Astronomy articles to help you discover the wonders of the universe.

Buying Your First Telescope

How to chose your first telescope and get started quickly

Written By on in Astronomy

1,873 words, estimated reading time 9 minutes.

Buying your first telescope can be a daunting task. We show you what you should look for and how to quickly get up and running.

Observational Astronomy Series
  1. Tips for Getting Started in Astronomy
  2. Dark Eye Adaption - How We See In the Dark
  3. Light Pollution
  4. Using Star Charts and Measuring Distance
  5. Constellation Guide
  6. Binocular Astronomy
  7. Moon Watching - How to Observe the Moon
  8. Buying Your First Telescope
  9. Your First Night With Your First Telescope
  10. Sky Orientation through a Telescope
  11. Polar Alignment of an Equatorial Telescope Mount
  12. Useful Astronomy Filters for Astrophotography

Depending on your previous astronomical experience, you may already have a good idea of what you are after in your first telescope. If you are just starting out in astronomy, you are probably just as confused as I was when I started.

Don't Buy a Telescope! At least not one of those £20 telescopes that appear in toy shops or around Christmas time. As with everything, you get what you pay for, and in these cases, it'll be very disappointing. Read this guide to find out what you want from a telescope, spend the little extra and get one that will last you for years to come.

There are many factors involved in selecting a telescope for home use, the most important of which is "what do you want to look at?". This question affects the type of telescope design, for example, planetary observation is suited more to a slow (large f/ number) refractor, as this will give a large depth of field. This makes it easier to focus and also increases the ability to resolve surface detail. The trade-off is limited light gathering ability since refractors generally have a much smaller aperture due to the cost of producing large lens elements. This limits observation of deep space objects (nebulas, galaxies etc…) which require large apertures to capture the faint light.

For observation of deep space objects, the aperture is of greater importance for light gathering and for cost/performance a Newtonian reflector is more suitable as mirrors are relatively inexpensive. The downside is that they are often bulky instruments, and suffer from low f/ numbers making planetary observation difficult. A compromise would be a compound design, such as a Maksutov Cassegrain, which maintains large apertures, with a short tube, using secondary mirrors to double the focal length and therefore increase the focal ratio. However, these telescope designs tend to be more expensive. Newtonians are comparatively inexpensive and make good beginner telescopes.

My First Telescope
My first telescope, a 200mm Newtonian reflector.

Telescope Specifications

When you're buying a car you want to know how fast it can go, how big it is and whether it's going to be any good for what you want. Your first telescope is no different, so let's look at some of the specifications you'll need to know.

Focal Length

The focal length of a telescope or lens is the length over which light directed by the curvature of the optic lens or mirror, comes into focus. At this point, called the focal plane, you can actually see a real image of a distant object. In traditional telescopes the focal length is usually around the same length as the telescope itself, however, modern optics are able to "fold" the light path with mirrors to reduce this distance, resulting in a more compact telescope.

Focal length is measured in mm and is the same as camera lenses. The larger the focal length, the greater the overall magnification will be.

Newtonian Telescope Cutaway
Newtonian Telescope Cutaway showing the focal length

Mirror or Lens Size (Aperture)

Primary Mirror Cleaned
Larger primary or objective lenses gather more light

The bigger the mirror or lens, the more light can be captured and the brighter a distant celestial object will appear. You'll also encounter the "f" number, which is the focal ratio of the scope. This tells you what the scope is good for. A lower focal ratio of around f/5 is great for observing large, faint objects like galaxies, while higher focal ratios around f/11 are good for looking at brighter things like the planets and the Moon.

Magnification

Don't be fooled by claims of massive magnification. That's not the measure of a good telescope. Even poor telescopes can magnify many times. What's really important is the quality of the lenses and the size of the telescope's lens or main mirror. In many cases, the magnification quoted is an absolute maximum under optimal conditions, which are never going to be achievable in real life use.

Magnification is a product of the telescopes focal length and the focal length of the eyepiece in use. For example, a telescope with a 500mm focal length and a 40mm eyepiece will have a magnification of 500/40 = 12.5x. By swapping in a more powerful eyepiece, say 25mm, this magnification then becomes 20x.

Telescope eyepiece focal length (25mm & 10mm) and apparent field (52)
Examples of eye piece sizes

Resolving Power

Hubble image of the Sirius binary system, in which Sirius B can be clearly distinguished (lower left).
Hubble image of the Sirius binary system, in which Sirius B can be clearly distinguished (lower left).

The resolution of a telescope is a measure of its ability to differentiate the details of an object, or to distinguish two very closely spaced objects from each other, such as binary stars or fine detail on the Moon or a planet. The resolving power is calculated as 116 divided by the telescope objective diameter. A 200mm scope can resolve details as close as 0.58 arcseconds, twice as well as a 100 mm scope, all other things being equal.

What type of telescope should I buy?

The simple answer is, it depends on what you want to look at in the night sky. Each of the different designs of telescope has their advantages and disadvantages. You have to weigh up each one and decide on the overall best telescope for you. Many astronomers have more than one telescope, but to start off with, I believe its best to invest in one good quality telescope, rather than two lesser quality telescopes.

