Friday, July 4, 2008

Budget to Buy a Telescope

It's a circular discussion I've heard many times:

"I want to buy a telescope. How much should I spend?"

"How much do you want to spend?"

"I don't know. How much should I expect to spend?"

"What do you want for a telescope?"

"I don't know!"

"How much do you want to spend?"

"I don't know, how much should I expect to spend?"

'Round and 'round it goes...

If you're buying the telescope as a gift, you've probably already got an idea of how much you'd like to spend. In this case, you're probably concerned about how much quality you can get for your money, and how valuable a gift a telescope will be versus other gifts you can get for the same amount of money.

Whether you're buying for yourself or as a gift, here are some points to keep in mind:
  1. The telescope will almost certainly require accessories to be easily usable.
  2. Don't expect the first telescope to be the be-all and end-all of telescopes.
  3. A telescope that is easy to use is more important than optical performance for beginners.
  4. The telescope needs to be stored.
  5. The telescope needs to be transportable, either carried to the back yard or fit in the car.
  6. Even if the telescope has a computer built in, the user will need to learn their way around the sky.
This means you're going to want to buy more than a telescope. It's not unusual for the telescope itself to only be about half to two thirds of the total cost. Here are some accessories that you may need:

An extra eyepiece. Many telescopes only come with one eyepiece, you'll probably want one more.

A finder. Most telescopes come with a useless "baby telescope" finder. I highly recommend getting a Telrad finder, or a comparable "reflex sight" finder (more on this later.) I feel the Telrad is by far the best, however.

A carrying case, or some other way to protect the telescope during storage and transport. If the telescope is only going to go from a quiet corner in the house to the backyard, you probably won't need one. Also, some types of telescope are robust enough to transport with some simple breakdown (like a Dobsonian telescope) so these won't need a carrying case.

Star finder charts.

A red flashlight or penlight for reading the star charts in the dark.

A basic book on finding your way around the sky. I recommend Chet Raymo's book, 365 Starry Nights:
365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year (Phalarope Books)

You will also want an accessory box of some sort to carry extra eyepieces and such.

Don't be overwhelmed. You have lots of choices to make, and I'll be discussing all of them. But it's important to not spend the entire budget on the telescope itself, then end up with it gathering dust because a couple of simple add-ons are missing.

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