A beginner's guide to buying a telescope
Chances are if you are reading this, you’ve already looked through at least a few telescopes either at the Observatory or through one you already own.
This time of year is the time when folks often consider buying a telescope either for them or as a gift. They can be hard to resist, especially in the big chain stores or club warehouse stores. The packaging is incredible, the photos on the boxes are gorgeous and the price can be very appealing.
The first thing we at the Oregon Observatory ask you, no BEG you, is to hold off making an impulse purchase on an astronomical instrument. Too often those telescopes bought from local big box stores end up being relegated to a closet or a garage after one or two brief and frustrating uses. A lot of the reason this occurs has to do with the marketing the manufacturers use to sell the telescopes and often, those same manufacturers are the ones that supply serious amateurs their instruments - shame on them.
Think about what the telescope will be used for and by whom. Often, once considered, it makes more sense to buy a decent binocular and a beginner level star chart or binocular book. Binoculars are quite handy for far more than astronomy and the chances of them being used a lot more than a telescope is very good. Most experienced amateur astronomers carry a binocular out into the field with them and their scope. Actually, if you think about it, binoculars are really two small telescopes joined together. They are “refractor” telescopes and are quite handy to own.
There are three basic types of telescopes. I already mentioned the REFRACTOR telescope. The refractor has a lens at one end and a place to put an eyepiece at the other. This is the design most folks think of when they think telescope. The NEWTONIAN telescope is usually a tube with a large mirror at one end, a smaller mirror near the top and a place to put an eyepiece near the side at the top of the telescope. The final type of telescope is the CASSEGRAIN telescope which is an instrument that uses multiple mirrors to get the image to the eyepiece.
At our Observatory we use all three types of telescopes in various configurations – this includes our smallest, a four inch refractor, all the way up to our 30 inch Dobsonian and other Newtonians and Cassegrain scopes in between. Virtually every telescope we use is considered amateur but some of them cost many thousands of dollars. It may surprise you, however, that some of the telescopes we use are rather modestly priced at under $600!
A decent quality telescope can be purchased for about $250 and sometimes for a whole lot less when the manufacturers have them on sale. For many years we have recommended an eight or a ten inch Dobsonian telescope as the perfect beginner’s scope. They start around $400. For a smaller budget, there is four and a half inch Dobsonian called a StarBlast. Those run around $210. They come equipped with a very stable table top mount and have consistently received top notch reviews from some of the best amateurs and reviewers out there. We most often recommend Newtonian scopes (a Dobsonian is a type of Newtonian) because they give you the most bang for the buck. Any of the above telescopes can keep you busy for a long, long time and they are quality instruments.
Regarding Refractor telescopes, there are a lot of decent telescopes that are affordable but the negative is the mounts they come with. Usually the mounts are rather unstable and hard to use. Often, to buy a decent mount the cost is at least as much as the telescope or even more! The one line that is the exception is the Orion StarBlast Refractor telescopes. They are table top refracting telescopes with a solid mount like the StarBlast above. The StarBlast Refractor is an 80 mm telescope (only a bit over three inches). Once you get your feet wet with a telescope of choice and decide to get more serious, the sky is the limit with refractors price-wise and likewise with the mount.
The Cassegrain telescopes come in a variety of configurations. At the Observatory we use a type called Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes (SCT). For our outreach we most often use eight inch SCT’s. In the observatory we frequently are using a nine and a quarter inch SCT, a ten inch SCT, an eleven inch SCT and a fourteen inch SCT. SCT’s are considered the “jack of all trade” telescopes and like the refractor can be purchased on a variety of mounts. Most often, the SCT’s are on mounts that track celestial objects automatically and some have a function that will allow the user to find objects almost effortlessly. Of course, with automation, price begins to climb and can climb quickly. One type of Cassegrain telescope can be purchased for about $650. This is a four inch Maksutov Cassegrain. SCT’s begin at about $1200 and price climbs from there.
All the telescopes mentioned above can be found on the used market as well and around 25% less expensive than retail pricing. They are generally in very good condition with nothing more than a few beauty mark dings or scratches but caution is advised. Some may not be quite right so have an astronomer friend help you check them out.
For what it’s worth, a decent pair of 8x40 or 10x50 binoculars runs around $50 to $100.00. They won’t be top shelf but definitely usable. This might be the way to go.
Telescopes are a wonderful tool and can ignite a hobby that will follow you all your life!
Give us a call at 541-598-4406 if you decide you want to buy some optics. Our staff is knowledgeable and more than willing to help you decide what is best for you. We are a dealer for most of the major brands of optic vendors and can surely steer you in the right direction.