Newtonian Telescopes

Newtonian Telescope
Newtonian Telescope

A good all round beginner's telescope is the Newtonian reflector. These reflecting telescopes were invented by Sir Isaac Newton, and use a specially curved main mirror to collect celestial light. The light gathered by the large primary mirror is focussed and aimed at a smaller secondary mirror, which in turn focuses the light into the eyepiece. It's a simple design and is relatively cheap for the size of mirror you'll get for your money - ideal if you're just starting out. A Newtonian reflector with a 6 inch (150mm) mirror will give you good views of the brighter galaxies and nebulae, and should also perform well when looking at the Moon and planets.

Refractor Telescopes

Refractor Telescope
Refractor Telescope

A refractor the oldest and perhaps the most recognisable of all designs. The refractor telescope was the type used by Galileo to record the phases of Venus among other things. Refractors have a curved lens at the front, which focuses the light down the tube directly into the focuser. A star diagonal is often added between the focuser and eyepiece to make viewing more comfortable. Refractors are great for observing the Moon, planets or rich star clusters.

Dobsonian Telescope

Dobsonian Telescope
Dobsonian Telescope

The Dobsonian telescope is another type of reflecting telescope, but mounted on a simple alt-azimuth mount (we'll see mounts later) popularised by amateur astronomer John Dobson in the 1960s. If you want to chase faint galaxies and nebulae, this type of telescope has a much larger mirror for its price compared to any other design because it has a simple mount, however, you wont be able to track objects across the sky without a much more expensive mount.

Catadioptric Telescopes

Catadioptric Telescope
Catadioptric Telescope

Finally, there are the catadioptric telescopes, or compound telescopes, which use a combination of corrector lenses and mirrors. Their compact size makes them relatively portable and their large focal ratios mean that they're ideal for lunar and planetary observing. Popular designs include the Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Cassegrain.

What is the mount?

The mount is the most important part of the telescope. A telescope with superb optics will always be let down by a poor-quality mount. If you can't keep the optics stable, your view of the night sky will be completely ruined, so make sure that the mount is sturdy. For astrophotography, the heavier the mount the better, because it will be a solid platform for the telescope, but you have to weigh up the benefits of a heavier mount with portability and ease of setting it up - its weight has obviously got to be offset by how portable you want your telescope to be. It shouldn't have any flimsy plastic parts and under no circumstances should it flex or wobble noticeably when setting up.

Camera Tripods are examples of Alt-Az mounts
Camera Tripods are examples of Alt-Az mounts

There are two main types of mount that you'll come across: the alt-azimuth (alt-az) and the equatorial (eq). Alt-azimuth and Alt-az stand for altitude and azimuth and is the simplest of all mounts. The telescope moves on a base parallel to the ground up and down (in altitude) and left and right (in azimuth). This motion is the same as most camera tripods.

Basic equitorial mount with manual tracking
Basic equitorial mount with manual tracking

The equatorial mount (typically the German equatorial mount, or GEM) is different; one of its axes is tilted to your latitude and the other is parallel to the celestial equator. It moves in units of Right Ascension and Declination, which are similar to longitude and latitude and mapped onto an imaginary sphere on the sky. Most Newtonians come on a German equatorial mount.

Motorised equitorial mounts use a quartz drive to track objects in the sky
Motorised equitorial mounts use a quartz drive to track objects in the sky

Some more expensive equatorial mounts feature motors and gears which when correctly aligned will track an object across the sky. This means you do not have to keep adjusting it to keep an object in the field of view, and is essential for astrophotography.

Computerised GOTO mounts can automatically slew to find objects
Computerised GOTO mounts can automatically slew to find objects

Go-To telescopes come with an inbuilt computer and handset that, provided they are set up correctly, automatically aims the telescope and tracks an specific object. If you aren't familiar with using a telescope, setting up a scope without Go-To is much easier, especially the modern computer controlled mounts since they do not require perfect polar alignment. A non-Go-To is much cheaper and will be a gentler introduction to how telescopes work as well as helping you to get to know the night's sky and aligning the scope to the sky.

If you are looking for accurate tracking of celestial objects then an equatorial mount makes life a lot easier since when it is properly aligned the telescope moves on the axis of the earth. That's not to say that alt-az mounts can't track objects, it just a lot easier and more accurate.

From personal experience, my Go-To mount has proven invaluable in light polluted areas where deep sky objects are near impossible to see. Long exposures with a camera can pick them up. The Go-To mount makes finding these objects much easier, often within 30 seconds, opposed to an hour of star hopping and trial and error with the camera.

How much should I spend on my first telescope?

A good Newtonian on a sturdy mount costs around £200 in the UK, while a good refractor costs around £300. A 6-inch Dobsonian can cost as little as £155.

What's most important is that you buy from a reputable astronomical dealer or a major retailer, and above all avoid the cheap, poor-quality models you sometimes see in mail-order catalogues or high street stores.

The best brands to buy include SkyWatcher and Celestron at the lower end of the market, Orion and Meade are towards the higher end with Takahashi generally regarded as being among the best. Personally, I have two SkyWatcher telescopes and have been very pleased with them. I've used Celestron and they are very similar to SkyWatcher.

Last updated on: Wednesday 24th January 2018

 

Comments
Gary Sonnenberg

Gary Sonnenberg

Hi Tim,

Thanks for the overview, but it seems to me that you're talking about a lot of advanced features here. Isn't there something more basic for the beginner to look at?

Reply to Gary Sonnenberg

 

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