Buying a telescope
If you haven't done so already, I recommend that you start by reading my one-page Introduction to Looking at the Night Sky, then return here to read this page.
We'll begin this page with some bad news about buying a telescope:
- Telescopes are expensive. To avoid disappointment you'll need to spend at least a few hundred dollars for a new one, or hope for a better deal in the second-hand market.
- Learning to use a telescope takes time and patience. It’s a skill that you master over time.
- Cheaper telescopes are not generally suitable for taking photos. Although you can get some nice shots of the Moon, almost everything else needs a more expensive telescope and lots of practice.
Don't be put off, just make sure your expectations are realistic.
Think specifically about what you'd like to use your telescope for. Do you just want to look at the Moon and planets or are you interested in nebulae, galaxies and other more challenging objects? Do you want to take photos? Do you also want to use the telescope for daytime viewing?
Although larger is generally “better”, a smaller telescope might be better suited to your situation. Think about where you’re going to use it and how portable it needs to be. Smaller telescopes usually get used more often than larger ones.
Magnification is not a specification to be concerned about. The main thing to look for is the aperture (size of the lens or mirror).
The mount is as important as the telescope itself – you need a good one.
A good pair of binoculars is a realistic (and cheap) alternative to a telescope.
NOTE: These prices are very rough guides, in New Zealand dollars.
For a budget of under $500, you can either go for a cheaper telescope or a good pair of binoculars. In most cases I actually recommend binoculars, because they're a good way to get started but they'll also continue to be useful after you buy a telescope. You can get useful binoculars from around $120.
If your heart is set on a telescope, you can get a reasonable "refractor" design for under a few hundred dollars. You'll be able to see the Moon, some planets (just), and a few other things (barely). Basically, telescopes in this range are usable but unspectacular. On the plus side, they are good for daytime terrestrial viewing, i.e. seeing things in the distance on Earth.
For a budget of $500 - $1,000, most people will find the "dobsonian" telescope to be the best value for money. On the downside, they are a bit bulky and they don't fit most people's idea of what a telescope should look like. However they're surprisingly light, relatively easy to use, and very popular with astronomers of all skill levels. Buying a dobsonian is a pretty safe choice, and it's what I recommend for most amateur stargazers.
If you've got over $1,000 to spend, a more expensive dobsonian is still a good choice. However, in this price range you have more options so feel free to contact me about them.
If you are looking for a computer-controlled telescope suitable for photography and tracking objects, you'll need to spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.
Author: Dave Owen