By Chris Nicholl
Oftentimes a new interest in astronomy leads to a sudden rush to go out and buy a telescope. Without some research and guidance, however, impulse purchases of astronomy gear can often turn out to be expensive mistakes which serve to discourage and frustrate a new astronomer, rather than providing the equipment to propel someone’s enjoyment of this hobby. With this in mind, NSAAC has put together some suggestions for how to approach the telescope-buying process so that you get the right equipment at a good price.
Step 1 – Slow Down
The night sky is not going anywhere! Taking a few weeks to make an informed decision will often mean the difference between getting something that sits unused in your closet or getting a telescope that encourages you off the couch and outside each clear night. In the end, this is a larger topic than can be covered comprehensively on a web page – we encourage you to join us at one of our club gatherings – either business meetings or observing events to view – and view through – some telescopes and talk to other astronomers about their gear. There’s no substitute for (gently!) kicking the tires in person.
Step 2 – Research
Set aside an hour or two to begin doing some research. Pick up a copy of either Astronomy or Sky and Telescope and consider ordering a subscription to one of these. They will help ease you into the hobby and keep you current in scientific progress, equipment reviews, and observational tips/lists. A subscription to one of these magazines is a worthwhile investment.
The Internet is rich in resources for this type of inquiry. Find out what different types of telescopes there are, what their price ranges and capabilities are and, perhaps most importantly, the limitations of each design. For starters, take a look through a beginners article written by a well-regarded reviewer of telescopes (who happens to live in NH) Ed Ting: http://www.scopereviews.com/begin.html
While you’re there, poke around a bit through some of his reviews. As you read, consider whether you have some “unique circumstances” that will play a role in your decision. For instance, do you intend to do birding or backpacking with your telescope? Does it need to be carried up/down multiple flights of stairs? Do you have a strong preference for – or dislike of – electronics? Do you have a bad back, and have trouble lifting more than a certain amount? Think about where you’re going to store your scope, how you’re going to transport it, and where you’re going to set it up.
Buying a telescope is much like buying a car: each one is a set of compromises. Dobsonian-mounted reflectors (aka: “Dobs”), for instance, are generally acknowledged as the best bang-for-the-buck, but won’t fill non-astronomy roles such as birding. Refractors, on the other hand, are excellent dual-use instruments (i.e. astronomy and terrestrial viewing), but quickly become very expensive and unwieldy for larger apertures. Schmidt-Cassegrains (aka: “SCTs”) are excellent all-around highly-portable instruments with many bells and whistles, but often require expensive, heavy or electronically-driven mounts, and don’t deliver wide-angle views that some of the other designs do. Each of these types can be an excellent instrument, but none of them does everything well (time for a dirty little astronomy secret: that’s why so many of us have more than one telescope!).
Feeling a little confused now? That’s why we counsel taking your time. This is also the right place to take you back a step, and to introduce you to the very best first “telescope” you can buy. Actually, it’s two telescopes, mated together – and you may actually own one already!
Your first piece of essential astronomy gear: binoculars
If you’re like most of us, you’ve gotten jazzed up about buying a telescope. Advice to buy binoculars is – well – a bit of a disappointment. Binoculars aren’t exciting. Binoculars don’t stand proudly as a conversation piece in your living room saying “I love to go stargazing” to your friends who visit. However, they have some tremendous advantages.
First, they are relatively cheap. A decent pair of binoculars can be had for $50-100.
Second, they provide very wide fields of view. In other words, you see a huge patch of sky in binoculars, whereas most telescopes show a tiny patch akin to looking through a soda-straw. This makes finding some of those treasures in the sky far easier. In fact, there are some things that look far better in binoculars due to that wider field of view. There are even some highly-regarded books specifically geared towards binocular observing, such as Binocular Astronomy by Crossen/Tirion and Touring the Universe through Binoculars by Phil Harrington.
