Telescopes for the beginner are a popular gift, especially during the holidays. It can be a portal to the universe and provide a lifetime of enjoyment.
But there’s no one “perfect” telescope — just as there’s no such thing as a perfect car. Instead, it would help if you chose a telescope based on your observing interests, lifestyle, and budget.
Here is a guide to help you make sense of the “universe” of telescope models available today. Get the one that’s right for you! Armed with these few primary telescopes, you’ll know what to look for (and what to avoid) when scouring the marketplace for your new scope.
The telescope you want has two essentials: high-quality optics and a steady, smoothly working mount. And all other things being equal, big scopes show more and are easier to use than small ones, as we’ll see below. But don’t overlook portability and convenience — the best scope for you is the one you’ll use.
APERTURE: A Telescope’s Most Important Feature
The essential characteristic of a telescope is its aperture — the diameter of its light-gathering lens or mirror, often called the objective. Look for the telescope’s specifications near its focuser, the front of the tube, or the box.
The aperture’s diameter (D) will be expressed in millimeters or, less commonly, in inches (1 inch equals 25.4 mm). As a rule of thumb, your telescope should have at least 2.8 inches (70 mm) aperture — preferably more.
Dobsonian telescopes, which are reflectors with a simple mount, provide lots of aperture at relatively low cost.
And regardless of how bright or dark your skies are, the view through a telescope with plenty of apertures is more impressive than the view of the same object through a smaller scope. A larger aperture lets you see fainter objects and finer detail than a smaller one can.
But an excellent small scope can still show you plenty — especially if you live far from city lights. For example, from a dark location, you can spot dozens of galaxies beyond our own Milky Way through a scope with an aperture of 80 mm (3.1 inches).
But you’d need a 6- or 8-inch telescope (like the one shown at right) to see those same galaxies from a typical suburban backyard.
So you’d need a 12-inch-wide scope to get a decent image at 600×. And even then, you’d need to wait for a night when the observing conditions are perfect.
Telescopes for the Beginner. How to find the right model.
I want to draw your attention to the essential aspects when choosing a telescope or, to be more specific, its size, magnification power, telescope, and mounting types.
It is important to remember one fundamental rule: always choose a model according to your skill level.
If you are a novice user, opt for telescopes for the beginner. Advanced and professional models will be too difficult to understand and handle – in the worst-case scenario, that may even disrupt your budding interest in astronomy.
Telescopes for the beginner are designed to be very simple to assemble and use. Keep that in mind when shopping for your first telescope!
The common misconception is that telescopes are distinguished by their magnitude. The truth is that any telescope with the appropriate eyepiece can attain any level of magnification.
Therefore, instead of magnitude, the size of the lens, or mirror, is used to classify telescopes. The larger the lens size, the more objects you can see and the higher degree of magnitude you can achieve while yielding a nice, sharp image.
So, for example, a 10″ telescope with a magnitude of 120x is better than a 3″ telescope with the same magnitude.
These are based on the size; telescopes are generally divided as follows:
- Small (4″ or less);
- Medium (5″–8″);
- Large (10″ and more).
Although larger telescopes yield higher-resolution images, they are not necessarily the best choice because they are less portable and more expensive. It would help if you considered all pros and cons before going for a larger telescope.
Yet another common misconception is that the greater the magnitude, the better the telescope. As the magnitude increases, the quality of the image decreases, especially in smaller telescopes.
Although you can get even 500x magnification on the most miniature telescope (with an inferior image), you are not likely to need a magnitude higher than 350x. You will do perfectly fine with 200x, basically, for any purpose.
If you want a smaller telescope, keep in mind that the appropriate magnitude is calculated based on the size of the telescope.
You get an extra 30–50x magnification for each inch in good weather conditions. For example, your 2.4-inch telescope, given a clear sky, can have a magnitude of approximately 120x. With this magnitude, you can see the rings of Saturn or cloud belts on Jupiter.
As you might know, you can change the eyepiece on the telescope, thus changing the magnification. Magnification is calculated by dividing the eyepiece’s focal length by the telescope’s focal length. For instance, the magnification of a telescope of 1000 mm focal length with a lens of 25 mm focal length will equal 40x. This simple formula will help you when you decide to upgrade your telescope.
If you have been interested in telescopes, you may have heard the words “reflector” and “refractor” and had no idea what they meant. In simple terms, the reflector reflects light beams from one mirror to another within the telescope tube and into the eyepiece.
These telescopes for beginners are less expensive to produce and therefore cost less. Yet they have great magnification and images of high quality. The 4.5″ reflector are perfect telescope for beginners with modest budgets.
The reflectors could be more user-friendly; the mirrors inside need adjustments from time to time, and cleaning, because they gather dust. Also, they are not the best option for children because the eyepiece is located at the top of the tube.
A refractor refracts or deflects a light beam. It uses lenses instead of mirrors. The light travels into the tube through the lens at the top and the eyepiece at the bottom. The most popular telescope people are familiar with—a nice, thin, slightly widening tube on a mount—is, by appearance, a typical refractor.
Refractors, instead of reflectors, are user-friendly—high-quality images, solid design, and no maintenance needed. And the eyepiece is located at the bottom of the tube, making it accessible to children. However, they are the most expensive telescope you might find. The larger the telescope, the higher the price.
Compound (or catadioptric) telescopes, which use a combination of lenses and mirrors, offer compact tubes and are relatively lightweight. Two popular designs you’ll often see are Schmidt-Cassegrains and Maksutov-Cassegrains.
A telescope’s mount is an essential piece. First, the tube must stay steady for you to see a sharp image. Second, the tube has to move with the object observed, so it stays in your sight. With a mount, this is possible to achieve.
Telescopes for the beginner will need something sturdy to support it. There are many telescopes that come conveniently packaged with tripods or mounts. The tubes of some smaller scopes often have a mounting block that allows them to be attached to a standard photo tripod with a single screw. (Caution: A tripod good enough for taking your family snapshots may need to be more steady for astronomy.)
Mounts designed for telescopes usually forgo the single-screw attachment blocks in favor of larger, more robust rings or plates.
For all their apparent diversity, telescope mounts boil down to two basic types.
An “alt-az” mount permits the scope to move up-down and left-right. It’s quick to set up and intuitive to use. An equatorial mount can track celestial objects by turning just one axis and be more easily motorized — but to work correctly, it must be aligned with Polaris, the North Star.
There are several types of telescope mounts:
- Alt-Az mount. This is the primary type. The tube is positioned firmly, and you can move it up, down, right, and left to keep up with your star. This type of mount is inexpensive and hard to break. At the same time, because this type is not so smooth, it is more difficult for beginners to follow the object with this mount.
- Fork mount. This is a type of Alt-Az mount, but with a little motor. It can be used without a tripod. You can place the telescope on a flat surface as you would a camera.
- GOTO mount. This is another type of Alt-Az mount, but with a computer that tells you where the object you are looking for is and when you’ve reached it. But after that, you are on your own.
- Motorized GOTO mount. It doesn’t just find the object; it tracks it for you.
- GPS-equipped motorized GOTO mount. This is the only type of mount that locates where you are so that you don’t have to input your coordinates manually.
- Equatorial mount. This mount is similar to the Alt-Az mount, the only difference being that to follow the object, you only need to nudge the tube (smooth movement is possible).
Telescopes for the beginner can open your eyes to a universe of celestial delights. With a bit of care in selecting the correct type of telescope, you’ll be ready for a lifetime of exploring the night sky!