Telescope Buying Tips

Mortfield's First Rule of Telescope Buying -

Never buy a department store telescope. That's right. Just don't do it. If you're on a budget, or looking for something for a youngster, then a pair of binoculars and a few books on stars will go alot farther.

Mortfield's Second Rule of Telescope Buying -

Your favorite telescope, is the telescope you use most often. This also means that its easy to drag outside for a quick look at the moon or planets, on a weeknight. I set my tolerance at 5 minutes. I figure that if I'm up and observing in 5 minutes, I can get in a quick 1/2 hour on a weeknight in the backyard or driveway. I even put my big scope on wheels and now use it all the time. Prior to that, I would hardly use this wonderful telescope, since the whole assembly weighed close to 200 lbs, and would take 15 minutes, just to take it apart and reassemble it 20 feet away at the end of the driveway. Then of course it would take another 15 minutes to put it back in the garage. This was a total inconvenience. Remember that observing the stars should be easy and fun.

Before you begin looking for a scope:

If you want to get involved in this hobby, then why not join one of the many local astronomy clubs in the Bay Area first. Dues can run around $20 for a year for a family membership, and offer alot of advantages.

  • you get to meet other amateurs that own a variety of scopes, and can tell you whats good or bad.

  • at club star parties, you can get to look through other peoples scopes and see what you like the best, what is the most portable, and within your budget.

  • some members may be upgrading to a new telescope and willing to sell their used scope to you at a great price.

  • some clubs offer "loaner" scopes, where members can borrow a nice sized scope to use for a month, complete with eyepieces for a $5-$10 charge.

  • some clubs offer discounts on subscriptions to the popular astronomy magazines, since they can be ordered as a group instead of as a single subscription.

  • you even get to make new friends that share your interest and its a good way to learn from the more experienced folks.

  • some clubs even have an observatory site with several permanently mounted scopes for member's use. For example the Peninsula Astronomical Society in Mountain View, allows its members to use the 16 inch telescope at Foothill College, as well as 12 inch and 16 inch scopes permanently mounted in domes at a nearby site off Skyline Road. Not bad for your $20 annual membership where you get to use telescopes worth thousands of dollars from the shelter and convenience of a domed building.

  • A few key things to remember:

  • Don't EVER buy a department store telescope. I said it earlier and will say it again. Some components are cheaply made of plastic, the mountings wobble, the finder scopes (used for pointing the telescope to the object) are close to useless, and generally a very frustrating experience. Whats worse, is that even experienced observers find them difficult to use. The only thing they can be used for, is to look at the moon. This will then get you hooked and make you want to buy a better scope. Many of us started out with these telescopes, and after a month or two, learned our lesson and got real telescopes that we've kept and used for years.!

  • Power is meaningless. Ignore a telescope that claims lots of power or magnification. Most observers rarely use high magnification because the atmosphere is never steady enough from your backyard. You'll find that most observing magnification with a beginner scope is from 50-125 power. This is more than enough to show craters on the moon, the rings of saturn, and moons of jupiter.

  • Aperture is important. Aperture refers to the diameter of the lens or mirror collecting the light. The bigger the mirror (or lens), the more light is collected and hense fainter objects (like galaxies and nebulae) can be seen. Of course there is a tradeoff. Once you get bigger than a telescope with a 10 inch mirror, the scope tends to become quite large, and sometimes difficult to move out to the driveway, or drag out to the backyard. It may not even fit inside your car to take to a dark site or star party and when the scope is pointing straight up, you may need a ladder to look through the eyepiece.

  • More Info

    You can also check out reviews of more telescopes by Sky and Telescope Magazine. If you have more questions, you can email me.

    Clear Skies..

    ...Paul Mortfield. The Backyard Astronomer.