How to buy Telescopes - Computerized Telescope
Beginners Guide to Buying a Telescope
There is no hobby that can give you a greater sense of how big the universe is and just how small we are more than Astronomy. Many amateur astronomers are looking to take their interest to a new level and a telescope is a marvelous way to experience the wonders of the universe first hand. In this article I will point out some things one should be aware of when considering the many computerized or GOTO telescopes on the market. There are many resources on the internet which guide the new astronomer through the purchase of their first scope so I will focus on the computerized telescope here only. These scopes would suit both the first time buyer as well as those looking to upgrade their current instrument and there is a price point to meet most requirements.
If you are just beginning to develop an interest in Astronomy and are thinking of buying your first scope this article is designed for you. Computerized scopes despite their name are just as appropriate for the beginner as they are for the experienced star-gazer, just be aware that every type of scope comes with its own list of advantages and disadvantages. I will touch briefly on the disadvantages of a computerized scope for the new buyer so that you can have a fuller understanding of what to expect. Then I will cover the advantages and the varied types of computerized telescopes.
Disadvantages of a Computerized Telescope
- The greatest disadvantage of buying a computerized scope is cost. Obviously because of the extra components inside the mount (drives, computer, software, cables, etc) there is naturally going to be more cost. This will usually mean you get a smaller aperture at the same price and therefore, a telescope that can ‘see’ less. Although this is important it should not be the deciding factor when selecting your first telescope. Aperture fever will bite any telescope owner no matter what size instrument they have.
- The mount finds the objects for you. There has been much debate over the years about this. The purists will tell you that a beginner should always buy a manual telescope as their first instrument. A push pull Dobsonian or a simple non-goto german equatorial scope would be common examples. The idea is that these telescopes will naturally force the user to learn the night sky. There is some truth to this, however, I think the associated frustration of spending 2 hours searching for an object only to finish your session without finding it can eventually turn many newbies away from the hobby. I have spent many years using non-GOTO scopes and have experienced this frustration first hand. One thing I can say is that when I do finally find that elusive object it certainly feels like I have achieved something special.
- Greater complexity. There is nothing easier than setting up a simple Dobsonian scope, just plonk down the mount and rest the tube inside. Done. With a computerized goto Telescope you will need to set it up, power it, align the mount and make sure you actually remember how to operate it. Most of the advertising will tell you how simple a scope is to align, ‘just a two star alignment and you're done!’. Be warned, it's not always that easy and it will take a bit of practice to get the hang of.
Advantages of a Computerized Telescope
- See more in less time with less hassle. This is of course the biggest advantage of a computerized telescope. You won’t need to mess around with a star chart in the dark. Simply enter the code for the item you wish to view and magic, the scope will slew to it. Now all you need to do is look down the eyepiece or start imaging.
- No nudging required. This is the bane of most non motorized scope owners. The Earth is constantly rotating which gives the illusion that the object is drifting across the eyepiece (it is actually the eyepiece that is drifting across the object if you want to get technical). In order to keep it in view a non-motorized astronomer must make continual adjustments to the position of their telescope. Your GOTO scope will keep the object in the center of the eyepiece for hours without any input required.
- Tracking for photography. One of the most popular pursuits of the amateur astronomer today is astro imaging. This is simply taking photographs or videos of objects in the Universe. To do this with any great success requires a scope that will track your object (see previous point). The most inexpensive of computerized telescopes will be capable of photography but be warned, if you want to take images with the level of quality seen in most magazines and on many popular websites you will need some very expensive gear and many hours practicing and experimenting. There are two main types of tracking scope, fork mount or equatorial mount. The equatorial style scope will be the preferred choice for those looking at getting into serious astro-photography but due to their complexity and price are not ideal for beginners.
- Compact. The most popular style of computerized telescope is the fork mounted Schmidt-Cassegrain, which offers the user a long focal length and therefore flatter images (this is generally good) in a compact design. Therefore, allowing those with a smaller vehicle to carry a larger telescope than if they had gone for a similar sized Newtonian or refractor.
What Computerized Telescope should I buy?
