My first telescope was junk, bought mail order and a real case of buyer beware. But then I was only 10. Since then I’ve had more luck and that’s because I did a bit of research. So if you are starting out or want to buy a present for someone, read on.
We stage lots of star parties and people often bring along their £50 Argos or National Geographic telescopes. Then they blame themselves because they can’t use them properly. Don’t. Most of these scopes are very poor quality and are an ideal way to discourage you. Remember when you magnify an image – the purpose of a telescope – you magnify vibrations too, so whatever your scope is mounted on needs to be reasonably stable. And also don’t forget that looking through a telescope can be like viewing through a straw. Good scopes have little so called red dot finders or mini-finder scopes attached with a wider field of view allowing you to sight the target through these first. All you need to do is align it with the main scope – best done during the daytime – and bingo. Don’t skip getting your finder aligned. Otherwise you will be lost in space.
Two golden rules:
The power of a telescope is not measured by stated claims of ‘magnification’. It is determined by aperture – how much light the scope gathers. In practice a good telescope with say a 80mm lens is good for a max of about 120x – there’s only so much you can do with a limited amount of light. Bigger scopes offer a higher resolution image, at the cost of expense and bulkiness. Everything is a trade off. If in doubt prioritise portability.
Telescopes are only as good as the mount and tripod you use. Put a good telescope on a shaky mount and it’s a recipe for disappointment.
Before you read the suggestions below ponder on the thought that binoculars may be a better starting point. If so 10 x 50 or 7 x 10 models are the ones to go for. The first number is the magnification and the second is the diameter of the lens. The Helios Nature Sport Plus are good and cost around £80 and Opticron do some economical models. What will they show? Our nearest galaxy (Andromeda), craters on the moon, the moons of Jupiter and scores of large star cluster.
Telescope for a child. Skywatcher Infinity £40. Spindly mounts are a thing of the past with this odd, but elegant design. Simple and will offer nice wide-field views of all the objects above.
Beginners and others wanting a good portable scope. The Skywatcher 102 StarTravel refractor (£189) on a simple up-down, left-right mount called an alt-az in the jargon is a simple choice – but often a good one. Easy to pack away to take on trips and will give you nice widefield views for the money. They are particularly good under dark skies. Want something flashier? Then try the Skywatcher 127 SynScan – £388. Once set-up correctly it will slew automatically to objects, but you will need to be able to identify a couple of bright stars to align on. With a five inch aperture it will show you plenty – rings of Saturn, good views of the moon and Jupiter, along with globular and star clusters. Extremely portable, a rather narrow field of view, and especially good on the moon, planets and double stars.
You want a bigger scope that will show you more, but at the moment just want to look rather take pictures. Skyliner 200P £275 Dobsonian telescope – basically means you push and pull, very simple to use. Doesn’t track the stars, so you move it manually. Good light grasp. You see more detail in objects. You’ll need to learn to collimate it – ensuring optical alignment – a bit fiddly at first. A tad bulky.
You want to take pictures with your digital DSLR and need a good mount and telescope package, but have not won the lottery. At this point you need to head to your local astronomy club or sign up and spend a few nights at a good UK star party, like Kielder (March and October) You can waste an awful lot of money at this point and advice is essential. Astrophotography can be as simple as pointing your camera at the sky and leaving the shutter open. Or you can spend thousands of pounds!
Whatever you do, talk with a reputable astronomy shop, or go along to a local astronomy club and have a chat. Ones that I’ve used which will offer you friendly advice include:
Rother Valley Optics; Grovers Optical; Widescreen Centre; Ian King Imaging, First Light Optics and Altair Astro. These are run by astronomers. Google them.