Monday, January 2, 2012

Buying a first telescope

I have started or resumed this hobby four times, so in a way I have had four "starter" telescopes.

The first one was when I was a child, about ten years old. It was a Gilbert 2.5" Newtonian--which explains the sig line I use in my astro club's forum. Shoddy mount, shoddy tripod, shoddy finder, shoddy eyepiece, shoddy focuser, etc. In all ways it was inferior, but I loved it; I was a patient little kid, and was willing to fight that telescope for every view I could wrestle from it. For the astronomy-interested child with the right temperment, any telescope is like a piece of heaven on earth. Even the much-maligned department store scopes will serve. But I would advise buying something better.

Teenager: 6" f/8 Edmund Newtonian on a GEM. Darned good scope.

Graduate Student: 8" f/6 Meade Newtonian on a GEM. Also a darned good scope.

Adult (at least chronologically): ST80 Refractor on a GEM. Then a 6" f/12 Mak-Cass followed by a 10" Dob, then a 4" apo, and last a 72mm ED.

Lesson: Don't sweat the decision on the first telescope too much, as you will soon decide it is not completely adequate for your needs. It's good to start with a general purpose scope. Using it you will learn about telescopes, and about yourself: What you like to see, What you're willing to put up with, What you want in terms of bells and whistles. Then when it's time you'll better know what you want in The Next Scope.

My 6 and 8" Newts were close to being perfect general purpose scopes. Both had 48" focal lengths, which made them useful for planetary observing without having to resort to really short focal length eyepieces. They were at what seems like a nice balance point between fast and slow, so faint fuzzies were OK in them. Which one to get depends on the subjective factor of portability. The 6" was much lighter than the 8".

All that said, I agree with the advice of a 6" or 8" Dob. If you're thinking you really like looking at solar system objects go with a GEM that has a drive for right ascension. If instead your heart beats faster thinking of the faint fuzzies, get yourself an erect-image finder. That really helps with star hopping.

Speaking of star hopping, I'm old school. I think that Go-To drives are are appropriate in many situations, but not on a first telescope.

Telescopes are tools you can use to extend your senses to a cosmic scale. When you learn how to use your telescope and get to know how it reacts--what it can do and how you can get the most out of it and yourself--you become a craftsperson versed in its use. That's when the connection between you and the cosmos becomes direct in a special way. This will sound a little metaphysical, but I think that's when the telescope becomes a part of you and no longer is an artificial interface between you and the sky. The joy of that sensation is one of the reasons I love astronomy.

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