Before You Buy a Telescope… Know This

MCT-266x300Binoculars are inexpensive, simple and easy to use, and yet bring in thousands of objects within our own Milky Way Galaxy and beyond.  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:

• Learn a dozen or so bright stars and ten or so major constellations

• 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

• Learn to find and see 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 are much more forgiving than a telescope

• 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

• Learn the main types of telescopes and their pros and cons (you’ll learn more about that shortly in this guide…)

• Learn the main features and specifications telescopes… what they are, what they mean (again, a little more about that soon).  Knowledge is power.

• Determine where you will observe, and how you will get your telescope there. No use getting a big monster scope if you have to wrestle it down the stairs of an apartment building every night.

• 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.

• What do you wish to observe with your telescope? Just the Moon and planets? Faint fuzzies like nebula 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, for example.

• 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$250-$300 (in North America).  You will be disappointed with the quality.  Save a little more and stick with binoculars for now