Starting Off Right in Astronomy: Part 3
started is neither as difficult nor as expensive
Tom Trusock 10/08
Lets talk gear.
Picking your first telescope can seem pretty daunting - but in reality
it shouldn't be. As I outlined in Part 1, you've got three basic
choices - a refractor (uses lenses to gather light), a reflector (uses
mirrors) or a cat (uses both). For most folks, the recommendation
pretty clearcut and easy. But I'll get to that in a few minutes.
First off, let's talk about - for many of us - the most important
aspect of getting into any hobby. Setting a budget.
Starting off with a 30"
Telescope MIGHT be a bit overkill...
Listening to some of the conversation on line today, you might think you
need to start off with something well - a little more than you had in
mind. Say an Obsession 30 or AP 160 or something in that
so maybe that's a little exaggeration, but it does seem like newcomers are presented with the ever increasing scale of things.
really, that shouldn't be all that surprising. While most of the
amateurs I've met are the nicest folks in creation, the ones
that hang out in the gear forums tend to be - well, obsessed about
gear. Yes it's true. You'll find folks on CN that really
expensive gear. They mean well, we
but the fact of the matter is buying gear is like anything else in the
world. You decide on a budget and then you start to think - well,
just a little bit more, I can get... Walk carefully, for that way lies madness.
Decide on a budget and stick to it.
Yes, it's true that no matter how much money you spend, you can get
something a little bit better for more. That's a fact of
you should be aware of exactly what your money is buying you.
what the good folks on the forums are trying to get across. We all
you to be happy - and it's natural for folks to want to share what they
have learned. But always remember that what's right for someone
may not be right for you.
In some respects Astronomy is a fairly inexpensive hobby. How
Consider fishing. Well, in it's purist form, it's just a kid in a
straw hat holding a stick with a bit of string and a hook that he
baited using worms he dug up in his back yard. Now, consider the
time you went fishing. The 8 poles, the boat, the gas for the
the permits, the truck required to pull the trailer with the boat on
it, the gas required to get there, the lures, the bait, the live well,
the GPS, the fish finder, the nets, etc... What's more, is that
of those items - like gas, storage, and bait- are a continual expense
that you may need to pay as often as each time you go out.
Astronomy - well, once you've bought your gear, you don't HAVE to buy
anything else. Granted, many people do - but some are happy with
the simple form. Remember Bob and Al from part 1? Well,
One thing that makes Astronomy so enticing to the Al's of the world
tho, is the fact that at it's root - astronomy tends to be a low
depreciation hobby. What do I mean by that? Well, lets say
you buy a
piece of gear used, then in a year decide to move to something
If you buy smart, more often than not you can resell it with very
little loss - basically this means you've used it for a year and then
gone on to recoup most of your money. (This is how a lot of Al's
started riding that gear train.)
So how does this figure into setting a budget?
Well, any new hobby requires some outlay of capital. (Ok, maybe
noodling.) You have to look at the amount of money you can
this. That's your personal decision. Be realistic, about
what you can
spend, and the costs to get in the hobby. (FWIW, you can get
with inexpensive binoculars, internet resources and a book or two for
as little as $50 - see part 2 for more details.) But once you've
budget, stick to it.
I'll suggest a couple of different packages for a couple of different
budgets, but first - let's talk about determining what type of a
telescope you want.
There are a few maxiums in the hobby - one of the ones you hear most
often is that aperture rules. And there's a lot of truth to
Bigger telescopes allow you to go deeper into space. But -
only rules if you are making use of the scope. The best telescope
the one that you'll get the most use out of. For the average
I'd recommend an 8" f6 dobsonian reflector - maybe an upgrade
to a 10"
if you've got the cash and can deal with the added weight. But,
makes a few suppositions - namely that you're, well - average.
is, you live in suburbia somewhere with a backyard, a couple of kids,
two cars and a garage. I'd imagine you store the scope in the
(suitably covered to present exhaust fumes from getting to the optics
please), and can quickly take it out to the backyard where you can
spend an hour or so observing when the urge strikes. If you live
second (or third) floor apartment, then realize that you'd have to
carry that thing up and down the stairs. Not only that, but you
be limited on storage space. If that's the case, a small (80mm)
refractor might be just the ticket.
And of course, when setting a budget, don't forget the
Cases, red flashlight, eyepieces, charts, books and the like. In
early years, my wife and I were constantly discussing my "hidden costs"
for any scope purchase.
