What should I buy my (insert recipient) as their first telescope?
by John Nangreaves and David Chapman
The short answer is: don't. Let's take a few minutes to answer some common questions and to clear up some misconceptions before investing any (more) money in equipment that may end up hiding in a closet, basement, or garage for the rest of its life.
All too often telescopes purchased by well-meaning but poorly informed family members end up not being used. This is usually because inappropriate equipment is bought, usually with the mindset that "I won't buy anything expensive in case I/they don't like astronomy after all". This is a perfectly reasonable view, but tends to lead to the purchase of cheap and poorly made instruments that don't perform as expected and spoil the experience. The upside is that we amateur astronomers know this all too well, and are fervently dedicated to preventing it whenever possible!
Please consult us!
Your best first step is to consult with an experienced amateur astronomer. We're everywhere; you probably know a few and don't even know it. Failing that, contact your local or regional astronomy club, association, or society. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) has Centres in just about every major Canadian city. I assure you, amateur astronomers are always willing to help newcomers, just as they were helped when they started, and have strong convictions about continuing that tradition. Most independent clubs and RASC Centres have monthly meetings, always open and encouraging the public to attend. Some even have specific meetings or events for newcomers; Astronomy For Beginners Night. (Author's note: this was my introduction to organized amateur astronomy; I was invited by a friend who is an experienced astronomer.)
But if you STILL want to buy a telescope
Back to the subject at hand; you want to buy a telescope. There are too many things to consider for a short article, so we'll just look at the top of the list. First to consider is the age of the candidate; an 8 year-old, an 18 year-old, a 48 year-old, and an 80 year-old all have different perspectives based on age. We wouldn't expect an 8 year-old or an 80 year-old to move a 60-pound telescope; nor would we expect an 8 year-old to assemble and use a complicated "GoTo" mount (although some would be up to the task). Astronomy is an outdoor hobby; an 18 year-old and a 48 year-old may be reasonably comfortable being outdoors in cold weather for hours, the younger and older are less likely so. Also to be considered is "personality"; are they already dedicated astronomy fans, have no experience or knowledge whatsoever, or most likely somewhere in between. You have to judge for yourself the suitability of the equipment for the person in mind.
Next is "location": where the person is likely to be observing from? Again, the very young and seniors are less likely to drive somewhere dark to do their observing, so consider if their "back yard" is appropriate. Even if they live in a rural area, where light pollution is less of a concern, they may have a poor view of the sky because of trees. If they are likely to travel to a remote site to observe, consider the portability of the equipment and setup time, and the likelihood of them going throughthe effort if the equipment is somewhat complicated.
Following is level of interest. They may be fervent astronomy buffs or have little or no knowledge of astronomy, but likely they're somewhere in between. It's best if you have some idea of their interest, but you may need help. I strongly advise you take them to a club meeting, an outreach event, or even an informal outing with an amateur astronomer friend or friend of a friend (I'm quite sure they'll be happy to do it). It's important you discern a passing interest based on a movie just seen on television from a genuine interest in astronomy as a whole. Astronomy is a scientific hobby, there is significant learning involved, although it's usually fairly easy to spot a genuine interest. Look for books, magazines, television shows, DVDs, and internet resources they have "around". One last but important point many don't understand: astronomy is NOT astrology. Astronomy is an observational science, whereas astrology is a more spiritual interpretation of the study of the sky. The two are historically connected, but entirely different.
I'm sure by now you thought we forgot about budget! Not at all, it's just lower down the list than most people realize. There is no point in establishing a budget if by now you realize you may not be purchasing any astronomy equipment soon. If you are still going to make a purchase, we can help optimize your budget, whatever it may be. The best advice we have, our so-called "official position", is to talk it over with an experienced astronomer, amateur or professional, because each situation is unique. We also have some guidelines, because, as I'm sure you can imagine, we get asked the title question a lot. The most important thing iis to avoid "department store" telescopes; as described, they are usually sold in department stores, and are usually of such inferior quality they will ruin a potential good start to an interesting hobby. Typically, if the packaging seems to focus on magnification ("Up to 1000x Magnification!") you should just walk away. Astronomy is not about magnification, it's about "clarity" (the ability to see things clearly). Department store telescopes are "cheap" for a good reason.
