A traditional gift for the budding young scientist is the telescope. Here are some tips for choosing a telescope for beginners.
First, know your expectations. Telescope makers and science journals present the prettiest and most dramatic images to the public. People may not know that these bright and colorful images of galaxies and nebulas are highly processed pictures made by the most advanced telescopes around. A beginner’s backyard telescope will not show views like photos from the Hubble Space Telescope. The joy of beginner telescopes is not in pictures that look like movie special effects, but rather in finding real deep-space objects with your own skill and eyes. What can you expect to see? The moons of Jupiter and Jupiter’s clouds, ice caps on Mars, galaxies and nebulas as wisps of cloud among the stars. You’ll see double stars of deep color, the rings of Saturn, and more. Don’t let false expectations disappoint you, but learn to appreciate the subtly remarkable sights you can find.
Second, buy your telescope from a knowledgeable dealer. The worst mistake is to pick up a clearance telescope from a department store or a big-box super-mart. These telescopes are low quality, cheaply priced, and aimed at last-minute impulse buyers. Instead, get your telescope from a quality site online (like Orion, Celestron, or Meade), or visit a local telescope and optical dealer. Camera shops and outdoor stores can often offer help as well.
Third, decide what type of telescope you want to buy. Telescopes come in three basic types: reflectors, refractors, and catadioptric. Reflecting telescopes (or reflectors) use mirrors to produce their magnified images. Refracting telescopes (or refractors), on the other hand, use lenses. Catadioptric systems use combinations of both mirrors and lenses and come in a wide variety of types.
If you plan to use your telescope to view astronomical and terrestrial objects (such as bird and wildlife watching), choose a refractor. Refractors work great in bright-light conditions and, unlike reflectors, they present a right-side-up image. On the other hand, Reflectors usually present viewers with an image that is mirror-reversed and often upside-down, making terrestrial viewing awkward.
If you plan to look at astronomical objects, you can choose either a reflector or a refractor. As a general rule, refractors are preferred for viewing the moon and planets, and reflectors are best for deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulae, but differences in individual scopes can be a more important factor. The biggest reason for choosing a reflector for astronomy is because of the next rule for choosing a scope…
Fourth, aside from the telescope’s overall quality, the most important factor for astronomy is an aperture or mirror size. This refers to the telescope’s primary mirror or lens size and basically determines how much light the telescope can gather. The more light the telescope takes in, the more detail you will be able to see, such as surface features on planets, tiny scattered stars in clusters, and tendrils of gas from distant nebulae.
It’s easier and cheaper to build big mirrors than it is to build big lenses, so bigger reflectors are usually cheaper to buy than big reflectors. The biggest telescopes are always reflectors (or catadioptric). To get the best astronomy experience, buy the quality telescope with the biggest mirror size you can afford. Mirror or lens size matters more than any other factor in determining what you will be able to see through your scope.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find a store that specializes in optics or a dedicated online telescope dealer and let them know what you are looking for. Telescopes come in a wide variety of designs and are adapted for different functions. The choices can be bewildering to a beginner, but astronomers love to help get new observers started. They will be happy to help you make the right choice.
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