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Science Gifts

Science Gifts: Telescopes

As I mention around here from time to time, one of my sidelines is amateur astronomy. I often get asked for telescope recommendations, so in that spirit, I wanted to put up some details in case anyone out there is thinking about one as a gift this year.
The key thing to remember with telescopes is that other things being equal, aperture wins out, because you will be able to see more objects and more details. Other things are not always equal, naturally, but that’s the background of the various disputes between amateur astronomers about which kind of scope is best. And keep in mind that while a bigger scope can show you more, the best telescope is the one that you’ll actually haul out and use. Overbuying has not been my problem, dang it all, but it has been known to happen. Overall, I’d say a six-inch aperture should be the starting point, although opinions vary on that, too.
You’ve basically got three kinds of scopes to consider: refractors, reflectors, and folded-path. The refractors are the classic lens-in-the-front types. They can provide very nice views, especially of the planets and other brighter objects. Many planetary observers swear by them. But per inch of aperture, they’re the most expensive, especially since for good views you have to spring for high-end optics to keep from having rainbow fringes around everything. I can’t recommend a refractor for a first scope, for these reasons. That’s especially true since a lot of the refractors you see for sale out there are of the cheap/nearly worthless variety – a casual buyer would be appalled at the price tag for a decent one. No large refractors have been built for astronomical research since well before World War II.
Reflectors are variations on Isaac Newton’s design, which was: open tube at the top, mirror at the bottom, and you look through the eyepiece in the side, after the light reflects back off an angled secondary mirror. All modern large-aperture research telescopes are some variety of reflector. They provide the most aperture per dollar, especially with a simple “Dobsonian” mount (more on mounts in a minute). They do have to be aligned (collimated) when you first get them, and every so often afterwards, to make sure the mirrors are all working together. A badly collimated reflector will provide ugly views indeed, but it’s at least easy to fix. And if the primary mirror is of poor quality, you’re also in trouble, but the average these days is actually quite good.
Finally, the folded-path (catadioptric) types (Schmidt-Cassegrain
and Maksutov designs, mostly) are a hybrid. There’s a mirror in the back, but also a corrector lens plate covering the front. The light path ends up coming out the back of the tube, through a hole in the primary mirror. Like refractors, these basically never have to be aligned, but they’re fairly expensive (although nowhere near as bad as refractors when you start going up in size). And their views are pretty good, although purists argue about how they compare to a reflector of equal size. (Refractor owners would probably win that argument, but they have to drop out at about the five or six-inch mark, when the other two telescope designs are just getting started). One nice thing about a scope of this kind is that it’s more compact, making it an easier design to mount.
And that brings up the next topic: what you do mount one of these fine optical tubes on, so you can use them to actually look at things? An equatorial or a fork mount will let you follow the motion of the objects in the sky easily, especially with a motor drive – the Earth’s rotation is always sweeping things out of your view, otherwise. A decent mount of this kind will definitely add to your costs, though. The “Dobsonian” mount is a favorite of reflector owners, since it’s quite simple and allows you to put more of your money into the optics. You do have to manually grab the telescope tube and move it, though, which takes some practice (and sometimes some home-brew messing around with the mount). Some people don’t mind this, others are driven nuts by it. You can put a motorized platform under a Dobsonian (my own setup) to motor-drive it, which some consider the best of both worlds.
On the topic of motorized telescope mounts, I should say something about “Go-to” models. These are not only motorized to track objects, they will slew the scope around to find objects from a database. I’m very much of two minds on these. For an experienced observer, an astrophotographer, or a researcher, they can be an indispensable tool to spend more time observing and less time hunting around. For a total beginner, they can ease a lot of frustration when first learning the sky. But at the same time, they also can keep someone from learning the sky at all, and they can also encourage hopping too quickly from one object to another. If you do that, you can see all sorts of stuff in one evening, while at the same time hardly seeing anything at all.
Visual observing is all about training yourself to see things. One thing every new telescope owner should know is that Very Little Ever Looks Like the Photographs. Especially since the photos are long exposures on wildly sensitive CCD chips, through huge instruments, and under excellent conditions. Through the eyepiece, nebulae are not tapestries of red, pink, green, and purple: they range from greenish grey to bluish grey. And although with practice you’ll pick up really surprising and beautiful amounts of detail in deep-sky objects, at first, everything can look like a blob. Or a smear. Or not appear to even be there at all, even when a practiced observer can see it right smack in the center of the eyepiece field. I really enjoy seeing these things with my own eyes, and trying to find out just how much detail I can pick out and how faint I can go, but it’s not for everyone.
Now, photography is another story. Astrophotography is an expensive word, although thanks to webcams and the like, getting into it is not quite as bad as it used to be. But for most purposes, you’ll need one of those motorized mounts that’ll track objects across the sky. That’s very convenient for visual observing, too, naturally, but a really good one for long-exposure photography can cost more than the telescope itself! A motorized platform is almost never accurate enough for these purposes, I should add. I’m not an astrophotographer myself, so I won’t go into great detail, but if you want to try this part of the hobby out (or know someone who does), prepare to think about the telescope mount as much as you think about the optics. As you’d imagine, all astrophotography these days is digital, with equipment ranging from simple webcams all the way up to stuff that easily costs as much as a new car, or perhaps a small house.
So, what to buy? I’ve scattered some Amazon links in the above to representative scopes. In general, Meade and Celestron are the two brands you’ll see the most, and if you stay away from their cheap refractors, you should be fine. And Orion also sells good stuff of their own brand (On Amazonand from their own site). (Again, I’d stay away from inexpensive refractors there, too). Other good sources are Astronomics and Anacortes.
Update: as pointed out in the comments, an excellent resource for specific opinions on different models, and telescope advice in general, is Scopereviews. Cloudy Nights is also a huge resource.

