Telescope buying 2012
I must confess that I view the upcoming holiday season with a mixture of joy and dread. On one hand, I know that more telescopes get bought in December than all other months combined. Unfortunately, most of the “astronomical” telescopes purchased are, frankly, high-priced junk — unsuitable for looking at the stars and planets.
So how can you avoid making that $500 mistake? Arm yourself with knowledge, incipient astronerds. Buying a telescope is at least as complicated as buying a car, except that telescopes don’t wear out. An intelligent telescope purchase will fill your children’s and their children’s children’s eyes with the glories of the night.
A bad telescope will fill them (and you) will spirit-crunching frustration. Assume that you are buying a holiday gift for the ages. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
1. Get an early start. By that, I mean now. Arm yourself with knowledge. I can’t tell you everything you need to know in 600 words. You’ll find some fine buying guides on the Internet, notably the one at telescope.com, the website of Orion Telescopes and Binoculars.
2. The learning curve is steep. You’ve just opted into a lifetime endeavor. You’ll need help. Join your local astronomy club, the Columbus Astronomical Society (CAS) and visit us frequently at Perkins. Go to their observing sessions, look through their telescopes and ask a lot of questions. You’ll find that even they disagree about what telescope is best, but the combined advice filtered through your own intelligence will tell you what telescope is right for you. For more information about the CAS, go to the-CAS.org or call Perkins Observatory at 740–363-1257 and we’ll mail you some information about the club. Also consider coming to some of our public programs at Perkins Observatory, where on clear nights you can get a chance to look through some of the telescopes you see at the telescope stores (same phone number, same deal as above).
3. Plan to spend at least $450. Sorry. A decent telescope is worth thousands of nights of observing pleasure. Buying a cheap telescope is like flushing $100 down the drain.
4. Buy a reflecting telescope, which uses a mirror to gather the light. The other kind, called a refractor, uses a light-gathering lens. Such ’scopes are either poorly constructed or they are prohibitively expensive for the beginner.
5. The mirror that gathers the light must be at least six inches in diameter to give good views. Smaller mirrors limit you to a few planets and the moon. If you’re going to spend $450, you’ll probably want a ’scope that can see the thousands of star clusters, galaxies and beautiful gas clouds that populate the universe.
6. Get a telescope on a Dobsonian mount. It doesn’t have any of the fancy do-dads like motors that follow the astronomical objects across the sky, so you’re paying only for the important part — the system that gathers the light. The mount is stable (It won’t wobble like those cheap department-store refractors). And it’s so easy to use that within minutes (okay, maybe hours), you’ll be unconsciously nudging the ’scope to keep Jupiter within the field of view.
7. The telescope should come equipped with a “finder,” a small telescope at least 30 millimeters in diameter that mounts on the side of the main ’scope. It acts like a rifle sight and allows you to find astronomical objects much more easily. Also, don’t forget to buy star charts, which map out the sky and show you what to look for and where to find it.
8. Don’t buy locally. Sorry, but there isn’t a reputable telescope dealer in central Ohio. You¹ll have to buy on the web, which makes the research and decisions mentioned above all the more important.
If your telescope doesn’t arrive by Christmas, so be it. Wrap a set of star charts and put them under the tree. It’s better to wait and get something decent than to suffer months of frustration trying to use a bad telescope bought in haste.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at email@example.com.