A shootout with pop-guns - Celestronís tiny Dob vs. an old
by Greg Stone
Can you get any real satisfaction out of using a tiny
beginnerís scope? More important, can a beginner? Thatís what was going
through my mind as I purchased two beginnerís scopes recently, one the
76mm Celestron 21024 FirstScope promoted as having been ďnamed Official
Product of International Year of Astronomy 2009.Ē The second was a type
I had owned in my early days as an amateur and discarded, so itís in
the neighborhood of 40-50 years old - a 50mm Tasco 6TE-5.
I wonít keep you in suspense. The main focus of this review is
the FirstScope since itís readily available, and my conclusion is that
neither the FirstScope nor the Tasco gives much satisfaction out of the
box. But with modifications that take them both out of their initial
price niche, they can be made usable - so usable that the 50mm Tasco
has captured a lot of my recent observing time. More on that later.
Unfortunately, after more than six hours of testing both
little scopes on various observing conditions under my 5.5 New England
skies, I discovered Orion makes what looks like the optical/mechanical
twin of the FirstScope, labels it the ďFunScope,Ē and sells it for the
same price they charge for the FirstScope. But Orion introduced
modifications that coincidentally speak to each of my complaints with
the little Celestron. Wish I had bought it instead!
No, I do not have any connection with Orion, Celestron, Tasco,
or any telescope manufacturer or retailer. I have been an amateur
astronomer for half a century and written about telescopes and
binoculars for various magazines. I do enjoy doing public outreach with
my scopes, and so Iím always on the lookout for something I can
recommend to beginners. Sadly, I could not recommend the FirstScope, as
purchased, to beginners and since I havenít tried the Orion, I donít
know if I could recommend it.
The FirstScope is surprisingly well constructed. And how could
you argue with the price tag? I paid $45 and that included free
shipping. It has a near terminal case of the cutes that appealed to me
as soon as I took it out of the box, and I suspect would be very
appealing to a child. But here are my problems:
- The supplied eyepieces, a 4mm Symmetrical Ramsden and 20mm
Huygens are outdated designs. The 4mm is so bad that it casts far more
color around the moon than the 50mm achromatic refractor does.
- The lack of a finder is deadly. I am used to using small
refractors without a finder, but even the 20mm eyepiece yields a pretty
small field of view that I estimated at roughly 2 degrees. (I couldnít
quite get Eta Herculis and M13 in the same field.) The only way I could
find the Moon - Iím not kidding, the Moon - with this scope was to get
behind it. That sort of negated the advantages of a simple, table-top
- Speaking of table-top, Iím no fan of this idea. It evokes
visions of camping out and using the picnic table, but the truth is
that one of the advantages of this scope should be no set-up time - yet
I did end up spending lots of time looking for a suitable place to set
it down that was at a comfortable observing height. The first time I
used it I dragged out an old trunk from the shed and set it on that.
- Instructions are scant and poor. They address, for example,
the altitude tension adjustment, but not the azimuth tension, which is
a nut on the base that would not be quite so obvious to a beginner as
the altitude, which has a large knob in plain sight.
How does Orion address these issues with the FunScope?
- They provide a really great instruction manual with loads
helpful general information for the beginner, as well as specifics on
altitude and azimuth tension adjustment and even offer a crude form of
- While itís the same table-top Dob design, they include a
3/8"-to-1/4"-20 threaded adapter for tripod attachment - that seems to
be a good alternative to a table top.
- They include a red dot finder.
The FunScope comes with 20mm and 10mm eyepieces. What types? I
donít know. But just the fact that they choose 10mm as the high power
makes more sense to me than trying to use a 4mm SR when the primary is
an f/3.9 spherical mirror. Remember, I have not tried the Orion scope
and so I donít have any idea what the quality is. Obviously at this
price not high, but perhaps acceptable.
