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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Buying a Telescope: A Beginners Guide

So you have decided to buy a telescope! Whatever the inspiration to do so, a well-informed decision will result in greater satisfaction with what you buy, and we would like to provide some suggested guidelines to follow as you begin your search for a telescope. Please note that this article is geared towards those people looking for a telescope for visual observing...if you want a scope that you can hook up cameras to and take images, that is a whole other topic for a future article. Let's begin...

Orion SkyQuest XT6i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope
Orion SkyQuest XT6i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope.

Know what to expect...
If you are lured by adverts for telescopes accompanied by beautiful images of nebula and galaxies and expect to see the same with your eye as you look thru a telescope, you will be sorely disappointed. Unless you have prior experience looking thru a scope at astronomical objects, here is an important first step on the road to telescope ownership: take the time to find a local person or astronomy club, ask about when they have public viewing through their scopes, and plan to attend. The important point of this exercise is for you to gain the experience of looking through a scope so you know what to expect when the time comes to look through your new telescope. Not impressed with what you saw? Nothing is lost except for a bit of your time and you didn't sink any money into an instrument only to discover it wasn't for you. Like what you saw and want more? Good! Onto our next piece of advice:

Size matters...
Size does matter in more ways than one when it comes to backyard telescopes - bigger optics (mirror/lenses) can capture more light and you will be able to see fainter objects. This also means that the scope is now larger and more difficult to move around, and this can be critical if you live in a light-polluted area and must transport your telescope to a dark location in order to use. So choosing a scope that has optics large enough to give you visibility to hundreds of deep-sky objects while at the same time easily transportable is very important.

Like a rock...
Stability is the keyword here: we on earth are in constant motion as we rotate on our axis and orbit around the sun. At a quick glance, the stars in the sky appear to be stationary, but any time spent looking at a highly magnified image in a scope and you will immediately notice that the stars will drift out of the field of view. Having a steady mount for your telescope is important not only to eliminate shaky viewing which can limit what you see and make observing an aggravating experience but also make it easy to manually track the image (necessary for those mounts without an automatic tracking mechanism). Be sure the scope you buy is on a solid and sturdy mount.

Some assembly is required...
Don't forget that once you have your telescope you will need to know how to locate objects in the sky with it! It seems obvious, but it can initially be a frustrating experience for beginners to locate even simple objects. Expect to take the time to learn your way around a star map and the sky as you learn to use your new telescope. Again tap the resources at your local astronomy club, bring your new scope to their next star party and they can provide hands-on training, saving you hours of frustration.

Finally, we come to our recommendations for a good first scope: Choose a high-quality reflector with optics between 6 and 8 inches in diameter on what is called a "Dobsonian" mount - this is a setup that is not so large to be unwieldy, the optics will give you visibility to hundreds of objects, and the mount is easy to use (and some even include computers to aid in locating celestial objects). Below are a few good examples:

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