This is where experience and budget will play a big part. As with most things, the best telescope is the one you will actually use. In other words a small $800 scope that gets used regularly is better than a large $20,0000 scope that sits under a blanket in the garage year after year because it's such a hassle to setup and pack down. I cannot emphasize how important it is to consider the size of your Telescope before buying. Think about how much weight you can handle and if you will need to tackle stairs, because some of the larger instruments are very heavy. How big is your car? Escaping light pollution in large cities is the desire of most amateur astronomers which often involves packing up the equipment and driving out to dark country skies. If you end up joining a club, which I highly recommend before making a buy, then it's likely you will be driving to events and viewing nights at the clubs dark sky site. The size of your car could also be a deciding factor? Storage space is also a consideration. I have a 12” newtonian and now that we've had our second child and no longer enjoy the convenience of a spare room it sits in our living room; much to my wife's disgust If you're not familiar with how large a scope this is, imagine a big cylindrical water heater sitting next to your TV! I have even heard of people buying larger 16” scopes only to find the doorway to their home is too narrow to fit the base inside! Visit your local telescope retailer to get a feel for the size of some of these scopes.
Price is obviously going to play a part here and only you know how much you are willing to spend. I suggest using my guide below to begin researching telescopes in your price range. Be wary of cheap instruments sold by camera stores or electronics stores, these are often very cheap in price and even cheaper in quality. I recommend buying from stores that specialise in telescopes or at least a high end camera store. Do that and you should be ok.
Telescope Suggestions Based on Price
This list contains computerized telescopes only. There are also many non-computerized scopes on the market that make excellent instruments for beginners and experienced observers alike. For the same price you will likely get a larger aperture telescope without any computerization. If you haven't already, I suggest you consider all types of scope.
Telescopes under $500
There are plenty of Telescopes on the market in this price range most of which are excellent quality. Stick to the brand names Celestron and Meade and you should be ok. If you are not wanting to spend up to $500, don’t despair there are options at lower prices also.
The Celestron NexStar range is targeted at the entry level buyer. These are not going to take world class photographs due to the simpler mounts but are great for general observing and basic photography. The drawback with these scopes is their aperture which tend to be fairly small. In this price range around 4” will be normal. You still get all the advantages of ease of use and tracking that comes with the GOTO setups but expect to see less detail on planets and fewer deep sky objects such as galaxies and nebulae. Despite this there will still be an endless number of objects for you to observe, even with the smallest of scopes. Many of the most popular objects in our night sky were discovered with instruments as small as 2".
Telescopes Around $1000
Sticking with the NexStar you can up the aperture in this price range to 8" This will give you
much more too see, with greater detail on the planets and moon. This aperture is really the ideal for the beginner and can serve an astronomer for many years to come. Meade also sell their LT series which is similar to the Celestron NexStar design (pictured). Shop around as prices can vary from store to store.
Telescopes over $2000 to $4000
In this price range you can expect to get a very high quality telescope that is beyond just the entry-level standard. Pictured to the right is the 9.25" fork mounted Celestron CPC. This is a high quality telescope and mount system with GPS alignment and reasonable astro-photography ability. The Mead LX series is also a great option. These scopes are all very similar and their price will generally be determined by the aperture size you end up buying. The 8" scopes will cost from $2000 whilst a 14" beast will start from $10,000.
Telescopes for Astro Photography
This is not really a category that a first time telescope buyer should be considering but I thought I would add it for completeness. These scopes will almost always use a German equatorial mounting system which requires an experienced user to setup correctly. Scopes in this range such as the LX800 pictured to the left will start from $10,000 but a high end mount alone could easily cost double that.
It should also be pointed out that there is an endless list of accessories available to the amature astronomer, not least will be a decent set of eyepieces and filters. I have menioned photography a lot in this article and I think its important to point out that none of these scopes will take a photograph in their most basic form. To do that you will need an image capturing device such as a CCD or SLR camera. Some of the higher end packages will include a basic CCD but make sure you check this before buying. Amature astronomy is a fascinating hobby with a global following and many keen observers willing to lend a hand. I highly recommend you checkout the cloudy nights form for further help.