If youíre wondering about that fast spherical mirror, it isnít
the big problem. I actually tried a 5mm Nagler in the FirstScope and
got a very satisfactory image of the Moon. Of course this is silly. No
one in their right mind will spend $50 for a telescope, and then buy a
$275 eyepiece! I suspect a PlŲssl would do quite well, but if you equip
the little scope with inexpensive PlŲssls you will still quickly double
Celestron offers an accessory kit, and once more, you canít
argue with the price, but I have to be skeptical of the quality. (I did
not buy it.) Amazon was selling this for $17.32, and it included the
following: 12.5mm and 6mm eyepieces, moon filter, 5x24 finder scope,
CD-Rom, and a nylon carrying bag. It may be unfair, but given the poor
quality of the original eyepieces, I canít imagine that the additional
ones would be much of an improvement, and while I think a finder scope
could help, it seems to me a red dot would be easier to use than a 5X24
straight through optical finer. The moon filter is a good idea since
thatís likely to be the main target for any beginner with a small
scope, and with the 76mm objective the moon is bright enough to be
irritating, especially when near full.
There are several categories of potential users for this
scope, so I donít reject it outright. I can imagine amateurs with young
children buying it to encourage the child to do as they do. They could
equip it with a red dot finder, and they probably have some suitable
eyepieces for it already. That would work. It could also be viewed more
as a toy that actually works (somewhat) and perhaps fill a niche that
way. But if adults - or a family with children - asked me if they
should purchase this as their first telescope, Iíd say no. My
recommendation to adults is always to start with binoculars, but if
they were looking for a small telescope on a tight budget, be prepared
to invest something like $100 to $200.
And that, by the way, is a good thing to keep in mind when you
look at the 50mm Tasco 6-TE5. When I bought this, one thing that was
going through my mind was whether beginning enthusiasts got a better
break 40 years ago than they do today. But given inflation, in real
dollars they were paying a lot more for the Tasco then, than we pay for
a beginnerís scope today.
So what do I think of my 50mm Tasco 6-TE5?
I love it.
But I bought it here on Cloudy Nights classifieds. I mount it
on either a camera tripod or my AstroTech Voyager, and I use good
eyepieces with it. I found it easy to point a small refractor because
you sit behind it, and a 32mm PlŲssl gives me a true field of nearly
3.5 degrees at 19X. Whatís more, the previous owner said it had been
ďrecently nulled and collimated by someone in the know about such
things,Ē and either the owner, or this other person, had given it a
very nice, fresh coat of matte black paint and added two 1/4-20 blocks
underneath it to which was attached a Vixen-style dovetail.
Thatís a far cry from what someone got when s/he bought this
scope originally. As sold to beginners in the 1960s it included a
wimpy-looking table-top tripod, a minuscule straight-through finder -
think of trying to use that combination for a moment while pointing at
something high - and three .965 Huygens eyepieces.
Donít turn up your nose at the .965 eyepieces. The scope I
purchased on Cloudy Nights included several of these and some - with
the included .965 diagonal - are quite good. But I l prefer to use the
.965-to-1.25 hybrid diagonal that also came with my purchase, plus
better eyepieces from my own collection. It also included a couple
finders, but I prefer to use the 32mm eyepiece as a finder.
Once equipped this way I have been having a ball with the
little scope. Though an achromat, at f/12 I have to really look for
color fringing and only on the brightest objects, I am enthralled with
the way it splits bright double stars such as Almach, Castor, Algieba,
Mizar, and Albireo. Charming little round points of light! The Orion
Nebula and Trapezium can blow you away in this scope. I tested this
side-by-side with the Celestron FirstScope, and while the nebula was
impressive in the FirstScope, I had a devil of a time seeing more than
a couple of stars in the Trapezium. But, of course, with the FirstScope
I was using the eyepieces that came with it. The 50mm, though smaller,
had the advantage of much better - and more expensive - eyepieces. Star
clusters like the Pleiades and Beehive are also quite impressive in the
50mm, as were the galaxies M81 and M82. (M65 and M66 were just
detectable, as was M51. For me it was a thrill to see these with such a
small instrument, but Iím afraid a beginner would either not see them
at all, or not be very impressed.)
What did all this say to me? It said that a beginner - or
experienced observer - could have a lot of fun, even with a scope as
small as 50mm. But neither experienced user not beginner is going to
get much satisfaction out of a new scope where the total investment
today is $50 with no add-ons.
Bottom line: the FirstScopeóas purchasedóis a good toy;
the 50mm Tasco as extensively modified gets to stay up late and play
with the adults.