In my first article on telescopes (see ETHOS September, 2020 E-Newsletter), I stated: “There are many things to consider when contemplating the purchase of a backyard telescope, not the least of them, the cost (in dollars).” In this article, I will make the argument that just going out and buying a “department store” telescope is not the best value for your money and might even turn you off to the hobby. Kids often receive these relatively inexpensive scopes as Christmas/Holiday gifts, so, if you are contemplating such a purchase, read on!
The typical department store telescope is often advertised as having extraordinary magnification power. As explained in the September, 2020, article, aperture of the scope (light-gathering power) should be the focus (pun-intended) of your investment, because you are trying to see (relatively) dim objects in the sky. Additionally, the mount for the scope is another investment to consider, since a good scope can be rendered useless if mounted on a rickety altazimuth or equatorial mount(see explanation to follow) that shakes or wobbles in the slightest breeze.
At this point, let me make another pitch for attending a meeting of (or joining) your local astronomy club. There, you will find a wide range of experience in the hobby, from novices to seasoned veterans (who often own several types of scopes, may have built their own scopes, and, importantly, learned from beginners’ mistakes). Most club members love helping people new to amateur astronomy.
In the remainder of this article, I will delve a little further into what you can expect in different price ranges for scopes and mounts.
A telescope in the range of $150.00 to $450.00 (some reflectors, some refractors) will get you started. These include 4.5 to 6-inch reflectors and 70 – 130 mm refractors, which will allow reasonable views of the moon, planets and the brighter deep-sky objects. Some of these may offer GoTo (computerized) control, but for the same money, you can get more aperture with a non-GoTo scope. Purchase a good star atlas and learn to “star-hop” (by learning the constellations that contain the stars).
For approximately $500.00 and up, “the sky is the limit” in terms of scope type, aperture and accessories. The catadioptrics mentioned in my first article, increase the price at each aperture level.
A quick lesson in mounts: Most beginner scopes come with an altazimuth (alt-az)-type mount (“alt” for altitude and “azimuth” for movement in a circle, following the horizon) [left-above]. Basically, they allow for up-and-down and turning movements. The Dobsonian-type mount is also an altazimuth mount [center-above], but much cheaper to buy, or construct, allowing for more aperture at each price point. German Equatorial-type mounts [above - right] are more complicated (thus, more expensive) and allow tracking of objects as the sky (actually, the earth) turns, without having to move the scope by hand. Each of these types can be purchased with computer (GoTo) controls, but at added expense and the missed opportunity to learn the sky!
May you have clear skies!!
The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide 3rd ed. Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer, Firefly Books, 2013
George Drake, M.D.
ETHOS Innovation Center Volunteer
Michiana Astronomical Society Member