Paper, plastic, and the Universe:
Start with non-optical resources. These include, books, magazines, DVDs, and specifically a star atlas and a planisphere (tools to learn the sky). These are the starting point for learning astronomy. Even if you have a telescope, pointing it at the night sky will show you points of light with little or no context. Early astronomers had nothing but their own eyes and a healthy curiousity, which is the best place to start.
Binoculars are easy to use and understand, afford similar useful magnification (but much better clarity) as a "cheap" telescope, and are otherwise useful if the interest wanes. Binoculars suitable for astronomy have fully coated lenses to improve the transmission of light and reduce internal reflections, perfect for viewing points of light (like stars) in an otherwise dark environment. Even modest binoculars will allow you to see 4 moons around Jupiter and discern rings around Saturn, but the view of the Moon is instantly addictive. Canadian Tire sells 2 Celestron models, both excellent. Good money is put into a decent set of astronomical binoculars and a good, sturdy tripod.
But let's explore the "inexpensive" alternative: Atlantic Photo Supply (APS) in Halifax has Celestron Starter scopes. They are good optical quality small table-top Newtonian-Dobsonians, a great buy for what they cost ($100-ish I think), although marketed towards children. I used one when they first came out, and think they are the best bang for that buck. If I remember correctly, they even have an 1-1/4" eyepiece/focuser, so eyepeices (EPs) can be changed. This also has the "novelty factor" of being an actual telescope (designed after Sir Isaac Newton's original), and who doesn't want a telescope for Christmas! They also carry some not-very-expensive telescopes through to moderately expensive full-featured systems for the more serious, all of recommended quality. See Brian at APS, he's an amateur astronomer himself, and mention you were referred by RASC.
The best telescope for you:
And this is where we digress into why you shouldn't buy a telescope unless you "know what you're doing". They are somewhat complicated optical instruments, and all have pitfalls under certain conditions. There is no such thing as "the best telescope", but there is "the best telescope for you", and that's why we encourage you to ask us to help with your decision. We don't expect you to know the technical jargon or specifications, and that's where we can help. For instance, did you know that telescopes actually DON'T magnify? (Note that "cheap" telescopes always advertise how much they magnify; marketing!) Telescopes collect light and "concentrate" it to a point where it can be examined with a "magnifying glass" (an eyepiece). No matter how good the equipment, there are practical limitations as too how much a telescope system can "magnify", and it's always less than it's optical capabilities. One of those limitations is the "mount", which holds everything steady. If it doesn't, small vibrations will cause big problems with the image, and a good optical system is rendered useless because it's too "shaky"!
Word to the wise: stay away from any store that sells anything else but astronomy & photography stuff unless specific products are there (i.e. CT's Celestron binos). You will find some otherwise reputable telescope companies also make cheap department store products... they "suck", and will ruin the experience before the opportunity for a good one can be had. We also discourage buying "online" unless you have had the opportunity to try the product ahead of time, or if an experienced astronomer makes a recommendation you're comfortable with. We don't want you buying something inappropriate for your situation or known to be problematic!
As always, RASC or local astronomy club outings are the best place to start! We hope to see you there!
Finally: a recommendation!
Assuming that you have considered binoculars and table-top "starter" scopes and REALLY want to go to the next level of telescope, and after much discussion and deliberation, the observing members of the RASC Halifax Centre have agreed that an excellent starter telescope for the serious beginner is the Skywatcher 6" dobsonian telescope They retail in the neighborhood of $300, but note that for a few tens of dollars more you can have the 8" model! Atlantic Photo Supply in Halifax has these on floor display (also for sale!) if you would like to see one close up!