This year has been rough. Before I give any advice on telescopes, please consider inspiring those who were hardest hit. A donation to Astronomers Without Borders is a powerful gift since hope, inspired by a cosmic perspective, can be the most important gift of all.
1) Telescopes are for skywatching. That means you should think beyond the glass and metal telescope and think about what it represents!
Subscribe to a great sky-watching podcast, like Sky Tour. At home, point your computer to www.heavens-above.com. On the go? Use your mobile device and dial up Heavens Above or download the android app: Heavens Above. On your Apple device, perhaps Star Chart is what you’ve needed all your life.
Really have the cosmic itch? See a star show at your local planetarium! (Make sure to ask which one is about constellations, though.) Go to your local skywatching sessions. Planetarium staff and telescope owners are friendly, polite, and love answering questions about the heavens.
NOTE: If you aren’t very interested in #1, you shouldn’t buy anything yet.
2) Want to buy something? What is your budget?
If a telescope is new and costs less than $200, it is likely plastic junk that will be hard to aim, hard to see through, and it will frustrate you into never using it again. If this is your budget, you have two options: binoculars or Craig’s List (or estate sales or other informal sales markets).
Ready to spend more? $400 is likely to get you a solid, satisfying piece of equipment along with good eyepieces and a case. Most will have a hand-paddle with buttons that will allow you to point the scope and align it to the sky easily. So which kind to buy?
I like this guide: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/types-of-telescopes/
3) Now think about logistics, like telescope weight and bulk.
(The Celestron CPC-8 and the author hoping you aren’t thinking “weight” and “bulk”)
In that picture, I look really happy, right? But that 85-lb telescope plus eyepieces case, stepstool, and power pack to keep it running…it means I can’t just grab this all the time. And taking it camping? Only if my vehicle can pull right up to the observing site.
The scope I’ve had for 20 years, however, is the one below and I take it out ten times as often. It’s just easy, light, and while it doesn’t collect as much light or give me as many heavenly bodies to look at, it’s more than enough to see the Moon and planets and a few things I really want to show my friends. (You can’t see the smile in this photo, but it’s there.)
(The Meade ETX-90 projecting the Sun just before the August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse)
4) Where can you get your scope and eyepieces, tripod, and other accessories?
Pick up a copy of Astronomy Magazine or Sky & Telescope from your local bookstore’s magazine stands and flip through the ads. There are a lot of choices.
I own a device from each of the “big three” telescope manufacturers and I love them all. Don’t make me choose!
…but, High Point Scientific has always given me balanced perspective regardless of the label on the telescope.
4) Want a more comprehensive guide of equipment? A thorough overview of how to select a telescope or set of binoculars, as well as what to do once you own it is written by a man who owns dozens of telescopes and reviews them professionally: Ed Ting. Check out his site http://www.scopereviews.com/begin.html
5) Last words of advice that might seem random, but you can thank me for them later:
- Bug spray can destroy your optics. Don’t spray bug repellent near your eyepieces, telescope, finder scope, or filter sets. Don’t wipe your hands (or allow others to) on your telescopic equipment if you have bug spray oil on them.
- Have kids and adults hold the footstool handle when looking through the eyepiece. If not, they a) could lose balance, and b) could grab your telescope and misalign it (or worse).
- Fall, Winter, or Spring: Layers. And fingerless gloves. And hats. And blankets. And hot chocolate or coffee (off to the side, of course).
- Cut off the mouth of a red balloon and put the remaining balloon snugly over your flashlights. Red light doesn’t harm your night vision, but other colors will!
and most importantly…
- Skywatching is best done with friends and family. Sharing this experience means, among other things, not being terrified of accidentally falling upward into the sky and floating away into lonely and empty space by yourself. But it mostly means enjoying time pondering philosophy, science, art, and folklore with your own special community.
Good luck, Happy Holidays, and may all your skies be filled with stars!
To find out how 62 astronauts learned about the stars at Morehead Planetarium and the man who made that training program happen, check out Tony Jenzano, Astronaut Trainer.