So, You Really Want a Telescope?

The Question Every Astronomer Gets

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Every stargazer discovers what she or he needs to enjoy the sky. Take it easy and all good things will eventually come to you. Halfblue/Wikimedia Commons Share and Share Alike license.

Astronomers and science writers often get emails or phone calls from people asking, "What kind of telescope should I get for my child/spouse/partner?" It's a tough question, and if you're asking it, here is something important to ask yourself: "What are you (or your gift target) going to do with it?" 

There are a number of things to think about before you get out the charge card:

  1. Has she/he ever used a telescope before? If yes, then they may have a good idea of what they want. Ask them! 
  1. Does she/he know anything about the sky? Do they know about the constellations, how to find the planets?  Do they have a demonstrable interest in the sky? 
  2. Can I afford to invest good money in a good telescope?  "Good" means going to a reputable seller that specializes in telescopes and learning what is good quality. Hint: it is not going to cost only $50.00. 
  3. Do you understand the basics of telescopes? Each type of telescope works better for a specific type of gazing. Learn the main points about telescopes, such as aperture, and magnification before you spend money.
  4. Are the optics good?  Does the telescope have a good tripod and mount? Good telescopes (or binoculars) use well-ground glass lenses and mirrors and are supported by sturdy tripods. (Hint: bad department-store scopes come with spindly tripods.) 

The answers to these and other questions will help you decide what to get for your gift target.

 

However, there's an excellent alternative to buying a telescope: binoculars.

Yes, those things that people use for birdwatching, football games, and long-distance vision here on Earth. Think about it: a good binocular is really a pair of telescopes, one for each eye, hooked together in an easy-to-use package.

Everyone from about the age of 9 or 10 and up can use them and they're a great introduction to using magnification to view things in the sky.

Binoculars are rated with two numbers separated by an x. The first number is the magnification, the second is the size of the lens. For example, 7 x 50s magnify things seven times more than the naked eye can see, and the lens is 50 millimeters across. The larger the lenses, the bigger the housing, and the more the binoculars weigh. This is important because lifting heavy ones can get tiring (and difficult for younger stargazers) to use.

For hand-held use, 10 x 50 or even 7 x 50 binoculars will be fine. Anything larger (such as 20 x 80) require a tripod or monopod to hold them up.

A good pair of 10 x 50s binoculars (look for brand names such as Bushnell, Orion, Celestron, Minolta or Zeiss) will be at least $75.00-$100.00 and up, but they work really well for astronomy. The also have the added advantage of being handy for birdwatching.  

Telescopes

Okay, maybe you (or your gift target) already have binoculars. That telescope is still calling your name. If you have a good idea what you want, go to a store that sells telescopes (NOT A DEPARTMENT STORE,  DISCOUNT STORE, EBAY (unless you know what you're doing), or CRAIGSLIST) and ask questions.

 Or, visit a local astronomy club or planetarium and ask their observers what to buy.You'll get amazingly good advice and they'll steer you clear of crappy little junk telescopes.

There are also good places online with information about telescopes. Here are two places to get you started:

  • www.Sky&Telescope.com — which carries good reviews
  • www.Astronomy.com — good reviews and advice.

Consider purchasing a telescope that helps the international organization Astronomers Without Borders (www.astronomerswithoutborders.org). They sell a great small instrument called the "One Sky Telescope" that works equally well for beginners and seasoned amateurs. You can read more about them here

Astronomy is a wonderful hobby and can be a life-long pursuit. The questions you ask and the care you take in selecting the right scope or binoculars will mean the difference between beloved, well-used gear and a piece of junk that won't last very long and will frustrate your user to no end.

The same is true for the star charts, the many astronomy books (for all ages), and ever-growing numbers of software/apps that you may choose to go along with your telescope or binoculars. They should help you (and your loved one) explore the sky.