Christmas Shopping Filter - Telescope
November 25, 2008 7:47 AM   Subscribe

I need recommendations for an entry-level telescope and perhaps a good book to go with it.

I would like to buy my husband a telescope (for stargazing) for Christmas. I know NOTHING about telescopes, so I have no idea what I am looking at when I browse Amazon and the like.

Available on Amazon or similar, as we live in a place where there are NO stores of this type;

Affordable - I do know cameras, so I know that you can spend A LOT of money on good optics. However, I just want something decent at this point. Stargazing is a new hobby for him, and I don't know if it will be a flash-in-pan, so I don't want to spend hundreds of dollars at this point. If he (or we) gets really into it, we can upgrade later.

Also, any recommendations on a good book for the beginning star gazer? He'll need something to go along with the scope.

posted by coollibrarian to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My wife bought me a telescope for Christmas about 3 years ago.

It has sat unused in various closets and garages ever since.

She, like you, did not want to spend a lot of money given that it was a new hobby, but she knew it was something I was interested in. Here's the problem: it's frustrating and difficult. We set it up, went outside with a book, and couldn't see anything. It was virtually impossible to "aim" at an object, and just the slightest brush with a chin and you're no longer seeing anything. And you think the earth moves slowly, just finally spend 40 minutes getting something centered in a cheap telescope and see how fast it maddeningly drifts out of view, and then you spend 40 minutes trying to center on it again.

This cheap telescope killed stargazing as a hobby for me. The one she bought me cost about $100 or so and is very similar to this model on Amazon

Based off my experience, I'll tell you what I, as the husband gift receiver, wish I'd gotten instead. Something with computer control and software so that it can find an item and I can spend my time looking at it, researching what I'm looking at, and marveling at the wonders of the universe.

I would have preferred something like this but the problem with it is that it is $400. But being computerized it helps with the "aiming" of the telescope...

But hopefully my bad/frustrating Christmas gift story will help save someone else from a similar experience.
posted by arniec at 8:11 AM on November 25, 2008

Do not rule out a good pair of binoculars. I know it doesn't sound very astronomical, but a good pair of binoculars will be surprisingly good at the entry level, and often better value than getting a poor quality telescope.
posted by edd at 8:24 AM on November 25, 2008

This book by H. A. Rey (creator of Curious George) is highly recommended for beginning star gazers.
posted by plinth at 8:43 AM on November 25, 2008

I bought my husband this telescope for his birthday this year. It was about $150. Unlike arniec, my husband has really enjoyed his new hobby. There were some frustrations learning to use it but he would go outside in the middle of the night just to look at some awesome shots of the moon or to find Andromeda or something. And we're in Chicago, where city lights wash out a lot of the amazing things we could be seeing.

My husband has since bought accessories and new lenses and such - my understanding is one of the good things about the telescope he got is you can get new eyepieces which make upgrading it fairly simple. He now has a subscription to Astronomy magazine and everything; it's really become an enjoyable hobby. There are some cool computer programs that map the night sky based on your location that help you find specific stars and planets and such.

I don't think my husband got a book - he used online resources to figure out how to use it for the most part.

Good luck!
posted by misskaz at 8:55 AM on November 25, 2008

I think the biggest joy in astonomy is finding your way around the sky. My wife got me binoculars and I was off to the races. Something like this is good enough or a larger pair with tripod adapter is good too.

If it has to be a telescope, then this one from Costco looks like a lot of fun (I don't know it's reputation but it looks like decent value for the money)
I'm sure, if your husband is at all like me, he'll spend many hours researching his first telescope purchase.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:41 AM on November 25, 2008

You might want to pop over to Cloudy Nights for some more in-depth recommendations.

That said, I've had the stargazing bug since I was a kid and only had access to an incredibly poor 60's-era Newtonian.

I haven't looked at stuff on Amazon so I can't really speak to the quality of it. Telescopes are like bicycles: you do need to spend a little bit of change to get something reasonably decent. If you buy a $100 bike at Wal-Mart, don't expect to use it daily. Instead, go to a place like Orion.

There are two basic types of scopes: refractor and newtonian. Refractor is the 'traditional' eye-looks-in-one-end-and-lens-is-at-other scope. Newtonians use a mirror at the base and the eyepiece usually sticks out the side of the scope. Maks/Cats are a hybrid of refractors and newtonians: they use mirrors to "fold" the light path and shorten the tube.

There are also several kinds of mounts but the three you need to know about are: equatorial,altitude-azimuth (alt-az), and dobsonian.

Equatorial and alt-az are usually on tripods. The important difference is this: equatorial require alignment to the North Star before you start viewing. The advantage of equatorial is that once you've found the object you want to look at, you only need to turn one knob to keep it in the field of view.

Alt-az is not much different from a camera tripod: you just point it where you want without much regard to alignment. The downside is this: you have to move in 2 directions to keep the object place.

Dobsonians are a specific kind of alt-az where the mount is directly on the ground instead of on a tripod. Dobsonians are named for John Dobson, who combined a Newtonian telescope with an alt-az mount on the ground.

Finally, the other feature is "go-to": a computer attached to the telescope that makes beginner astronomy reasonable.

Sticking with Orion offerings, I'd recommend this refractor or this dob. Both have go-to (trust me, it's worth it). Both are good beginner scopes that will hold their value as good tools if your husband decides to go whole hog. And both have good enough "specs" that your husband won't be frustrated by poor tools.

