With such a variety of telescopes on offer it can be tricky to choose which one is most suitable, especially for beginners. This article offers advice as to which one may be most suitable for you, your budget and your circumstances. Ultimately the best beginners telescope is one that is used regularly and therefore needs to be easy to setup, practical and fun to use.
The best advice is to try before you buy
The best advice we can give before buying a telescope is to first visit your local Astronomical Society or Astronomy Club who will be happy to help you choose a suitable instrument — many will be able to offer hands on practical experience with a variety of telescopes explaining the pros and cons of each design. For your nearest Society or Club check our events map or the Federation of Astronomical Societies website.
How telescopes work
If you are going to buy a telescope it’s good to understand how it works! Telescopes work by gathering light — the light they gather is brought into focus and an image is formed. Some telescopes do this using mirrors (reflecting telescopes) and others use lenses (refracting telescopes). The image formed by the telescope is then magnified using an eyepiece which you look through — the power of the eyepiece (its focal length measured in millimetres) determines how much of the image you can see. Note that magnifying an image does not necessarily mean you see more detail — often objects look better through a telescope under low powers of magnification.
The more light a telescope can gather the brighter the image that is formed — the brighter the image the more you can magnify it and the more details you will see. The power of a telescope is is not determined by how much it can magnify but how much light it can gather — therefore the size of the light gathering area of a telescope combined with the quality of the optics used to gather that light determine how good the telescope is.
Equally important is the mount that the telescope is fixed to — there’s no advantage having a good quality telescope with excellent optics mounted on a poor quality, wobbly and difficult to use tripod. Indeed this is the reason a lot of people are put off — often the tripod mount is poorly designed and built to reduce the overall cost, this at the expense of it becoming impossibly difficult to operate (even by seasoned amateur astronomers).
An ideal telescope is one that has good light gathering area, quality optics, a solid mount and is easily operated.
The team here at Go Stargazing highly recommend a particular type of telescope known as a Dobsonian. Named after their inventor John Dobson, an amateur astronomer from San Francisco, these telescopes are sturdy, have good quality optics and come with large reflective surfaces (mirrors) that gather more light. They are easily moved up and down and being mounted on a rotating base means they can access any part of the sky. They are good value for money, ideal for beginners (including children from the age of about 10) and great for observing the Moon, planets and the brighter deep sky objects such as galaxies and nebulae. They are really good fun to use too and little can go wrong if you look after them!
How much does a Dobsonian cost?
Being of simple design Dobsonian telescopes are amongst the cheapest type of telescope money can buy and without too much compromise. Without fancy electronics or motors your budget goes primarily towards how powerful the telescope is (the size of the light gathering mirror). A Dobsonian telescope with a 6″ mirror costs in the region of £230, an 8″ about £300 and a 10″ approximately £450. There are other types of telescope that can be found cheaper however you may well find yourself venturing into the realms of those of poor build quality and difficult to use (in which case you really must try before you buy!).
Where to buy?
As for where to purchase a telescope we highly recommend you go to an independent astronomy equipment supplier (rather than any online retailer). We ourselves recommend First Light Optics whom we know to be a very reliable, helpful and customer focussed supplier of telescopes and associated equipment.
With guidance these portable Dobsonian telescopes are ideal for children aged 6 to 10. They make ideal travel scopes for a family stargazing adventure to a dark sky region! They cost from approximately £50 for the “mini” to £140 for the flextube and all give great views of the Moon, planets and brighter deep sky objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula.
Red dot finder
A red dot finder makes it easy for you to point your telescope at objects in the sky. When looking through this type of finder a red dot is projected onto the sky and, once aligned, where you point the red dot is where the telescope is also pointing! Most beginners find these devices far easier to use than the “finder scope” which some telescopes come with.
A very popular alternative to using a red dot finder is a Telrad finder. These devices work in a very similar way to a red dot finder however project a circular target instead.
This cool device allows you to easily attach your phone to your telescope eyepiece and is absolutely fantastic for taking photos of the Moon!
Baader Hyperion Zoom Eyepiece
All new telescopes come with eyepieces — lenses of different powers that magnify the image that is formed by the telescope allowing you to see things in larger scale. Eyepieces that come with the telescopes we have recommended are very good and perfect for beginners, however a recommended upgrade is this zoom eyepiece. By twisting the eyepiece you can increase or decrease the magnification to 5 different levels — it’s the equivalent of having 5 eyepieces for the price of 1!
To get the best out of a reflecting telescope (one that uses mirrors) it is sometimes necessary to align the mirrors so that they reflect light optimally. The process of adjusting the mirrors so that they are in alignment is called “collimation” which is made far easier when using a laser collimator. This device shines a laser beam down through the telescope helping adjustments to be made and, with a little practice (or help from your local club or society) is straightforward. The Baader Laser Collimator is by far the best and is the only one you will ever need to buy!