Buying a Telescope for My Son
July 25, 2005 8:36 PM   Subscribe

I want to buy my son, who is turning six, a telescope for his birthday. I don't want to spend a fortune, but one site I looked at for advice said anything less than $300 is a piece of junk. Anyone have any advice (including specific models) on one I can by this budding astronomer for $100 or less?
posted by alexg23 to Science & Nature (22 answers total)
Not for $100 or less; the advice I've been given is that a decent entry-level telescope -- basically, a reflector with an equatorial mount -- is slightly more than that. (I've seen prices better than $300, but certainly more than $100.) In your price range, you may be better off with a pair of binoculars.

Having said that, ask yourself what you expect (him) to be observing. Get a telescope that can meet those expectations. Buying one of the low-end refractors with the cheap stand when you've got visions of Palomar-class imagery in your head is bound to lead to disappointment.
posted by mcwetboy at 8:48 PM on July 25, 2005

If you're up to it, you could either try building, or purchasing a Dobson-style reflector. They're definately the most bang-for-the-buck, even if they do look a little ghetto. The most expensive part is the mirror, and like everything else in this world, bigger==more expensive. Here's a 6", already-built, with finder scope for $250, for example.

You can also find (scroll down) them used for less.

Finally, this is a fantastic little article that answers your question much better.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:53 PM on July 25, 2005

For $100--250, get a pair of good binoculars. Good for the Moon, prominent nebulae like Orion, clusters like the Pleiades or Hercules, naked-eye comets like Hyukatake or Hale-Bopp, maybe Andromeda though I won't vouch for that.

What you want, aside from quality which I can't tell you about because I know nothing, are big apertures -- they come in sizes like 7x35 or 10x50, and you want that second number to be big. For $250 you might be getting into the 70mm range; AFAIK you'd want a tripod for a pair that heavy. All else equal, you want the first number to be smaller -- that gives less magnification, which means more brightness. 7x50 is better than 10x50, for skywatching.

The cheap telescopes are junk because they don't do the most telescopey of telescopey things. Telescopes aren't magnification engines, they're light buckets, light concentrators. The Andromeda galaxy is bigger in the sky than the moon is, so you hardly need to magnify it. What you need to see it well is to make it brighter. Cheap little telescopes suck at that, because they have these dinky little lenses. About the only thing that they're good for is, maybe, looking at Jupiter and Saturn. And my memories of that, even as a six-year-old, were pretty damn underwhelming.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:02 PM on July 25, 2005

Go secondhand. A huge number of telescopes are purchased only to be abandoned very rapidly. There are a few reputable pawnbrokers near me, but if you're not sure what to get you might be able to find a place the specialises in telescopes that's also a secondhand dealer.
posted by krisjohn at 9:06 PM on July 25, 2005

Anything really good for that price is hard to do but here are a few ideas.

The most important part of a telescope is the support/tripod. I know that sounds stupid but if the planet you are trying to look at is bouncing around it doesn't matter how good the optics are and how bright the image is. Basically this translates to staying away from equatorial mounts. Look for something mounted like this.

The next most important thing is the size of the opening. This will determine how much you are going to be able to see with the scope, magnification isn't nearly as important as size. (In fact you should ignore magnification when shopping because you can change it with the eyepiece on any scope worth buying.) The easiest way to get size is to go with a reflecting scope.

A good pair of binoculars and a well written star guide would probably be better than a telescope, but looking from the kid's perspective a telescope is much cooler. If I were buying something for him I would go with this or something like this.
posted by 517 at 9:18 PM on July 25, 2005

My fiancee gave me an Orion SkyQuest XT6 for Christmas, and I love it. At $250, it's a little out of range. Perhaps the SpaceProbe 3 or the Observer 60? They're $99 apiece. I've never worked with those models, but, as a rank amateur, I'm generally happy with Orion's offerings.
posted by waldo at 9:31 PM on July 25, 2005

Get him a good pair of binoculars. They're better for amateur astronomy anyway, and if he decides to move up later, they'll still be useful.
posted by trevyn at 9:35 PM on July 25, 2005

