back mirror to a secondary mirror near the top of the scope where it’s concentrated once again and reflected to the eyepiece in the bottom of the tube. This design is also excellent for viewing objects beyond our neighbor planets.
Location, Location, Location
- It’s true in real estate and it’s true in astronomy. If you live in a city where there’s well lit streets and neon signs flashing brightly at night, you may need to travel to areas away from the glow. It seriously hampers any attempt at stargazing. If you need to travel any distance to find a good location to practice your hobby, you’ll want a telescope that’s easy to set up and take down. Don’t buy a scope that never comes out of the box because it’s too much of a hassle to put together. A place in the suburbs or even the countryside is a much more inviting location. A quiet, peaceful setting with no streetlights, preferably with some elevation is perfect for viewing very faint objects in deep space. Buy a scope with a large objective lense (the larger the objective lens the more light gathering capability it has) and point it to almost any location in the Milky Way and you’re sure to be thrilled by what you see.
Hobby Or Passion?
- Are you going out every weekend to observe stars and planets? Do you use star charts and plot locations of various constellations? Do you research deep space objects on the internet? Do you use a CCD (charged coupled device) Camera for astrophotography? If so, then you probably already have an impressive telescope and just want to upgrade and purchase a new scope or accessory. Again the objective lens of your new telescope is an important factor when deciding. You want to gather as much light as possible to provide lots of detail in your photos.
You may just want to take the your new scope on a camping trip with the family. In that case a smaller scope or even binoculars would be particularly well suited for that purpose. It’s easy to pack, set up and take down, and very portable. Don’t buy the biggest baddest telescope on the market, you’ll never fit it in a backpack!
- Lastly, the price you’re willing to pay for a new scope will ultimately determine the type of scope you buy as well as the size. You can spend a couple hundred dollars for a simple high quality scope if you’re just starting out. Or you can spend thousands for a larger scope with more accessories than a New York model. Your answers to the questions above and your own good judgement will provide you with a firm platform to make a quality decision. If you’re solidly entrenched in astronomy and the related fields, astrophotography, star charting etc. then you already have a good idea on the kind of scope you want. If this is your first telescope, I hope these suggestions and ideas have helped. Good luck and have fun stargazing!