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Mike's Telescope Buying Guide

When it comes to buying a telescope, either for yourself or that special celestial someone, you’ll find that there are a lot of choices out there, both in the type of telescope and the brand you get. I don’t pretend to be the world’s greatest expert on telescopes but I’ve had a lot of experiences buying telescopes, good and bad. I hope this will help you choose the right scope at the right price so you can see the rest of our universe a little closer.

I get a lot of questions about telescope purchasing from folks who come to my stargazing classes. When they step up to the eyepiece of one of my telescopes, a lot of them ask, “how much power does this scope have? A 100 power? 200 power, 500 power?… Magnification is not the most important aspect of a telescope. That’s the most common misunderstanding when it comes to a telescope’s ability. Magnification is way overrated!

A telescope’s “power” is determined by its ability to gather as much light as possible. The aperture, or, the width of the telescope determines that. The wider your scope is the more light gathering ability it will have. The more light you have the clearer the image will be and when it comes down to it, isn’t that what matters the most? What good is it if you’re looking at a heavenly body at 400 power magnification (400 times bigger than it appears to your naked eye) if the image is all fuzzy through the eyepiece? The more light you can gather, the clearer you’ll see your celestial targets. This especially holds true with higher magnifications. You can change your magnification in any telescope when you change eyepieces. Most telescopes come with two to three eyepieces that give a range of around 75 to 300 power on average. The truth of the matter is that 200 to 250-power magnification will be about as much as you need for most objects and in fact for most objects, 100 to 150 power is best because you’re able to see a wider field of view.

I think the best way I can help them is to ask them how much they are willing to spend. Like a lot of stuff you buy, more money doesn’t necessarily mean a better telescope. I’ll start with the less expensive scopes and work my way up. Okay...here we go...

$150 to $200

For this kind of money you can get a small refractor telescope with an aperture of 60 to 70mm that’s perfect for young stargazers age 8 and up and for anyone else who just has a casual interest in astronomy. When I say aperture I’m talking about the width of the objective lens of the telescope. That’s the lens at the front of the scope where the light enters. The wider it is, the more light you can gather. Most 60 to 70mm refractors will allow you to see the moon, planets, nebulae, star clusters and other bright objects with up to 100 to 130-power magnification. You can try higher magnification with these small scopes but the images will be fuzzy. Beware of advertising on the package or elsewhere that claims that these small scopes can see up to 400 to 500-power magnification. I think that’s very misleading.

$200 to $800

We’re talking bigger bucks here so we’re talking bigger scopes. In this range you can buy even bigger refractor scopes with larger apertures up to around 90mm.

Also at this price range you can buy a decent Newtonian reflector telescope, what some amateur astronomers like myself refer to as “light buckets”. This is my favorite kind of telescope. I think you definitely get more viewing bang for your buck with these scopes. The disadvantage with these kinds of telescopes is that they are generally big and bulky. The tubes can be up to 5 to 6 feet long.

Originally designed by Sir Isaac Newton, these kinds of telescopes gather light with a parabolic concave mirror. The wider the mirror, the more light gathering. You can buy a 6-inch reflector telescope, which means it has a 6-inch diameter mirror for 300 to 400 dollars and you can get an 8-inch reflector for around $700. I recommend you get a reflector with Dobsonian mount. They’re easier to use.

Over $800

Now we’re talking big bucks! For 800 to 1000 dollars you can buy even larger reflector scopes, with mirrors over 10 inches wide, but again you’re looking at a really big and bulky scope that can be hard to lug around. If you want to haul these bigger reflectors around to the dark skies of the countryside, make sure your vehicle can handle it!

For that same kind of money, you can buy a small Schmidt-Cassegrain type of telescope. They are decent telescopes but they don’t necessarily have as much light-gathering power. For that kind of money they only have apertures of 90 to 115mm but the trade off is that they’re much more portable and they have computer-drive systems that follow and track celestial objects across the sky.

For really really big bucks, and we’re talking thousands here, you can get even bigger Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes with apertures up to and over 16 inches, but you better be sure your recipient is into stargazing for the long haul!

Another new feature that’s now available on just about any kind of telescope is the “go-to” computer system that will actually point your telescope to what you want to look at. That helps when you’re trying to find fainter objects in the sky. Most “go-to” computer systems also have tracking systems that’ll keep the object in your scope once you find it. Otherwise whatever you’re looking at will be out of your view after a minute or two as the Earth rotates on its axis. Generally speaking this will add another 150 to 300 dollars to the cost of your telescope.

As far as where to buy telescopes in the Minneapolis/St.Paul area, I would recommend specialty shops like Radio City Astronomy in Moundsview . Elsewhere in the USA there are other telescope shops but good telescope can also be bought at optical and camera shops I’d avoid buying a scope at discount department store. Also be careful buying a scope on the Internet or on a shopping service on TV unless you’ve done a lot of research. As far as brand names, I think the best are Meade, Celestron, or Orion. Of course like anything else you buy …save that receipt!

Celestial Extras!

If you want some extra resources for your stargazing, May I recommend (not so humbly) “Mike Lynch’s Minnesota Starwatch” available in bookstore and on this website after the October 1st, 2004. If you live elsewhere is the United States, watch for your state’s version of Mike Lynch’s Starwatch. It clearly explains the basics of stargazing and has easy to understand star maps and charts to make the stars your old friends. Another book I recommend is “Nightwatch” by Terrence Dickenson.

There are also a lot of great astronomy/ stargazing software packages out there, but the very best one in my opinion is “Starry Night Enthusiast”.