Looking to the sky? Telescope gift-buying guide
Posted December 14, 2015
If a telescope is on your list this holiday season, a few simple tips will help ensure that young scientist (or you) enjoys many nights observing details of the night sky.
Avoid flimsy tripods. Steady views require a steady mount. Thin aluminum legs won't provide stability for even the most lightweight telescope. This produces a wobbly view and a lot of frustration.
Materials matter. Lenses made of plastic scratch easily and don’t provide clear views. Moving parts made from plastic, such as drawtube, focusers and any associated gears, will also not last long.
Avoid the electronics. The thought of the telescope adjusting itself to point to a planet, nebula or some other sky object at the press of a button may sound great, but these features may disappoint on telescopes costing less than about $1,000. Gears in lower-cost telescopes are generally made of plastic, which are not as accurate and wear out more quickly than the brass gears in more expensive scopes.
Aperture matters. Aperture is the measurement of the opening where light enters the telescope. Larger apertures and the increased light they bring will provide clearer images and make it possible to see dimmer objects.
Consider buying a used telescope. Local classifieds like Craigslist generally have dozens of telescopes at a variety of price levels available. National classifieds from Sky and Telescope magazine and astromart.com provide even more choices.
The best telescope is the one that gets used. Select one that is easy to setup, easy to operate and easy to transport. You’ll be amazed how much more you can see from that vacation rental at the coast or mountains. Several manufacturers make telescopes that fit into backpacks.
Consider Earthly needs. If you’d like the telescope to be used during the day for activities such as bird watching, choose a refracting telescope. This kind of telescope uses lenses (hopefully glass ones) to gather and focus light through an eyepiece on the end of the tube. Reflecting telescopes produce an image which is upside down.
Images on the box are decorations, not demonstrations of what the telescope inside the box. Some manufacturers even use images from the Hubble Space Telescope to decorate their packaging.
Attend a local astronomy club meeting. The Raleigh Astronomy Club and Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society welcome new amateur astronomers and are eager to help.
Don’t forget a book to help you make your way around the sky. Local libraries have a good selection of these books, check there before buying.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.