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Buying a telescope is something that most people who get interested in astronomy would like to do. It is thrilling to see the Moon and the planets through your own telescope, but there are lots of things to consider before running out and spending your hard-earned money. The websites of the major telescope manufacturers can give you more technical information about telescopes than you probably want, so what we are going to do is to guide you through some of the pratical aspects of buying a telescope. It's a big decision, and you need to make sure that you think it through carefully before going ahead.
How Much Should I Spend?
I get this question fairly often, and the answer is pretty painful. In my personal opinion, if you aren't prepared to spend at least $400.00 (US) on a telescope, then don't bother. You would be much further ahead to buy a good pair of binoculars. You would be amazed how much you can see with a good pair of binoculars and it's better to have a good pair of binoculars than a really cheap telescope.
Four hundred dollars is a lot of money! We have all seen the telescopes at the big discount stores that say they give 200 power magnification and only cost $150.00. They usually do offer that kind of magnification, but that's less than half the story. You don't have to have real high magnification to get an astonishing view of the things in the night sky. What you do need is good optics, the lenses and/or mirrors that you look through, and stability. Most inexpensive telescopes don't have either and if you buy one, you will just end up being frustrated by the whole experience.
What Type of Telescope Should You Buy?
If you start shopping for telescopes, you will see that they fall into three broad categories, based on the type of optical system they use. The three main categories of telescopes are:
1) Refractors - These are the kinds of telescopes that beginners usually picture in their minds. This is the type where you look directly through the lenses at the sky. They are generally more expensive than the other two main types, but some people believe they offer superior performance.
2) Reflectors - usually characterized by a large tube, these scopes use a mirror at the back end of tube to gather light and focus the image you see through the eyepiece. Usually less expensive, but they usually are physically larger than the other two.
3) Catadioptric - these scopes are the ones that look like a short, fat tube mounted on a tripod. They can offer outstanding optical viewing in a relatively small physical package.
Which type of telescope you end up buying will depend on a lot of things, not the least of which is where you will keep it when you're not using it. The physical size of the scope is an important consideration when you are using it as well as when you are not.
How Often Will You Use It?
Your initial answer to this is probably "every night". That's certainly true when you first get you telescope, but your use of it will probably get less as time goes on. This is another thing to consider. If you can just take the scope out into your back yard and gaze at the sky, you will undoubtedly use it more than if you have to pack it in the car and drive several miles to get out of the city. These are very real considerations. This is also something to think about when you select the type of scope you are going to buy. If you have to pack it up and drive somewhere to use it, a smaller scope is something to consider.
Will You Read the Instructions?
I have heard many people say that they have bought a telescope and can't see anything with it. Unless they have painted over the lenses, they have probably not set the scope up properly. This will involve carefully reading and following the instructions that came with the scope.
On way to illustrate how important it is to follow the instructions is to go outside some evening and try to find the Moon while looking through a soda straw. It's almost impossible. The field of view of a telescope is even smaller than a soda straw, so if you haven't read the instructions on how to set up your scope, you won't be able to find anything. It's just that simple.
The most important part of setting up any telescope is the proper alignment of the finder scope (the little scope on top of the big one) with actual viewing tube. It's too involved to go through here, but it isn't terribly complicated with the scope and the instruction manual right in front of you. Don't forget to do it
What Will You See (and What You Won't See)
Throughout the site, you have no doubt noticed some of the spectacular images of the planets and other objects in space. The view through your scope, unless you own a Hubble, won't be that good. On the other hand, you will see mountains and shadows on the Moon with any decent scope. You should also be able to see the Moons of Jupiter, Saturn and maybe even Mars. Even though your view won't be as good as Hubble's it still is amazing to see things with your own eyes that you have only read about before.
As a good friend of mine once said "A telescope changes the Moon from a thing into a place."
Some Final Thoughts
The most important thing to keep in mind is that a telescope is a significant investment of both time and money. A good telescope can bring the wonders of the sky into your eyes any time there are clear skies. If you live in a moderate climate with pretty good viewing conditions, you will always have something to do in the evening. Any way you look at it, it's a big decision that needs to be thought out carefully.