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CN Report: Starting Off Right in Astronomy Pt. 3

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Starting Off Right in Astronomy: Part 3
Tom Trusock 10/08

Getting started is neither as difficult nor as expensive
you might think...

This is Part 3 in a series... Part 1, Part 2

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 is 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 order.  Ok, so maybe that's a little exaggeration, but it does seem like newcomers are presented with the ever increasing scale of things.  And 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 enjoy expensive gear.  They mean well, we all do, 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, for just a little bit more, I can get...  Walk carefully, for that way lies madness.  Seriously. 

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 life.  And you should be aware of exactly what your money is buying you.  This is what the good folks on the forums are trying to get across.  We all want 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 else, may not be right for you. 

In some respects Astronomy is a fairly inexpensive hobby.  How so?  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 last time you went fishing.  The 8 poles, the boat, the gas for the motor, 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 some 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 it in the simple form.  Remember Bob and Al from part 1?  Well, think Bob.

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 else.  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 got 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 not noodling.)   You have to look at the amount of money you can sink into 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 started 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 set a 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 that.  Bigger telescopes allow you to go deeper into space.  But - aperture only rules if you are making use of the scope.  The best telescope is the one that you'll get the most use out of.  For the average adult, 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, this makes a few suppositions - namely that you're, well - average.  That 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 garage (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 in a 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 might 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 accessories.  Cases, red flashlight, eyepieces, charts, books and the like.  In my 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 off, beginner eyepieces today are pretty dang good.  The typical eyepiece that ships with a telescope today is usually a design called a plossl.  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 Vue) are 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 tools.   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 now.  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 here's three options that I'd suggest.

Probably 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

Total: $299

Or an alternate suggestion for those choosing the path of the lens:

$300 package 2- The Celestron AstroMaster 90 EQ MD

Tracking included.

There's lots to see even with a 90mm telescope.  The long focal ratio 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 important as in my opinion, the best targets for a small telescope are double stars, the moon and planets.  This one comes with two eyepieces, finder and even a motorized tracking mount! It's a dang good deal for the money.

Total: $269

$300 Package 3 (for the techhead)

Even 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 of view in these telescopes means they are typically their own finders.  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.

Total: $269.95

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" Orion 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 this).  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 choices for surprisingly little amounts of money - consider the Orion Expanse line.  For about $55 dollars an eyepiece, they offer quite decent performance.  My favorite in the line is probably the 9mm. 

Tele Vue makes some of the finest gear on the
 market - and their plossls are no exception.

If you're not smitten by the widefield bug, I'd recommend picking up a higher power TeleVue Plossl - I'm thinking either the 8mm or 11mm.  New these run around $85, but can be had on the used market for around $65.  These are an eyepiece that will stay with you for a long time.  Experienced observers tend to 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 expensive and 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 tend 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 barlow. 

I can recommend the Antares 1.6x  and the Tele Vue 2x

A good 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 collimator:

$500 Package 2:  Celestron 4" Omni XLT 102 Equatorial Refractor - $429

If "Classics" are your thing, consider a refractor.

To this package, I'd add a unit power finder.  For a small scope, the Rigel QuickFinder is one of my favorites. 

The Rigel Quickfinder is a small,
lightweight 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 to 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 several other 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 new Astro-Tech Titans a try. 

These 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 - 

The Orion 12" with Intelliscope is one that can
keep 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 surface.  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 of folks who'll gleefully help you from here on out, and seek other opinions.  Gear changes, and things tend to live on the internet for a long time.  Not all of the items I've discussed here will probably be available down the line, but the basic ideas will remain the same.

A few points to remember:
  1. 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).
  2. That said, don't be nailed to a particular product.
  3. You don't need to drop a ton of cash to have fun in this hobby.  Really, you don't.
  4. Take advertising with a grain of salt. 
  5. 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.
  6. Get out and see for yourself.  Get thee to a star party.
  7. Seek a mentor.  Join a star party.  Find an amateur in your area.  Seek assistance online.
  8. 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.
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.

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 ensure that one's even friendlier.  Stop by, introduce yourself.  Make some friends, and learn about the cosmos.  What better way to spend a Cloudy Night?

-Tom T.

BTW: I have a special request for you non-beginners.  Pay it forward.  Do some outreach.  Call up the local school or youth group and ask them if they'd like to schedule an Astronomy night.  Don't use that old excuse you don't feel you know enough - nobody ever feels they know enough.  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 remember exactly how far away it is.   The view is what it's all about.  Your job is to provide the willing body and the telescope.  The universe will do the rest.

A thank you to Astronomics for allowing me to use some of their photos for this article.

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