Q&A: Buying Your First Telescope

Question: I’m thinking about buying someone a telescope as a Christmas gift. Problem is, I don’t know that much about telescopes, or what would be a good choice for a beginner. Any suggestions? — SS, New River, AZ

Answer: I get that question a lot during the holidays. Also popular is “I got a telescope as a gift but have no idea how to operate it. Can you help?” and “I got a telescope as a gift but can’t see anything besides the Moon. What am I doing wrong?” I answered that last question way back in my April 5, 2006 post. For the first question: RTFM (read the fine manual). But in this post, I’ll focus on the question asked by SS.

The graphic at top is recycled from my April 5, 2006 post. It’s worth including here, just as a reminder of what you don’t want to purchase. And before proceeding any further, you might also want to read this: 1stScope.pdf. It was written back in 1994 for a column I was doing in PAStimes, the newsletter (then in print only) of the Phoenix Astronomical Society. Some of the telescope stores mentioned have since closed, but 30+ years later my advice is still sound.

When I moved to Arizona in 1978 there were several telescope shops in the Phoenix area. Today, there’s only one “real” astronomy shop left in the state: Starizona. And you’ll need to drive to Tucson to shop there. That’s ironic for a state that has one of the largest concentration of telescopes in the world. Astronomy brings $250 million into Arizona each year and provides 3,300 jobs — about the same economic impact as hosting a Superbowl.

If you don’t want to make the drive to Tucson there are some alternatives. The reason most local astronomy shops have closed their doors is their inability to compete with online vendors. The internet didn’t much exist when I wrote that column for PAStimes, but these days it’s probably your best bet for finding the right telescope.

You can find a few decent telescope models at large chains like Best Buy or Walmart, but you need to be careful to avoid the problems identified in the graphic. That said, here’s some links to good choices for a first scope:

Those links should keep you busy for awhile. But I need to emphasize one thing: For a first telescope, especially for a child, do not purchase one of those fancy computerized “go-to” telescopes. For an experienced observer those scopes have their place. You simply enter the object you want to observe in a keypad (or from a computer), and the telescope will automatically point itself at the object of interest (if it’s above the horizon). But there are some caveats:

  • These scopes can cost thousand of dollars, so it’s better to spend less and see if you even like the hobby first.
  • They require an initial setup process (and vocabulary) that can be confusing to beginners.
  • You miss out on learning your way around the night sky with only your eyes — key to mastering astronomy.

I get several phone calls or emails every year from people who’ve purchased one of these “go-to” scopes for big money and can’t figure out how to use them. To understand the manual (if they even read it), they need a grasp of basic astronomy and the vocabulary that goes along with it. These scopes are not nearly as “plug & play” as the ads suggest. 

That’s why I always recommend starting out cheap. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to start with binoculars and a planisphere. FYI: planispheres are designed for specific latitude ranges, so be sure to get the correct model. With that basic equipment you can learn your way around the night sky, recognize the constellations, and know the names of bright stars. Plus, you can do it for around $100.

If you want to know where the Moon or planets are (something a planisphere can’t show you), I highly recommend the free open-source digital planetarium Cartes du Ciel. It will run on tablets and smartphones, so it’s as portable as a planisphere. If it’s running on a desktop, you can print charts to take outside. I’ve been using it for 5 years now.

Next Week in Sky Lights ⇒ Santa’s Sleigh Sighted?

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