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Buying Your First Telescope

 

Last updated 11/23/2016 at 1:12pm

Well, it's that time of year again. The holidays are barreling toward us like an out-of-control sleigh.

If you're considering presenting that special stargazer in your life with a telescope this holiday season -- or buying one for yourself -- you will do well to answer several important questions before rushing out to spend your hard-earned cash.

First, how well do you (or the gift recipient) know the sky? If you can't distinguish the Ring Nebula from ring bologna, you may wish to purchase a book or collection of star maps instead. Browse a bookstore or telescope shop for suitable material, or consider a subscription to some of the basic astronomy magazines available today.

Second, what are your viewing interests? If the moon, planets or daytime terrestrial scenery are your passion, or if you live under light-polluted skies, a telescope with a smaller diameter -- 2 inches or so -- will do fine. Otherwise, you'll need a larger light bucket -- 4 inches or more in diameter -- to see fainter star clusters, nebulae and galaxies -- but you'll need to take it to a dark-sky site in the mountains or desert to use it well.

Finally, what's your budget? Quality telescopes are not toys, and you won't find a good one for less than about $300.

As for telescopes, there are almost as many variations as there are eyeballs to look through them. Fortunately, we can divide them into two basic categories. Refractors are more expensive because they use lenses to bend incoming light to a focus. These are generally smaller instruments that are best for viewing bright objects like the moon and planets. Reflectors use mirrors, and typically, the same price will get you an instrument with a larger diameter.

No matter which type of telescope you choose, it must be equipped with a rock-solid tripod or mounting in order to be useful. For beginners, I strongly recommend against the new go-to instruments in which a computer aims the telescope for you, since they're expensive, you'll spend lots of time with the instruction manual learning how to set it up, and you won't learn about the sky as you will with an old-fashioned (manual) scope.

So here's my recommendation: First, attend free star parties with your local amateur astronomy club and get a look through (and at) a variety of scopes. Some are large and expensive, but you'll get a sense of what you can expect from more modest instruments. Then visit some telescope company websites and check out basic Dobsonian-style scopes and a Telrad finder. They're easy to use, portable and relatively inexpensive. I have two of these and use them for all kinds of stargazing programs.

And don't discount the use of binoculars. Not only do they offer an excellent transition between naked-eye viewing and telescopic viewing but they can also be used for many other activities.

If you keep these simple points in mind, your new backyard telescope won't wind up in the closet alongside the NordicTrack; it will provide you and your family with a wonderful lifelong tool of discovery.

To learn more about telescopes and binoculars, visit skyandtelescope.com/howto/scopes.

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