Ten Things to Know and Do Before You Buy a Telescope

MCT-266x300Binoculars are inexpensive, simple and easy to use, and yet bring in thousands of objects within our own Milky Way Galaxy and beyond.  As you learned in the last article in this series, every stargazer should own a pair.

But there may come a time when you want to see more, when you want to see objects brighter and bigger and farther way.  That’s when you want to consider a telescope.

A short word of advice here first…

Many beginners who buy a telescope before learning the basics of what to see in the sky (and how to see it) usually get frustrated and give up astronomy before they barely get started.  It’s like someone who wants to learn to sail starting out on a 40-foot three-masted schooner.  It’s just too complicated and it leads to frustration.   By learning a little background first, new stargazers can make their experience with their first telescope rewarding, and quite frankly, life changing (in a good way).

So how do you know if you’re ready to buy and use a telescope? Here’s a subjective list of 10 things you need to know and do before you take the leap into telescopic observing:

  1. Learn the Main Stars and Constellations. To get the most enjoyment out of visiting a big and interesting city like London or New York, it’s a huge help to learn the names and layout of the main streets and public squares. So it is with the night sky. Before you try to find anything with a telescope, you will find it extremely useful to know at least dozen or more bright stars and ten or so major constellations.
  2. Learn the Layout of the Sky. Know the main points on the celestial sphere: the horizon, zenith, meridian, location of the north (or south) pole, the celestial equator, and the ecliptic.
  3. Start with Binoculars. Learn and practise finding and seeing things through binoculars, especially the Moon, Jupiter, and bright “deep-sky objects” like the Orion Nebula, Andromeda Galaxy, and the Pleiades. It takes practice to look through an eyepiece, and binoculars, with their low magnification and wide field of view, are much more forgiving than a telescope.
  4. Try a Someone Else’s Telescope. Before you spend your own hard-earned money, look through someone else’s telescope and get a feel for how much (and how little) you can see. Many beginners are surprised to see only 0.5 to 1 degree of the sky at a time… it’s a little like looking at the sky through a drinking straw. You can try a friend’s telescope, or attend a star party held by a local astronomy club. If possible, have someone help you find and see a faint object in a telescope to get an idea of what to expect.
  5. Learn the Main Types of Telescopes. When absolute beginners think of a telescope, they usually think of a long white tube with a lens at the top and an eyepiece at the bottom. That’s a refractor, one of several main types of modern telescope. There are several more types, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Learn the main types of telescopes and their pros and cons, and remember: there is no one perfect telescope.

    A star party or public astronomy event is a perfect place to look through several types of telescopes to see what works best for your budget and interests before you buy.

    A star party or public astronomy event is a perfect place to look through several types of telescopes to see what works best for your budget and interests before you buy.

  6. Study the Key Features of Telescopes. Learn the main features and specifications of telescopes. Things like focal length, aperture, focal ratio, chromatic aberration, and so forth, influence what you can see with a scope. These concepts sound intimidating, but they are not so hard. Before you spend, learn. Knowledge is power.
  7. Find an Observing Location. Determine where you will observe the night sky with your telescope and how you will get your telescope to that site. There’s no use getting a big monster scope if you have to wrestle it down the stairs of an apartment building every night. And the best choice of telescope will be different for an observing in the heart of a large city compared to one in a rural location.
  8. Select a Place to Store Your Scope. Figure out where you will store your telescope. It needs a clean dry place that’s conveniently located to let you move the scope out to your observing site.
  9. Consider Your Observing Interests. What do you wish to observe with your telescope? Just the Moon and planets? Faint fuzzies like nebulae and galaxies? Birds and mountains? A little of everything? If you just want to see the Moon and bright planets once in a while, you need far less telescope than if you’re bound and determined to look at faint galaxies and star clusters, for example
  10. Save Your Money. Count your pennies… and decide how much you can spend on a telescope. As a rule of thumb, don’t get a new scope that costs less than US$300-$400 (in North America). You will be disappointed with the quality.  Save a little more and stick with binoculars for now.

In the next article in this series, you will learn something that very few beginners understand: the true purpose of an astronomical telescope.

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