As I write this it’s a grey, wet and windy January day in
the English Lake District where I live. We get a lot of days like this here.
Blame it on our maritime island climate. Now most of the web sites dedicated to
reviewing astro’ gear are
based out of the continental
I thought we needed a review site with a view from this side
of the ever-widening
Marketing can be a curse and never more so than when they plaster Hubble photos over the boxes for small telescopes. If you think that your views through any amateur telescope (or any telescope at all, for that matter) will come anything near those amazing images, you’re headed for disappointment. Not only is the Hubble huge, expensive and in orbit, but those pics were taken with CCD cameras which can collect light over minutes or hours – your eye can’t do that.
So most deep sky objects, nebulae and galaxies, look like faint smudges in small scopes, whilst planets look small and the detail has to be teased out with patient looking. The only thing that looks like it does in the pictures is the Moon, which is spectacular in any decent scope.
So does this mean you shouldn’t bother? Of course not. Just because the Grand Canyon in Summer, overrun with tourists, doesn’t quite have the majesty of that gloomy winter shot taken with a plate camera, doesn’t mean you should make do with the pictures. Seeing for yourself is what life is about. Just don’t expect too much.
The answer to this might be “a good pair of binoculars”, but if you do want a telescope then I think there are two best options:
1) A small (60-100mm) refractor on a simple alt-azimuth (up and down) mount. This doesn’t need to be an APO and doesn’t need to be expensive, but should be from a good manufacturer like Skywatcher, Meade, Celestron, Vixen etc (avoid scopes from toy stores, department stores and catalogues like the plague – many of them are complete rubbish).
2) A small (100mm – 200mm) Dobsonian reflector from a good manufacturer (again avoid cheap, unknown-brand scopes from department stores, catalogues and Ebay).
Whichever route you choose, best avoid Goto (you don’t need it on a small scope – see separate question) and probably any form of cheap equatorial mount for a first scope. If you must have goto, make sure it’s a wide-field design like an ETX80, not a narrow-field one, like an ETX90.
Keep It Simple! Keep it portable!
This is difficult as children vary! The answer is basically going to be as for the previous question, but also consider:
But above all, at the risk of repeating myself, please don’t buy a scope from a toy store, department store or catalogue – the box may look nice but the telescope inside won’t be!
If you can’t afford a scope yet, or think the child isn’t ready, why not buy a laser pointer and a star atlas or planisphere and teach them the constellations? This is fun if you share the pointer and will make using a telescope easier later on, but make sure the laser only ever points at the stars!
There is a full article on binocular astronomy elsewhere on this site, but in summary... for hand-held astro’ use, a pair of good-quality 10x50 porro-prism binoculars is ideal. These should have multi-coated lenses and modern eyepieces with a good field of view and eye-relief. Avoid roof-prism binoculars unless you need them for wet-weather daytime use as well and are prepared to pay £500++ for a premium pair. Ignore traditional advice to get 7x50s, as these are too low powered for use in today’s light-polluted skies.
There is a lot of expensive gear reviewed on this site, but I’d hate you to get the idea you can’t enjoy this hobby without it.
One of the most enjoyable ways to “do” astronomy is simply to go out under a clear sky and learn your way around the constellations, identifying the planets, stars and bright clusters. Lie back in a deck chair on an Autumn night and wait for meteors, or enjoy the rising moon with its changing phases and “face”. When a bright comet comes ‘round you can track it as it moves day-by-day and watch the way it changes size and shape; when there’s a lunar eclipse you can watch the moon turn blue and then red. All this is completely free! Add a decent pair of binos ‘round your neck for £25-100 and you can enjoy finding open clusters in the Milky Way, bright nebulae, the moons of Jupiter and craters on our own Moon..
For me this is an emphatic “NO!!”. Goto is often a pointless marketing gimmick on small telescopes because setting up the goto accurately often takes ages and lots of frustrating fiddling with the computer, more time and effort in fact than finding the object yourself with a star chart!
Learning to find brights stars, the planets, bright clusters and nebulae is part of the skill and pleasure of astronomy. Of course goto has its place – mainly for experienced users with big telescopes wanting to find faint (so hard to locate) deep sky objects, asteroids or stars quickly in order to image them.
Goto can be fun on small ‘scope, though you don’t need it, but make sure it’s a wide field design that makes it easy to align the goto and be prepared for some frustration whilst you learn how to align it.
Naglers and other “premium” eyepieces, like Ethos, Pentax XWs etc, have some advantages, like a wide field of view and/or lots of eye relief for people who wear glasses, but in truth much simpler designs like orthoscopics and plossls deliver just as much detail for much less money. Remember that a good telescope with simple eyepieces will give you much better views than a poor telescope with fancy eyepieces, so spend that spare cash on your telescope and mount before splashing out on Naglers (or their ilk), good though they are.
As with “Nagler”, “APO” is a
buzzword you’ll hear a lot in this hobby, but there is nothing “magical” about
What this means in practice is that an APO can serve as a great multi-purpose telescope: compact and easy to use, giving nice wide fields for star clusters and extended deep sky objects, but which can give sharp high power views of planets as well. Having said that, you certainly don’t need one – a reflector can often work just as well for much less money.
Maybe, but probably not. Eyepieces for astro’ scopes come in 3 sizes: 0.965”, 1.25” and 2”, each has it’s merits.
There is nothing “better” about 2 inch eyepieces per se. In fact, many people think the very sharpest planetary and lunar views come from a couple of ranges of eyepieces with tiny 0.965” barrels, e.g. Pentax SMC Orthos.
The reason you might need 2 inch eyepieces is simply to get a wider field of view in lower powers (focal lengths above about 15mm). Mostly this only makes sense in larger telescopes which have a smaller field of view in general and where any extra is well worth it, especially for deep sky objects. So for big dob’s and SCTs, the answer might be yes.
Note that some premium 2” eyepieces are very heavy (up to a kilo, yes really!) and your focuser may not take the weight, even if your wallet can.
Probably the easiest way is to buy a cheap DSLR body (don’t bother with lots of megapixels – this can make the camera worse for astro’ use!) and an adapter and maybe a remote control. Most people regard Canon as the market leader for astro’ use, and models with “live view” are ideal because they make focusing much easier.
Attach the camera (using the adapter) directly into the focuser of your ‘scope in place of the diagonal, so the scope becomes a giant lens (this is called “prime focus astrophotography” in the jargon). Experiment on the Moon at first (you’ll have to use the camera in manual mode), then move on to fainter objects, using the “Bulb” mode with the remote to get multi-second exposures.
Alternatively, get a webcam and try some planetary or lunar imaging with it – details of sight elsewhere on this site.
Another buzz phrase you come across a lot (on this site as well).
Big telescopes are slow to set up and cool down, so you need a lot of free time (and clear skies) to use them. Telescopes described as “grab-and-go” are small, quick set-up, quick cool-down telescopes that you can use even if you only have a few minutes to spare. In our climate almost every astronomer would benefit from a grab-and-go ‘scope to take a look between rain clouds.
Many different types of small light ‘scope work well for “grab-and-go”, but small refractors on simple altaz mounts are the most popular.
I am interested in giving accurate, impartial views on astro’ gear. I am not interested in building websites; I’d rather spend the time on content.
Last revised: Feb 2010