Speaking of eyepieces, let's talk about them for a minute. First
beginner eyepieces today are pretty dang good. The typical
that ships with a telescope today is usually a design called a
Plossls provide a fairly wide field of view, and have generally good
correction (meaning the stars generally look like stars from one side
of the eyepiece to the other). Sure, there's an urge in
most of us to
upgrade to the supermegacollosalview units, but recognize, you do not
need to do this. Plossls are so good, the best (like those from Tele
regarded as some of the finest planetary eyepieces on the market, and
observers who have a full collection of the uberexpensive widefields
STILL have a collection of Plossls.
Most of these packages will come with a finder (either magnifying or
unity), a 26mm plossl eyepiece, and a tube cap to keep the dust out when
not in use. You'll also want to pick up some good collimation
With apologies to my friend Vic, I recommend a sight tube and a laser -
there will be time to tweak things later, lets just get started
In addition, grab a spare eyepiece. My personal
preference would be
something along the lines of a 10-12 mm plossl. And you may want
to grab a barlow as well - these are a fairly cost effective method of
doubling your eyepiece collection.
Ok, with that out of the way, lets look at some budgets:
Yes, Virginia you really can get started for under $300. And
three options that I'd suggest.
the least expensive and best buy: a 6" dob.
$300 package 1 - For those
wishing to go the Newtonian route.
Take a look at the Orion
SkyQuest XT 6" Classic for $229. This comes with an eyepiece
and a finder. Then add a 9-10mm inexpensive
plossl for $25 And a GSO
laser collimator for $45
Or an alternate suggestion for those choosing the path of the lens:
$300 package 2- The
Celestron AstroMaster 90 EQ MD
There's lots to see even with a 90mm telescope. The long focal
means false color will be less intrusive than in a faster refractor,
making this a decent choice for studies of the moon and planets
(far better than the next telescope). To me, this is pretty
as in my opinion, the best targets for a small telescope are double
stars, the moon and planets. This one comes with two eyepieces,
and even a motorized tracking mount! It's a dang good deal for the money.
$300 Package 3 (for the
techies can find something in this price range.
For $270, you can also land a Meade
ETX80AT goto scope.
This little guy is pretty complete, but honestly, I feel goto is of
limited value in a scope like this. The reason is that the field
view in these telescopes means they are typically their own
You'll be getting wider fields than you would in the 90mm listed above,
they won't take magnification as well (so I wouldn't really recommend
it for lunar or planetary), and you'll probably notice a bit of
spurious color in the view - but still, this is an amazing price for a
pretty complete kit. Tripod, drive, goto, two eyepieces and cases.
Coupled with the freebies in part 2, any one of these is a
recipie for some enjoyable nights under the stars.
While you can do it (and fairly well) for $300, I must admit the budget
eases a bit when you head to $500 - and if you can afford it, that's
the range I'd recommend you shoot for.
Here's a few packages for the slightly larger budget.
$500 Package 1: 8"
SkyQuest XT8 Dobsonian Relfector - $300
This much aperture can keep you busy for a long time to come, and is a
very good match for an amateur who wants to view deep sky
objects. In my
opinion going from 6" to 8" is a more noticeable difference than going
from 8" to 10" (and for you math heads, the formulas support
That said, it is a larger and heavier telescope and that should be
taken into account as well.
I'd take the extra cash and upgrade the eyepieces a bit - If you want
to get an idea of what the "space walk" feeling is all about, you're probably interested in
trying out a widefield eyepiece or two. There are some good
for surprisingly little amounts of money - consider the Orion
Expanse line. For about $55 dollars an eyepiece, they offer
performance. My favorite in the line is probably the 9mm.
Vue makes some of the finest gear on the
- and their plossls are no exception.
not smitten by the widefield bug, I'd recommend picking up a higher
Plossl - I'm thinking either the 8mm or 11mm. New these run
can be had on the used market for around $65. These are an
that will stay with you for a long time. Experienced observers
agree that these are some of the finest plossls on the market.
Some folks will undoubtedly point out that you can go a couple of
routes when choosing eyepieces. You can go a little less
perhaps get more, or you can opt for quality over quantity. the
choice is yours.
Another option in this price range would be the UO Orthos.
UO Orthos come in two
types - the Classics and the HD (flat tops).
