Telescopes can provide a lot of fun and learning. But many people rush out and buy a cheap department store scope that doesn’t do justice to the cosmos, while others spend too much on unnecessary complex setup.
It’s easy for a beginner to become frustrated with a set up too basic, or too complex. Either way, if the pleasure-to-frustration ratio ends up being too low, the gleaming new telescope will spend its life in the cupboard gathering dust.
Before you purchase it will be useful to form a clear idea of what you intend to use your telescope for. Having that clarity can make a big difference!
For those with a smaller budget it is a good idea to consider purchasing a pair of binoculars before stepping up to a telescope. Binoculars are lightweight and portable and a quality pair will outrank a poor quality small telescope and should last a lifetime. They have a wide field of view and lend themselves to terrestrial use as well as astronomical. Beginners are usually pleasantly surprised the first time they sweep the night sky with binoculars.
But back to telescopes… the best telescope to buy is the one that the budding amateur will actually use, one with the good pleasure-to-frustration ratio!
For the beginner this will be a telescope that is portable and easy to set up. It will not be a cheap ‘toy’ telescope. It will have a solid, simple mount that doesn’t significantly shake or move in the breeze.
It could be a refractor or a reflector although there are other more complex types for more advanced users. Refractors tend to provide higher image contrast than reflectors but reflectors have the advantage of being relatively cheap to produce, making them more affordable compared to a refractor.
The most important factor to consider is the ‘aperture’ of your telescope. Aperture refers to the diameter of the primary mirror or lens. The larger the aperture the more light your telescope will collect – the amount of light being proportional to the ‘square’ of the measurement. This corresponds directly to your image quality. Clearly, aperture size is almost everything – so avoid small if you possible can.
Beware the sales hype that extols magnification power. You can have power but if the telescope aperture, optics, and mount are not up to it, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
When considering mounts – think solid and simple. Most are a tripod design and for a reflector, you can choose between a tripod-mounted Newtonian telescope or the Dobsonian style, which is mounted on a swiveling cradle base instead of a tripod. A tripod may have an alt-azimuth (AZ) interface with the telescope tube or an equatorial (EQ). An AZ is easy to use being adjustable up and down (altitude) and left to right (azimuth). An equatorial is heavier, more complex, and more expensive. A really good EQ has some advantage if aligned properly, but for the beginner the alignment process is more likely to frustrate than enthuse!
Lastly, don’t be talked into a ‘smart’ or ‘go to’ telescope unless you’re very confident about what you’re doing. If you’re impatient or aren’t computer savvy, a smart scope is probably not for you. But once you’ve got some experience using a simple telescope, and you’re ready to invest some serious time and money, a smart scope can help you find obscure and rewarding targets with relative ease.
And perhaps the most valuable advice of all…
Visit your local planetarium and take advantage of viewing sessions. Ask questions!
Your local astronomical society will also be a useful source of information. They will likely run star parties where you can look through various telescopes and talk to their experienced owners. Societies often have hire equipment available to members which is an excellent way to get a feel for what suits you. In other words ’try before you buy’!
Happy telescope hunting!