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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 4:21 pm | A Few Clouds 66º

 
 
 
 
Astronomy

Dennis Mammana: What to Look for When Buying Your First Telescope

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Buy your first telescope this winter. (Creators.com illustration)

During many of my public stargazing programs, I’m frequently asked, “What kind of telescope should I buy?”

If you’re considering presenting that special stargazer in your life with a telescope this holiday season — or even buying one for yourself — you will do well to answer the following 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.

Second, what do you want to observe? If the moon, planets or daytime terrestrial scenery capture your interest, or if you live under light-polluted skies, a smaller-diameter telescope (2 inches or so) will do fine. You’ll need a larger light bucket (4 inches or more) 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 and are best for viewing bright objects like the moon and planets. Reflectors use mirrors, and typically, the same price will get you a larger-diameter instrument.

No matter which type of telescope you choose, it must be equipped with a rock-solid tripod or mounting in order to be useful. And as far as the new go-to instruments whose computer aims the telescope for you, I strongly recommend against these for beginners 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 are my recommendations: 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, along with 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 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 will provide you and your family with a wonderful and lifelong tool of discovery and won’t wind up in the closet alongside the NordicTrack!

Click here to learn more about telescopes and binoculars from Sky & Telescopes.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.

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