Question: I got a telescope as a birthday gift, but haven’t been able to find anything other than the Moon. What’s the trick to using this thing? — RW, New River, AZ
Answer: If your telescope looks anything like the one shown above, it’s not your fault. Sadly, many scopes received as gifts are poorly constructed and just not capable of viewing much more than the Moon. These “discount store scopes” are a major source of frustration for those seeking the wonders of the night sky. And, they’re one of the main reasons people quit astronomy before giving it a fair chance.
Also disappointing are those “historical replica” scopes with the shiny brass coatings. They look good on a bookshelf, but few are of astronomical quality. As a general rule, any scope that costs less than $100 isn’t going to be of much use for serious astronomy. For a beginner, no problem, but you gotta recognize the limitations.
I would recommend you attend an observation session (often called a “Star Party”) hosted by a local amateur astronomy club. You’ll have the opportunity there to “audition” many fine scopes, observe the night sky through high-quality optics, and get answers to your questions about what to do next.
In the meantime, get a planisphere (under $20) to learn your way around the night sky. Search online, or at a local map store, and you’ll find many choices. They can be set to your current date and time, and show you what’s up in the sky. Learning the constellations (groups of stars that form a shape) and major stars, by name, is a crucial first step. Once you’re familiar with this “road map” it’ll be much easier to locate whatever you want to find. Even with a cheap scope, you should be able to see a few dozen amazing sights … you just have to know where to aim.