These are another very good option in an inexpensive eyepiece. I
to prefer plossls, but the orthos have a bit better eye relief in
shorter focal lengths. (IE - they are more comfortable at higher
magnifications.) The HD have a little better performance, but the
Classic volcano tops are more comfortable and less expensive.
If you're looking to double your eyepieces, and get to higher powers
while maintaining your comfort factor, then look into a good
I can recommend the Antares
1.6x and the Tele
barlow will be something
you'll have for a long time
Either will run you around $110. And keep in mind with a dob,
you're still going to need that $45
$500 Package 2: Celestron
4" Omni XLT 102 Equatorial Refractor - $429
"Classics" are your thing, consider a refractor.
To this package, I'd add a unit power finder. For a small scope,
QuickFinder is one of my favorites.
Rigel Quickfinder is a small,
and effective finder.
Although if you're looking to really save a couple of bucks, even a $15
bb gun finder from your local megastore will get the job done. You might want
dim it a bit by applying some film, or even a bit of fingernail polish
(I wired a potentiometer in to one). The QuickFinder has
points in it's favor as well, but the bb gun sight will work.
And I'd add a decent moderate or high power eyepiece - one of the options
already discussed above would do nicely. You might also give the
Titans a try.
inexpensive eyepieces offer a 70 deg AFOV.
I picked up a few of these for a class I'm teaching and am pretty
pleased with them overall.
What's that? You say money's not a problem? (As long as
we're within reason?) You
live on a farm, with superb skies, and you're interested in deep sky
objects as well as the moon and planets?
Well, then -
Orion 12" with Intelliscope is one that can
you entertained for years.
Dream Beginner Package
Get yourself a dobsonian reflector. I'd recommend
either the 10" or 12" size to start, and if you're the kind of person
who would rather be looking at an object rather than for and object,
I'd also recommend you pop for Digital Setting Circles. This is a
small computer that attaches to the telescope and tells you what
directions you need to move it to find your chosen target.
My recommendation here would one of the Orion
SkyQuest Intelliscopes To that, I'd add a good barlow and another eyepiece or two.
And that's pretty much it. Well, ok, so I only scratched the
There's LOTS more. Don't forget to take into account portability
- the best telescope is the one that you use. For some that may
mean a 66mm refractor.
Just remember, you're just getting started, you
don't need to be beset with paralysis by analysis. There's lots
folks who'll gleefully help you from here on out, and seek other
opinions. Gear changes, and things tend to live on the internet
long time. Not all of the items I've discussed here will probably
available down the line, but the basic ideas will remain the same.
A few points to remember:
There's tons of decent gear out there for beginners. Don't assume
that I wouldn't recommend it if I didn't mention it here - I'm trying
to be helpful by presenting some decent suggestions.
- The differences between similarly priced telescopes
of the same design tend to be quite subtle (if they exist at all - it's
not at all uncommong for telescopes from different manufacturers today
come right off the same assembly lines in Taiwain and China).
- That said, don't be nailed to a particular product.
- You don't need to drop a ton of cash to have fun in
this hobby. Really, you don't.
- Take advertising with a grain of salt.
- Remember, on the internet, everyone has their own
opinion. And it may not mesh with yours. Heck, in extreme
cases, some don't appear to mesh with reality.
- Get out and see for yourself. Get thee to a
- Seek a mentor. Join a star party. Find an
amateur in your area. Seek assistance online.
- And finally, but maybe most important - don't stress
about your scope once you've got it. Experienced hands tend to
argue about star tests and optical aberrations. Worry about that
down the line - if at all. The point here is to get your feet wet
and get out under the stars. Above all, enjoy yourself.
If you've got questions, be certain to check out the Beginners forum on
CN. We're a friendly forum, and we go to special lengths to
that one's even friendlier. Stop by, introduce yourself.
friends, and learn about the cosmos. What better way to spend a
BTW: I have a special request for you non-beginners. Pay it
some outreach. Call up the local school or youth group and ask
they'd like to schedule an Astronomy night. Don't use that old
you don't feel you know enough - nobody ever feels they know
Just jump in. When you're inspiring a child by showing them their
first views of Saturn, it really doesn't matter if you can't
exactly how far away it is. The view is what it's all
job is to provide the willing body and the telescope. The
will do the rest.
A thank you to Astronomics for allowing me
to use some of their photos for this article.