What’s the best telescope?

Telescope types

This question comes up all the time.

This was my choice but it may not be right for you.

It is a very difficult and frustrating one to answer because tomorrow someone will ask the same question and like Groundhog Day, you know what comes next.

If you were asked, “what is the best car?”, how could you give a recommendation without knowing if they were planning to use it to take the kids to school, drive up dirt tracks or go racing?

In a nutshell (but others will disagree so find your own path)

  • Don’t spend too little or a massive amount on your first telescope
  • Get a good solid, mount
  • Don’t get a computerised go-to mount
  • Start with visual not astrophotography 
  • Don’t worry about power
  • Simple is better
  • Avoid cheap department store telescopes 

The bad news about buying a telescope “blind”.

“It is too difficult and complicated to set up”, “I can’t see anything through it”, “The planets are too small to see anything”, “Andromeda looks nothing like the pictures on the box”, “I just can’t find a thing”

There is a chance you could end up wasting time and money on something that isn’t going to be used and will end up in the loft or on eBay.

Telescopes also make terrible “surprise” presents. The person who is going to be using it needs to be involved from the start.

The good news

So how can you avoid buying what’s called a “hobby killer”?

First of all, if you have been given a telescope or offered a very cheap one then fine, go for it. Be prepared to be frustrated but you will be able to see craters on the moon and learn a lot of valuable skills.

With a little reading and research, you can find a way of enjoying the night sky that you or your children will value and still enjoy many years later.

Before you buy your first telescope, I recommend you start with live, visual astronomy so forget photography until you have developed your skills. I would also avoid computerised go-to and equatorial mounts. They sound helpful but the reality is that they will need to be carefully set up and aligned before they can be used. With an Alt-Az mounted refractor or a Dobsonian mounted reflector, you can start observing straight away. Do consider binoculars, especially with a tripod as they are a very cost effective option.

I would also avoid computerised go-to and equatorial mounts

Vitally important is the mount or tripod. Most cheap telescopes have flimsy trips that will shake and ruin your viewing. Cheap reflectors that have a Bird-Jones design will perform very poorly, so avoid those.

Magnification or power isn’t as important as you may think. Some objects like planets and difficult binaries benefit from high power but many do not. The quality of the sky and also your telescope will limit the highest you can use. The magnification or power depends on three things. 1. the focal length (how long the telescope is), aperture (the diameter or width of the telescope) and the focal length (power) of the eyepiece.

A focal length of above 800mm and an aperture of at least 150mm (6”) will be a good choice for viewing different objects including planets at higher power.Smaller than this and you’ll be limited to a low power eyepiece.

Ignore people who say “Buy an X” because without knowing your circumstances that is meaningless advice. I would read what people are using on the Stargazers Lounge and Cloudy Nights forums. Both are friendly places where you can ask questions knowing you will get helpful advice from experienced users. Do read the threads before you post though.

Recommended advice

It can be overwhelming to get to the key information however and so I would also check out these web pages. I’ve selected them as I believe they give good information without pushing pop up advertisements at you. You will note that only the last one is a video and there is advice for buying a telescope for children.

 

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