18 comments on “Science Gifts: Telescopes”

  1. David says:

    Meade is a poor recommendation based on their current financial status. They are one of if not the only publicly traded company in this hobby so you can go to Edgar on-line and look them up by ticker symbol “MEAD” Looking at their last quarterly statements and what their stock has done since the only way I would take a Meade product is if it were given to me free.

  2. BuyandBye says:

    We have one of those early Meade S-C scopes i bought, oh… a decade ago, which once you align it, takes the (younger) kids on a tour of the night sky. Today, this and “night sky” for the android or iOS makes for a good evening. I know there are much more advanced kits out there for the casual entertainment class of star gazer, bring a step stool and you never know what curiosity you may spark!

  3. RM says:

    @David “Meade is a poor recommendation based on their current financial status”
    How so? You’re buying their telescope, not their stock. A failing company can make as good or better telescope than a financially successful one. The comparison is doubly foolish if the other companies are privately owned – the other companies’ financials could be taking a similar slump, and you’d never know it.
    The only reason to care about the stock price of the company is if you think they’re skimping quality to make quarterly figures (so previous reports of quality may not be accurate for new scopes – but that can happen for any company), or if you’re concerned they’ll go bankrupt and are worried about warranty service and replacement parts.

  4. Kazoo Chemist says:

    You forgot one of the most important recommendations of all: WARM CLOTHES!
    Here in Michigan the only night that we have good seeing conditions are the coldest of the mid-winter nights. Even then the light pollution is terrible. I have a nice Meade 8″ LX90 scope with an equatorial wedge mount, many eyepieces, camera adapters, a handful of filters, etc. It sees precious little use due to the cold.

  5. Fabrice Pierre says:

    A very entertaining place and to look at for advice and reviews of telescopes is Ed Ting’s website ( In particular, in the beginner section you will find some pretty accurate simulations of what you actually see at the eyepiece. I would also recommend Sky and Telescope web site for more information.

  6. rjnerd says:

    Almost unrelated – Little Caesar’s pizza is running an ad on the idiot box. Shows a father and son in a field peering thru a telescope. The scope looks like a 6-8″ newtonian, its even on an equatorial mount. Its also pointing at the ground. The back of the mirror is aimed at the sky, and the end with the eyepiece is near the ground. I assume it was set up this way so the actors didn’t have to stretch to reach the eyepiece. (in fact they bend over a little)
    Two thing are shown by this – one that a director will choose looks over reality (I wonder if the actors said anything). Second, if you are using any newtonian with kids (or get yourself something >10 inches), you will need a stepladder.
    Oh yea, its worth mentioning another characteristic of astronomical telescopes – inverting the image is the norm (which surprises people the first time they try to use it to spy on the neighbors). They leave out the sort of prism needed to flip the image upright, to maximize the light actually getting to your eye. (you can get the prism as an accessory)

  7. Lyle Langley says:

    Telescopes…I thought this was an article about science gifts.

  8. Paul says:

    The long exposure image sensors can be quite something, with cooling systems to reduce dark current. I’ve seen some with dry ice/acetone cooling, others with thermoelectric coolers.
    Such sensors can be operated in TDI mode, where the sky moves past the sensor at the same rate the charge is moved down the rows of the CCD. As a result, the image builds up and it read off as one long strip.
    One thing to look out for is the speed of the telescope. The Schmidt-Cassegrain designs are very “fast”, with large fields of view. Long newtonians, by contrast, focus on a small piece of sky. The motion of the sky is more noticeable the higher the magnification.

  9. David says:

    Replying to RM,
    The financial situation is a a direct result of their poor quality control and less than stellar customer service over the past several years. And they continue to repeat their mistakes. Their latest “big deal” actually underwent a massive recall due to not one but numerous problems with the product.
    And you are absolutely right in your last sentiment – their financials do look to me like bankruptcy is a distinct near term possibility and there are very few places you can take a telescope or mount to get serviced besides the place where you bought it. Its not like taking your car and getting it fixed at any number of garages within a 5 block radius.
    Until I see financials that convince me the company will be around a bit longer, I’m not sending them my money!