Third, you will never “outgrow” binoculars. Almost every astronomer has at least one pair of binoculars; they complement a telescope very well. Most of us use binoculars side-by-side with our telescopes every time out, either to view some of those larger objects in the sky, or as an aid in orienting ourselves in a certain portion of the sky to help get our telescope pointed in the right spot.
Fourth, there’s nothing easier, on a cold winter night, or when you just have 15 minutes to pop out in the driveway, than grabbing a pair of binoculars.
In other words, even if/when you eventually buy a telescope, your binoculars will be a well-used piece of gear. In fact, with a decent pair of binoculars, a basic star chart (such as the Cambridge Star Atlas – check Amazon.com), a “planisphere” and a red flashlight (to save your dark-adapted vision when you look at charts) you’ll have everything you need in order to get outside and start seeing some amazing things.
Where to start your “gear search”
There are many reputable and competitive online retailers of astronomy gear. There is one, however, that specializes in beginner/intermediate gear, and has a very comprehensive “learning center”. No matter where you decide to buy, you’ll be well-served by spending some time at the website of Orion Telescope and Binoculars: http://www.telescope.com/jump.jsp?itemID=0&itemType=HOME_PAGE
Up at the top, they have a “Learning Center” link that will bring you to a menu with three options. Spend a bit of time poking around. Find out, for instance, about the differences between optics that are “coated” and optics that are “fully multi-coated”, or why 10×50 binoculars will show you more than 8×25 binoculars. There’s a wealth of remarkably objective binocular and telescope learning material at Orion’s website The nice thing about Orion is that you can then click on other links to actually see the telescopes/binoculars (and the current prices). If you decide to actually purchase there, they’re a reputable online retailer with one of the best return policies in the industry. However, there are many other places that offer similar gear at the same or better prices, so it certainly pays to shop around.
Miscellaneous advice that we’d be remiss to leave out:
- Join an astronomy club. OK, it sounds self-serving coming from the club itself, but all knowledgeable advice you hear will counsel the same thing – there’s no substitute for looking through others’ gear before plunking down your money to buy your own. It’s also a great way to look at scopes and ask their owners what they like and dislike about their current setups. Periodically, NSAAC has outings called “GO-ON” events (Get Out and Observe Nights). Most times, these are designed to help the club learn about some aspect of observing: naked-eye, binoculars, deep-sky, lunar observing, etc. Check our website calendar, and come join us for one…or come to a business meeting (the first Friday of each month).
- Don’t buy a “department store” telescope. You may save a bit of money, but you will get something either vastly inferior, or totally unusable. There are some remarkably affordable scopes (such as 6″ dobs) that keep experienced observers happy for years. A very serviceable setup doesn’t have to be very expensive.
- Don’t forget to save some money for accessories. If your budget is $500, for instance, plan on spending $350-400 for the scope itself, and putting some money aside for red flashlights (hunting section at Wal-Mart), star atlas, and maybe an extra eyepiece or two. You’ll need some “stuff” besides just the telescope.
- Don’t buy a scope from eBay. Don’t get me wrong – there are some great deals on eBay. But there’s also some “department store” junk masquerading as quality gear. If you know enough about scopes to sort the wheat from the chaff, then you might find a pretty good deal on eBay; but if you’re new to the hobby, then you have a much better chance of being disappointed.
- Consider buying a used telescope. Some people are not comfortable buying online, and some are not comfortable buying used. Others like to seek out quality gear at a bargain price. For that latter category, there’s a wonderful website named Astromart. Just beware…many of us get sucked in like a black hole! http://www.astromart.com
Astromart requires registration with a “traceable” e-mail address (i.e. not an e-mail address that could be anonymous, such as Yahoo or Hotmail), but they maintain the privacy of user information. It’s a remarkably safe online trading venue, because people are forced to give real names, addresses and phone numbers. Astromart is a combination of forums (to ask questions about observing, gear, and everything else – kind of an online astronomy community) and classified ads. It is THE place to buy/sell used equipment. A good rule of thumb is that well-conditioned used equipment will often cost 60-70% of what you’d pay new.