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Actually Useful Advice on Buying a Telescope for Amateur Astronomy

September 17, 2021 5 comments

Long time readers know that I have been interested in astronomy since my childhood. Over the years , I made and bought many telescopes. During my late teens, I seriously considered going into astrophysics instead of.. let us say.. the area of biomedical research. With that in mind, let me tell you something which has always bothered me about amateur astronomy. It goes something like this.. if you ask any semi- well known amateur astronomer about the best telescope a budding amateur needs to buy, they will tell you something that goes like this..

“instrument aperture” is important for capturing faint objects and relatively inexpensive (for the size) dobsonian reflectors such as something from the Orion SkyQuest lineup is the best starter amateur telescope. Some of these aspies (amateur astronomy has a lot of them) might also say something about how refractors are best for the moon, planets and double stars while newtonian reflectors (classical or dobsonian) are best for nebulae and galaxies. A minority might even suggest one of the cheaper Catadioptric telescopes (either a Schmidt–Cassegrain or Maksutov–Cassegrain) such as this one or this other one.

I find these recommendations to be cringe, formulaic and laughable. Even worse, they put off a lot of otherwise interested people from either getting interested in amateur astronomy. In the off chance that somebody decides to spend 500-600 bucks on such a recommendation- most will quickly get tired of using their new toy. But why is that so? Well.. because very few people are born with a strong interest and aptitude in astronomy. To make matters more interesting, the majority of people in western countries live in or near light polluted cities and suburbs making it hard to do decent astronomical observations.

But the problem goes much further. The “starting” telescopes recommended by most amateur astronomers are too unwieldy and hard to setup for children- and here is why this matters. See.. most amateur astronomers start out being interested in astronomy as children, hence anything which cannot be easily handled by a 10-15 year old boy (it is almost always a boy) is a shit “starter telescope. Also, a telescope which is portable, easy to setup and intuitive to use will be used far more frequently than one which is big, unwieldy and finicky to use.

With that in mind, here are my recommendations. The ideal first telescope for anybody is not a telescope at all.. it is a pair of 7×50 or 10×50 binoculars (something like this one or this other one. Even a 10×42 like this one or its slightly more expensive sibling are great tools for finding your way around the sky- something which is absolutely necessary if you decide to buy bigger and more powerful telescopes. Best of all, they all cost less than 200 dollars and can be readily used for other purposes if you decide that astronomy is not your cup of tea. Oh.. and almost everyone in this country either has an outdoor lounge chair or can get one from Walmart or your local home-furnishing store for less than 50 bucks.

Just dress warmly if the weather outside is cold and anybody can start observing from their backyard. While a pair of handheld binoculars wont show you the rings of Saturn (clearly) or the bands on Jupiter, they are more than sufficient to let you see the 4 major moons of Jupiter, the 1 major moon of Saturn, bigger craters on moon, at least a couple hundred decent star clusters (open and globular), star clouds in the milky way, tons of artificial satellites, at least 2 large galaxies in the local cluster (M31 and M33) and probably 50-60 more if you know where to look. Sure.. they won’t look like the carefully color corrected and photoshopped pictures taken over multiple minutes and hours which you see in books on the internet, but at least you are seeing them in person.

I mean.. you actually see a giant galaxy like M87 which is 55 million light years away with a 10×50 binocular on a clear and moonless night. And ya.. it doesn’t look anything as grand as the photos taken through large telescopes, but then again- what were you expecting? Which brings me to the topic of good books for budding amateur astronomers. Once again, I have to say that some of the older books, which can still be used, are far better than newer ones. Here are a few good ones (link 1, link 2, link 3, link 4 and link 5). A red color flashlight, like this one, is useful for reading paper star-charts without spoiling your night vision. Star-charts and apps on smartphones are not as useful you might think, especially if the temperature is low and the battery decides to keep losing its charge.

But what if you still wanted a “real” telescope. Well.. here is my principal suggestion- Orion Observer 80ST 80mm Equatorial Refractor Telescope Kit (under 200 dollars). Just make sure you read up, or see a YouTube video, on how to setup an equatorial mount before using it for the first time. You can get the non-kit version for just under 150 dollars, but the kit version is better value for money. I can think of other options, but they are all above 200 dollars- and it is hard to justify people spending more than that on something which they may, or may not, continue using regularly after purchasing.

And don’t forget Stellarium, a free and open-source planetarium software (if does much more) to get an idea of what you see in the night sky from any place on earth and time, including through specific telescope and eyepiece combinations.

What do you think? Comments?