Definitely go with an Orion SkyQuest dob. Really the best bang for the buck. NEVER, ever, ever buy a telescope at a department store. Pure junk. Also, 6 is really pretty young to be handling something like that. Be prepared to invest a lot of father-son time yourself. And look into joining a local club and take him to meetings and observing sessions with experienced amateurs. Done right, your son will have a life-long hobby he will love. Done wrong and it will be a fast road to disappointment. Sorry, I've been an amateur since I was not much older than your son is now and I've seen it time and time again. Oh, and the comment about pawn shops? Nope. Most stuff at pawn shops is the overpriced department store junk. There are real markets for quality used equipment. Check out Astromart.
posted by AstroGuy at 9:44 PM on July 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

Actually, binos aren't a bad idea but I beg to differ that they are "better" for amateur astronomy. They are really only good for wide-field views. To look at the planets, the moon (with any detail), and any deep-sky objects other than the 2 or 3 brightest, you'll want a scope, not binos.
posted by AstroGuy at 9:48 PM on July 25, 2005

Another vote for binoculars - and you can use them for viewing on land too: you can't with regular telescopes (unless they're Cassegrain) as they show you an inverted image. I have a set of these on a tripod, and they're great for a bit of amateur noodling around in the sky. And I can watch planes land & take from LAX too.
posted by forallmankind at 9:57 PM on July 25, 2005

I defer to astroguy. I had no idea you could get a Dob for $250.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:08 PM on July 25, 2005

I sold my $300 telescope, with a lens that alone cost that much again, for $50. Why? Because I never used it.

If you want good materials cheap, buy second-hand, BUT ensure that fittings are tight.

Never tried the SkyQuest, incidentally, but wow, it looks fantastic.
posted by dreamsign at 10:40 PM on July 25, 2005

Go with the binoculars. He's only six years old. A kid can can have a lot of fun with a pair of binoculars. Then you can go ahead and get yourself the telescope.
posted by Shalerman at 11:41 PM on July 25, 2005

I'll join the crowd suggesting binoculars rather than a telescope. They work well enough to get a bit of a better view of the planets and the moon, but where they really shine is with meteor showers. The wide field of view allows you to see more of the sky than with a telescope.
posted by borkencode at 3:13 AM on July 26, 2005

Binos & tripod. He can use it in the daytime, too.
The kid's only six, if he had a telescope, I think he'd be frustrated by the effort of finding something to look at. It's hard to find a small area of the sky in a telescope without a spotting scope and now you're into more money.
If you have (or can borrow) a big honking long lens to go on an SLR camera, I would think he'd like to take pics of the moon a time or two. You can help with focus because it's on a tripod, so you won't have to pay for a lot of wasted shots.
The first number on binos is the magnification, and the second number is the size of the front end glass, and the bigger that number, the more light you can get through it.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 4:45 AM on July 26, 2005

Change your approach. Buy one for $300 or so for yourself and have him join you in using it.
posted by yclipse at 5:10 AM on July 26, 2005

I had no idea you could get a Dob for $250.

You would have if you'd read my comment above.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:09 AM on July 26, 2005

I see that I am an idiot. As Ed Wood might say, Worst answer ever, huh? Well, my next one will be better.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:47 AM on July 26, 2005

as an ex-astronomer, i have to caution that astronomy is much more interesting in theory than practice. fuzzy blobs get boring pretty quickly. you will not see the kind of thing you're used to seeing in pictures on the 'net. so spend as little as possible until you're sure it's what you really want. seconhand bincoulars or reflectors (telescopes with mirrors) are, as everyone is saying, the way to go.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:48 AM on July 26, 2005

As Ed Wood might say, Worst answer ever, huh?

Nah, I should have labeled my links better.

fuzzy blobs get boring pretty quickly.

One last thing: to address the binoculars/telescope argument, I'd like to point out that with a telescope, a proper motor drive mount, and a cheap adaptor, you can take long-exposure photographs that turn "fuzzy blobs" into beautiful pictures.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:11 AM on July 26, 2005

I stand by what I said about binos, and I own several pairs. On planets? Useless (except for high-powered tripod mounted ones). Meteor showers? With a 5 - 7 degree field? Best instrument for a meteor shower is your own eyes, flat on your back in a spot with good horizons. I've done public outreach in amateur astronomy for years. What gets people? Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon. Need a scope for those, folks.
posted by AstroGuy at 11:31 AM on July 26, 2005

My mom took me to Amateur Astronomy stuff when I was a little kid and I loved it. Like AstroGuy says see if you have a local group and take 'em there.

(That way you're kid can use their telescopes as well)
posted by delmoi at 11:34 PM on July 27, 2005

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