Portable beginner telescope
June 25, 2012 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Recommendations for a portable beginner telescope?

Every year my family takes a trip to northern Minnesota. It's a pretty remote area with very little light pollution. I've often thought it would be a great place to bring a telescope and learn about astronomy.

Previous questions and other resources I've found recommend beginners get a Dobsonian such as the XT8. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of luggage space available on this trip, so I'm not sure I can make that happen.

I can find some constellations (and I have an app for that!) but that's about the extent of my astronomy experience (other than stopping by the local community college to see the transit of venus).

I'd have a hard time going much beyond $400 for this, and cheaper would definitely be a plus, since this is a new hobby.

I've been considering the Star Max 90mm (basic) and they seem to have the same telescope with a "planetary kit"

I also thought a computerized model would be good, since I lack in experience. I would consider stretching the budget if the computerized mount could be reused if I later upgraded telescopes.

These were the computerized ones I found:
NexStar 90
NexStar 4se

Will I be disappointed with any of these? Would it be better to wait until I can test more or up my budget? Would the dobsonians be worth making luggage space?
posted by chndrcks to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
We just got the 6" StarBlast reflector & have been extremely satisfied. Under a good dark sky, we made out several 10th magnitude galaxies, Could clearly see the equitorial bands of Jupiter & the rings of Saturn. The Orion Nebula was clear & bright. We also got a barlow, which doubles the magnification of the lenses, & a moon filter. The moon at 150 x is pretty amazing. It's also great for some of the larger nebulas & star clusters.

I was worried that pointing it without a GPS & motor drive would be difficult, but so far it's only taken a few minutes to hone in on anything, and was a lot easier than I thought.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:45 AM on June 25, 2012

Size/weight is an issue, and you are a beginner? You want binoculars, not a telescope. If you enjoy those then you'll know better how you would use a telescope.
posted by caek at 10:47 AM on June 25, 2012

Start with the suggestions on the sidebar of /r/astronomy.
posted by ylee at 11:00 AM on June 25, 2012

I've heard good things about the Starblast, less good about the NexStar 4SE's optics (I have a 5SE, which is better).

A lot of it depends on what you want to look at. Maksutov-Cassegrains like the ones you link to are long-focal-length scopes best suited for planets and small stuff; a short-focal-length reflector will be better for things like star clusters and emission nebulae that take up more space in the eyepiece. Less magnification also makes it a lot easier to point an f/5 scope than an f/13-14 scope.
posted by mcwetboy at 11:50 AM on June 25, 2012

Best answer: I'm basically the same as you in regards to experience, budget, and knowledge. After doing a lot of research, I'm planning to get the Orion XT8 - It's supposed to give you the best view for that price range. I'll also add a Barlow lense to it too. Check out the overwhelmingly positive reviews, and it was also recommended in every other astronomy thread I've read.

I'm no expert, but my assumption is that any computerized model you buy in the sub $400 range is not going to be worth it.
posted by Think_Long at 11:50 AM on June 25, 2012

I have this scope. It fits in a regular knapsack, and weighs about four pounds. You'll need a mount, as well. I have this one, and like it a lot. If you're just interested in getting out without lugging a ton of stuff, setting up quickly and being able to point your scope at cool things in the sky, this combo might just be perfect for that.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:59 AM on June 25, 2012

I bought this 80mm telescope for my 9 year old daughter who showed a very early and sustained interest in all things celestial. While not the smallest scope (due, in part, to it's tabletop base), it is quite sturdy and seems fairly easy for even a beginner to master.
posted by schade at 12:14 PM on June 25, 2012

Size/weight is an issue, and you are a beginner? You want binoculars, not a telescope. If you enjoy those then you'll know better how you would use a telescope.

With a decent pair of binoculars, there's plenty to see the moment you get them out of the case and point them at the sky. Even if you do get a scope, I recommend you complement it with a decent pair of 10x50s (or longer if you have a mount for them). No, they won't show you the detail of the moon that a 4" refractor can, or show you Jupiter's spot or the horse head nebula but they will show you how immensely jammed packed busy the sky is with stars. With good viewing, a pair of bins will show you globula clusters, the moons of Jupiter, comets, nebulae, the Andromeda galaxy and more!

