Sunday, August 31, 2008

First Telescope Economics

How Much Should I Spend?

This is a question for which there is no one answer, because different things are going on in the minds of each person who asks. For some, they have a good chunk of money set aside. For others, they don't have as much of a budget and they're afraid the answer they're going to get from an astronomer is going to include a bunch of extra foo-foo that they don't really think they need since they perceive their own needs as modest, hopefully to be met by the modest costs they've seen on junky department store scopes and bargain spotting scopes from sporting goods stores.

Money to Spend

If you're in the first group--you've got money and you're prepared to pay for quality since your time and the experience are important enough to you to pony up for it--my advice is usually to force yourself to spend less than you're prepared to. First, you're not going to know exactly what all you're going to want and need at the outset. So you're going to buy more bits and pieces later when you have a better idea. Second, you don't know what sort of an astronomer you're going to end up as yet--there are lots of sub-hobbies within the astronomy hobby--so save your big bucks for the more specialized instruments later. Plan to spend half to two thirds of your planned budget on some quality pieces of equipment that will still have a place in your home even when more comes later.

Keep It Cheap

If you're in the second group--you'd like a telescope but even the prices of the ETXs and Stellarvues I recommend sound like an awful lot--my advice is don't break down and buy a cheaper piece of junk then hope that everything will turn out all right. It won't. Even big-name manufacturers like Meade and Celestron turn out complete junk. I have dozens of friends who own these scopes, I own a few, some I intercepted them on the way to the trash can. Do I have them because they work? No, I have them because I rip bits out of them for other uses. As telescopes they're useless.

Let's look at the economics of a telescope compared to another luxury item. Let's compare it to the cost of a Nintendo system.

A Nintendo Wii with a common package of accessories (extra controller and nunchuck, recharger/rechargeable battery packs) is going to cost you just about $400. Then you're going to want more than the pack-in games to play, so if you go with one older title and a newer one you're looking at another $70-80. Then you'll probably end up with some other annoying cost before you're playing, like a new power strip or video cable. So the total to get from the store to playing games is going to be about $500.

I ended up paying about $650 by the time I got my Wii in place and all sorted out. You can do it cheaper--at first--but once you've got all the bits you want to really have the thing working you'll just have spread out the $500 or more in cost over more time, not really reduced it.

You'll be able to buy games for the Wii for the next five years or so in the stores. After that, it'll be as dead at retail as my Gamecube and my Atari 2600. If you buy three games or so in the stores each year, you'll be spending another $80-150 per year. If you buy games on the Wii itself across the internet, you'll be spending $5-25 per game. If you're a cheapskate like me, you'll be able to keep games down to $50-100 a year by buying them second hand, but you'll also spend more on aspirin when dealing with scratched or otherwise non-working disks.

By contrast, if you spend about the same on a telescope, or even cap it at only 80-90% of the cost of a Wii, you'll have something that you don't need the stores to supply you with new content for. My newest scope is about the age of my Gamecube. It's a home made scope that cost me about $250 to build. That's about the same to build as I paid for my GameCube as a used system package with extras.

The Gamecube collects dust in my entertainment center today. The telescope is still the main telescope I use both for my own observations as well as at star parties where I show the sky to the general public. The Gamecube hardly gets used any more. About 1500 people have seen the sky through my telescope in the past year. The telescope doesn't go out of date.

A good Stellarvue scope, like the SV80, goes for about the same as a Wii package once you add on one of Stellarvue's nice mounts. You can start using it right away. If you spend about the same on accessories for it each year as you would for a Wii, you'll have all the accessories you could ever need within the first couple of years, and you can stop buying. Plus, unlike the videogames, you will be able to use those accessories on other telescopes. I still use every eyepiece I've ever owned.

I buy new eyepieces every five years or so. I keep buying new ones because I keep building telescopes that take advantage of features of eyepieces I don't already own. If I didn't keep making new scopes, I would be perfectly happy with the eyepieces I already own.

Cheaper telescopes are available. They're unusable as they are. Once you've spent the money to make a working telescope out of them you've spent as much as you would on a good scope. But chances are you're not going to. Instead you'll take it out, have it not work, and get discouraged. You'll probably blame yourself for not being smart enough to figure out the telescope. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem isn't you, it's the scope.

A good scope is as easy to use as a pair of binoculars. You can point it at what you want to see, you can keep it pointed at it, and you can see it. It won't drift or wander off target. It won't frustrate you with a computer that you can't get figured out or that likes to drive the telescope right into the tripod. It won't make you break your neck and strain your eyes trying to figure out how to get something into a tiny little finder that's poorly positioned and that you don't even know if it's lined up with the telescope.

So if you don't have enough for a good telescope now, save up and get a good pair of binoculars. Learn the sky with those and your eyes with the help of a couple of good astronomy books. Contact a local astronomers' group. You can get scope bargains there from folks who are upgrading, and you'll have a chance to try out different scopes and learn to use them from experienced users.

Then when you buy, you'll know what you want and need, and have contacts to help you get the best prices.
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