Monday, November 5, 2007

Your First Telescope: A Cautionary Tale for the Holidays

When you are ready to acquire your first telescope, or a first telescope for a child, please please please think twice before buying it in a department store, grocery store, or big box store. Do not be seduced by the misleading hype on the packaging, like “high power!” and “400 times magnification!” Magnification (power) is only one part of the equation for telescope performance, and you are probably going to be disappointed. Instead, get something that is a real astronomical instrument, not a hard-to-use piece of junk with bad optics that will end up collecting dust in a closet.

In my opinion, the best first telescope money can buy is the StarBlast Astro by Orion Telescopes & Binoculars. It is compact and easy to store. It is easy to set up and use. You can set it up on a tabletop. Younger children can set it up on a stool or chair, or even the ground. It has quality optics. It costs less than $200. In my opinion, it is the most inexpensive GOOD telescope around.

The StarBlast Astro will give you great views of the Moon, the planets, and some of the brighter deep-sky objects such as the Pleiades, the Beehive Cluster, and the Andromeda Galaxy—even in the city where you must contend with light pollution.

The Pleiades aka The Seven Sisters

If you have more money to spend, you are certain that you are committed to telescope observing, and you want something with more light-gathering power for deep-sky observing of galaxies, nebulae, etc., please please please think twice before buying a “go-to” scope. A go-to scope is one of those motorized scopes that automatically moves to an object in its catalog when you enter a command in an attached computer unit or hand paddle. I’m not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with go-to scopes; they have their uses for seasoned observers. However, I believe that they do not serve the beginner well. You won’t learn the night sky at all if you have a computer doing all the work for you. This is lazy astronomy! Do not deny yourself the deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment you will get from locating deep-sky objects using your brain, your eyes, and a star map or star chart.

If you want the next step up from the StarBlast, I suggest you take a look at Orion’s SkyQuest Classic line of reflector telescopes, available in a variety of sizes. They are Dobsonian design, same as the StarBlast, and you simply can’t beat a Dob for ease of use. The first telescope I used was a six-inch Dob, and I found all 110 Messier objects with it (the Messier list of deep-sky objects is a staple of amateur observers--pronounced MESS ee yay).

By the way, I have no affiliation whatsoever with Orion Telescopes, except as a satisfied customer. I find their products to perform well and to be reasonably priced. I can find the accessories I need in their catalog, and they too are reasonably priced. Their customer service and order fulfillment is very good. I also like the way they do business; their company doesn’t smack of unbridled greed, like certain other telescope manufacturers who rush to market with substandard products and mislead consumers with shamelessly over-the-top hype.

So, now you have had the guesswork taken out of your first telescope purchase. Step away from the department store telescope! You have been warned.