It would be worth your while heading over to Cloudy Nights and looking for advise in the forums.
posted by run"monty at 1:29 PM on June 25, 2012

Best answer: Aside: I'm a professional astronomer, which generally means that you should ignore my advice (astronomy is the only area I'm aware of where it's a high compliment to call someone a "true amateur"). However, I also just bought a bunch of equipment for our observatory, so I'm knee-deep in equipment research.

The telescope you should get depends tremendously on what you want to do with it. Telescopes get expensive for one of a few reasons:
  1. They have big primary light gathering elements (i.e. big mirrors or lenses).
  2. They're on fancy computerized mounts that help you point at stuff.
  3. They can get expensive because they have really fancy (or high-quality) optics.
Point 3 is pretty moot for most consumer-grade telescopes (they're all pretty good and, moreover, it's generally not worth paying for fancy optics if you're a beginner). Let's consider the other two points.

If what you want to see is really faint stuff (nebulae, galaxies, etc.), then it makes sense to get the biggest aperture you can get (i.e. point #1). It's worth pointing out that seeing faint stuff is the major advantage of observing in areas with low light pollution. If you want to see the planets and the moon, you can just as easily see them (in basically equivalent conditions) in even a big city. I've looked at Jupiter in Manhattan before and it looked basically the same as it does in rural Vermont. That's even more true for the Moon.

Anyway, being able to see faint things is why people buy Dobsonians like the XT8 (or the Zhumell Z8 that I just bought a couple of). They're "light buckets" that capture the most light possible, but usually don't have any computerized (or even electronic) mounts. I think they are among the best telescopes you can buy for an enthusiastic, motivated beginner (and more advanced observers like them as is illustrated by the 30" Dobsonian this guy is building). They tend to be dead simple in terms of design and setup and you can get a big mirror for your money. The "enthusiastic" and "motivated" are important points, however, since Dobsonians aren't going to help you out at all when you want to point. It's a "manual only" experience. That actually can be better; a lot of these beginner telescopes have bad electronic mounts that interfere with pointing the telescope more than anything else.

Portability of these can definitely be an issue with Dobsonians, although often not as big of an issue as you think. They're big in one dimension, but tend to be smaller in the other two; I've found that it's easier than I think it would be to pack a car including a Dobsonian telescope. If portability is still an issue, do a search for "collapsible dobsonians." They are out there. However, this may still not be small enough, in which case another design might be more appropriate.

If you think that you're not the type of person who would be super-motivated to learn the sky (or just want a less "hands-on" observing experience), then looking into one with a computerized mount (Point #2) may be worth it. However, you should be aware that most telescopes at your price point (sub-$400) are going to require you to polar align them before they can actually point at anything. So, you have to know something about the sky before you can dive in and start observing. Still, there's definitely a benefit to having a telescope with a big catalog of objects.

I should say that all three of the telescopes you link to look good and I think you'd be happy with any of them. I would encourage you (as I encourage everyone I know who wants to learn the sky) to get a star wheel / planisphere (I like this one, but others are good, too).

I said some things like this recently here. You may find other useful information in that thread, too.
posted by Betelgeuse at 2:03 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry. Bad link. This is the planisphere I like.
posted by Betelgeuse at 2:23 PM on June 25, 2012

Oh, just as a bit of an aside, I find the free program Stellarium to be quite awesome in maintaining enthusiasm.
posted by wilful at 7:15 PM on June 25, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I finally decided to go to the XT8. It comes with a 25mm Plossl eyepiece and a 2x Barlow. I probably have enough budget left over to buy 1-2 more eyepieces. Does anyone have a recommendation? I was thinking either 10mm or 7.5mm Plossl
posted by chndrcks at 11:42 AM on July 24, 2012

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