For what it's worth, I received a "beginner" Newtonian from Orion (an under $150 model) a few years back and quickly upgraded to a Cat (also from Orion) and, a few years later, a 10" dob. Of the three, I still have and use the latter two.
posted by jdfan at 10:54 AM on November 25, 2008

A subscription to Sky & Telescope is a very good investment. Not only does it keep you up to date on interesting things to look at each month, it has articles about various types of telescopes for sale & that can be made by hobbyists, so over time you get a good education about what you might want for your particular purpose and budget.

Also similarly educational (and free!) is the Orion catalog.

Also it's very wise when purchasing telescopes to buy from telescope manufacturers or dedicated dealers rather than Costco, Kmart, Walmart or other general merchandise type stores. Meade, Celestron, Orion, etc. would all be decent bets.
posted by flug at 11:15 AM on November 25, 2008

Mrs. Princelyfox says:
For a beginner, I think the motor and automatic find functions are more important than optics. You must get one at least that has a motor so it can track the objects. The motor moves the scope the same speed as the earth’s rotation. You have no idea how fast objects will move out of the field of vision without this. I recommend one that even has the GPS and GOTO or Autostar function. The GPS will speed up the polar alignment that you must do everytime use it – but this is not necessary. Actually, I think you are wasting your money if you get one that does not have any Go To function as a beginner. Instead of a book, get the computer program and a telescope that can be connected to a laptop and buy him a planisphere. He first needs to familiarize himself with the constellations that are visible say after dinner this winter. Make sure you get one for your latitude range. Also, pick up a copy of the magazine Sky and Telescope for yourself if not a subscription for him. I wouldn’t buy a scope from amazon as a beginner unless you knew exactly what you wanted. You want someplace that has expert customer service. I am pretty impressed with this one and might get it for my nephew.

A word of caution – the moon is actually pretty bright and can damage your eyes. Get a lunar filter if he wants to spend a lot of time looking at the moon. And as a novice don’t even think about looking at the sun! They do sell solar filters, but if yours gets even a tiny scratch on it you can seriously and permanently damage your eyes. I only look at the sun when the local planetarium hosts telescope events for such things like the transit of mercury.
posted by princelyfox at 11:32 AM on November 25, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone!

I think I am going to have to determine, with my husband, if this is something he really sees himself getting into before I throw hundreds of dollars at it - so, looks like he'll be getting a new guitar for Christmas (he already plays, so that's a safe bet)!

But I will keep all these suggestions on file, should we decide to splurge for his birthday in the spring. Thanks again!
posted by coollibrarian at 1:52 PM on November 25, 2008

For a beginner, binoculars are definitely the way to start. You will be amazed at how much you can see with them if you have a nice dark viewing site (be at least 10 miles from any city; farther is better). Binoculars are portable and easy to use and give one the experience navigating the sky that is needed before one can use a telescope successfully.

I recommend size 10x50. The first number is the magnification; the second is the width of the big lens (the "objective") in mm. The ratio of these (50/10 = 5mm) is the size of the image that comes out (the "exit pupil"). Your pupils will be 5-7mm in the dark, so a 5mm exit pupil is good. Some people recommend 7x35 or 10x35 because they weigh less, but 10x50 isn't at all heavy and the larger 50mm objective collects twice as much light as the 35mm, so you can see fainter things.

Get a good brand, such as one of the good Japanese camera makers. Get one with a porro prism design (the Wikipedia article explains this). Make sure it has "fully multicoated" optics (as opposed to simply "fully coated" or "multicoated").

Get a book on binocular astronomy. There are a number of good ones. I've enjoyed the Patrick Moore one for many years.

I imagine this Google search will be fruitful.
posted by neuron at 8:27 PM on November 25, 2008

I must second neuron and everyone else who said to choose binoculars over a telescope for your first purchase, but no one has really given you a good reason why. Here you go:

When observing the night sky, you can see two distinctly different realms: objects within our solar system, and stars within our galaxy. The difference in distance between these two realms is mind boggling. Solar system objects (planets and the moon) are in the range of tens or hundreds of million miles, while galactic objects (stars and nebulae) are on the order of hudreds or thousands of light-years. Simply put, no telescope you can buy for less than a thousand dollars is going to let you see anything different on a galactic scale than can be seen with the naked eye (well, you'll see more stars in a given area of space, but they'll still look like stars).

On the other hand, with a good set of binoculars you'll be able to enjoy the planets with a lot less hassle than with a telescope. Being hand-held, they're much more convenient, and a decent monopod (basically, a stick) is all you need for stabilization. On the first night you'll be able to see the Gallilean moons of Jupiter, resolve Mars and Venus into discs - as opposed to pinpoints - and easily see craters on the moon. You'll see rings around Saturn, be able to see that the middle "star" in Orion's sword is actually a gas cloud, and that the Plaedies are an amazing cluster of not seven, but dozens of stars.

The multiple suggestions of a book or two are also spot-on. If you have no idea what you're looking at, or why Mercury isn't visible this week, you'll soon grow bored with just walking outside to "look at the stars". On the other hand, the more you learn the more you realizie that the night sky offers an endless stream of "events", and you will soon look forward to various observing opportunities.

Lastly, if you don't already have a good set of binoculars, the advantages over a telescope are considerable. As previously noted, a telescope has limited application away from sky gazing, and may end up in a closet. A good set of binoculars, however, will be called upon again and again.

Finally, if you do decide later on to invest in a good telescope, you can already begin to see the smartest course of action: buy one of the thousands that are sitting, barely used, in attics and closets all over the country.
posted by dinger at 6:46 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

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