  10. MarkM says:

    Many thanks to Derek for helping me a few years back with my first telescope purchase–an Orion XT8i. What a workhorse that scope has been. Even though I now also own an Obsession 15 inch, that Orion is still in my stable and earns it keep again and again on scout campouts and at other times when I just want to set a scope outside for a quick look up.
    One major upgrade I made which really changed my observing was purchase of an equatorial platform for tracking objects at high magnification.
    Thanks again, Derek for your help.

  11. Dogbertd says:

    Good article, but you missed the bit where you tell us what you have (and what you actually use – which may be something different).
    I’ve been thinking about a telescope again after owning one and giving up on it a few years back. For me the problems were all of the ones outlined on that excellent ScopeReviews site: fiddly setup, unrealistic expectations – instead of seeing small white blobs with the naked eye, I could now see big white blobs! – and (when looking at planets) the fact that the buggers never stand still – it takes 5 minutes to find Jupiter and when you finally do, it starts moving away from you.
    But with all this in mind I’m seriously thinking about something simple and portable or even just going for a good pair of binocs.

  12. newnickname says:

    I had a “nothing fancy” 3 inch reflector that was good enough for intro / amateur viewing. But seeing Saturn through a scope for the first time was AMAZING. Just like a text book, but live!
    At the time, most books and field guides were about observing stars and planets (e.g., Rey, “The Stars”) with very little about the Moon. Only within the past 10 years or so have I seen detailed guide books on the telescopic viewing of the moon. I think you can engage children and keep them engaged gazing at the moon because it is easier and faster to find in the sky with cheaper equipment, even binoculars, easier to track (it doesn’t move out of view as fast as distant objects) and the amount of exciting detail is quite substantial. You can “discover” numerous exciting lunar features in the time it takes to even get a more distant faint object into your field of view.

  13. Terry says:

    Without doubt, the best way to learn the sky is H.A. Rey’s “The Stars, a New Way to See Them”, which represents the constellations in a memorable way, and also delves into celestial mechanics and practical applications springing from them. With his wife, he went on to write and illustrate the Curious George series of children’s books.

  14. a. nonymaus says:

    Far more important than a good telescope are dark skies. Most suburban amateurs will reach a point of diminishing returns with a good pair of binoculars due to light pollution and haze.

  15. Since you’ve mentioned books by Robert Bruce Thompson in the past, I’ll point out his book Astronomy Hacks: Tips and Tools for Observing the Night Sky is an excellent source of Astronomy information. If you have a telescope, and you want some ideas of what to look at, his book Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders: From Novice to Master Observer is also excellent.

  16. David Formerly Known as a Chemist says:

    Astronomy is a hobby I’ve loved and hated. When I lived in places with easy access to dark skies (central Florida back in the 1970s and early 1980s), it was wonderful. You could see so much with the naked eye back then, not to mention what was visible with binoculars or a small scope.
    Today I have a TeleVue Pronto that I bought about 10 years ago for about $1100. That’s right, $1100 for a 3″ aperture refractor, but one with exquisite optical qualities. As Derek pointed out, the cost of a mount adds a lot to the overall cost. I use a Celestron CG-4 (non-motorized) German Equatorial mount, which I paid somewhere near $250 for. This mount is big and heavy (probably weighs about 40 lb), but less massive mounts lead to lots of vibration, even in small scopes.
    Living in the suburbs of a large city, light pollution is the greatest frustrating factor to this hobby. Other than the moon and brighter planets and some of the brighter star clusters there isn’t much you can see very well. Hauling all this stuff out into the country isn’t easy either; first, where do you go that isn’t someone’s private property. I take it camping with me sometimes, which is about the only time I really get to put it to use.
    An expensive hobby that’s really difficult to enjoy. I’m glad I shifted to photography! Get your kid a nice digital camera, or a microscope.

  17. Nice post, astronomy is relaxing, wondrous, and a great way to put life’s daily annoyances in perspective. Just to add my 2 cents, I’m a fan of Orion in terms of bang for buck and good customer service. I’ve dabbled in some astrophotography (link above) using a tracking mount and 80 mm ED refractor of theirs (~$1500) paired with an entry level DSLR. It’s pretty cool how powerful that little telescope becomes when you shoot long exposures through it. Also, on the issue of light polluted skies, nothing beats a dark place, but you can get some decent astrophotography results using a light pollution filter. Definitely check out the website Cloudy Nights, their astrophotography forums are amazing.

  18. Steve Chisnall says:

    And then there’s THIS guy. (He’s Québecois, so good luck navigating a website en français) His site used to be bilingual and therefore easier for we Anglophones to navigate, but alas, that is no longer the case. This guy doesn’t just put a lot of work into mirrors, he’s also a talented woodcarver, with a penchant for making the wooden chassis of most of his scopes a magnificent work of art in its own right.

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