I have been active in the New Hampshire Astronomical Society over the past two years, both via online communications with the membership and via public observing sessions – in person before COVID-19 and online via webinars, our Facebook page, etc., ever since. It’s been wonderful to reach hundreds of people in partnership with other NHAS members via these channels. I have had reports of people going out after our outreach sessions with observing lists we have provided and finding object with their naked eyes, with binoculars, and with small telescopes. Comet NEOWISE was also a big hit. I find all of this very gratifying!
And, as a result, I have been getting an increasing number of personal inquiries from novice, aspiring astronomers about equipment…
I’m fairly experienced and very passionate about visual observing but by no means an expert. (I’m not an astrophotographer.) I also have my own biases about the equipment I like to use personally. All of that said, if put to it right now, I would advise someone with no experience who is just starting out and who wants to get a telescope for visual observing to:
- Start with binoculars instead – any pair on hand (in almost any conditions except the brightest city centers) plus a planisphere, an S&T Pocket Star Altas or equivalent, something like Gary Seronik’s “Binocular Highlights: 99 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users,” and a red flashlight. (And, yes, maybe Sky Safari or equivalent on an iPhone/iPad/Android, although at some point it seems important to me to be able to find things the “old-fashioned way” without these technology tools…)
- Always make a plan for what you are trying to observe; make that plan consist of fewer, brighter objects per evening early on/as starting points; and research the objects in advance so you know what you are looking for.
- Be persistent, work the plan(s), and get basically proficient at finding said objects (bright, prominent ones – moon, planets, open clusters, etc., whatever is interesting and bright) with said equipment under real, varying conditions.
- Write down basic notes on the conditions you experienced and what you see and maybe even do some basic drawing/sketching of what is seen.
- Spend some extended time under the stars right where you are using said equipment and said approach and find out if late nights or early mornings out exploring the stars are proving to be gratifying and enjoyable.
And then, if all of the above is working out, to go get….
- Nicer binoculars if you want/need, plus,
- An ST120 (or equivalent) on a basic, non-GoTo alt/az mount with RACI optical finder + some type of zero-power finder plus an observing chair and a simple table where you can put charts, a flashlight, binoculars, a notebook, etc., OR
- An Orion XT6 (or equivalent) dob with RACI optical finder + some type of zero-power finder + provided eyepieces (light, quick to cool down, easy to collimate/very forgiving of collimation errors) OR
- An Orion XT8 (or equivalent) with RACI optical finder + some type of zero-power finder + provided eyepieces (still fairly light, somewhat quick to cool down, still fairly easy to collimate, and still fairly forgiving of collimation errors) OR
- An Orion XT8i (or equivalent) with RACI optical finder + some type of zero-power finder (plus all of the above and PushTo comes to the star party)
- And, with any of these, use your binoculars along with your scope and finders to help find and observe objects in the night sky.
Of these scopes (and I have owned/used them all except the XT8i but do have a PushTo 10” dob), I think I would lean toward the ST120 on a manual, alt-az mount as a recommended first scope because:
- It’s inexpensive – if it turns out that binoculars are really his or her thing or if astronomy in general really isn’t his or her thing, not much $$$ has been spent.
- It’s easy to mount, lightweight, and portable.
- It doesn’t need to be collimated or cooled to get good, low-power views right off the bat during an observing session – even with poor seeing and/or big thermal differentials during the session.
- It doesn’t need to be aligned beyond basic finder-to-primary alignment.
- It easily produces clean, low-power, wide-field views that make finding bright objects (like the Pleiades, the Double Custer, the brighter planets, etc.) that much easier.
- It’s got enough aperture to allow an inexperienced urban observer to see the brightest objects.
- Most beginners would not find the attendant chromatic aberration on the brightest objects immediately noticeable/objectionable.
As much as GoTo or PushTo can really help – especially in urban settings with a lot of light pollution – I am biased (maybe wrongly) to think that starting off by learning how to find bright objects via manual star hopping from bright marker stars is a good way to build fundamental skills and enjoy the hobby. And, manual rigs are less complex, less expensive, lighter/more portable, don’t need a power source, etc.
I acknowledge that I would not be happy owning an ST120 now as an only scope now, but as a beginner I think I might have found it to be a very good starting point.
I would appreciate your constructive criticism of all of the above.