Meade 60Credit: Darren Wong

I have seen so many well meaning parents and relatives give their little (and not so little) ones telescopes are gifts during the Christmas holidays. After the intial excitement of unboxing these cute 60 to 70mm refractor telescopes, and setting them up for the first time to view the moon, these scopes are soon forgotten and tossed aside, like a used rag doll. The main excuses are usually the views are too dim, its too hard to see anything through those peep holes you call eyepieces, its too hard to find anything and the mount is way too shaky to see anything. Fortunately, there are ways to make this telescopes serviceable, and almost useable for serious work. The funny thing is most of these telescopes are pretty good optically. Their main drawback is usually the accessories that come with it, and that all too shaky tripod. With a little creativity and tinkering, and a semi dark sky site, even adults can have fun exploring the cosmos with these little scopes. Gallileo would have killed to have a telescope as capable as these little gems in his day.

A 60 to 70mm achromatic telescope (almost color free), while small by today's standards are fully capable of giving great views of inner solar system objects such as our very own moon; Jupiter, its cloud belts and ever roving moons; the phases of Venus; dark markings on Mars at opposition (when the planet is closest to us) and of course the famous rings of Saturn. Under darker skies, you will be amazed at what you can see. M42, The Orion Nebula will be bright and detailed. You get some great views will be of open star clusters and maybe even spot a couple of deep sky galaxies (yes totally possible). So how does one improve on these scopes to make them serviceable and almost enjoyable? Below is a list I have compiled that will help you make that scope a joy to use. All too soon you will be toting that scope out on a dark clear night rather than sit in front of the idiot box watching reruns.

Shaky small finderscopes

Finderscopes are small little scopes that rides atop the main tube. These serve to act as finders since they provide a very wide field of view, and very low magnification. For them to function as designed, they need to be aligned with the main scope. Most of these come mounted on a plastic holder with a single stalk and three alignment screws. These usually cannot be aligned properly as there is too much wiggle. This issue can be remedied by wrapping some tape around the front of the tube of the finder. The finder can then be inserted into its single stalk holder. This usually removes all the slack so you can now align the finder more accurately. A better solution is to replace these pea shooter optical finders with one of those red dot finders. They are a lot easier to align and are more intuitive to use.

Subsized and substandard accessories

Some people call these sub sized, I call it Japanese sized. Back in the day, most of the beginner scopes were manufactured in Japan. These came with 0.965" star diagonals and eyepieces. While scopes of old came with quality 0.965" accessories, the newer scopes coming out of China and Taiwan come with really cheap plastic bodied 0.965" eyepieces and sometimes misaligned plastic (sic) bodied star diagonals. Quality eyepieces are easier to come by in the american standard size of 1.25". The easiest way to get around this problem is to purchase a hybrid star diagonal (which inserts into the 0.965" focuser tube, but accepts 1.25" eyepieces on the other end). This allows 1.25" accessories to be used with with the scope. 1.25" eyepieces generally have a wider field of view and better eye relieve.

Shaky tripod equals wobbly views

Every astronomer knows that the mount is half the telescope. You can have the most optical perfect scope in the world, but if the mount holding the optical tube wobbles like jello then the scope is all but useless. Fortunately there are cheap ways to improve the stability of the tripod. Firstly check to make sure all the nuts are tightened down. Check to see if spacers are provided for the screws. If they are not, get some from a local hardware store.

Another way to improve stability is to spread the tripod legs as wide as possible with a central brace. This usually comes in the form of a accessory tray. The standard tray is usually a "much too small" metal number. If you are handy with tools, you can easily fashion a larger triangular wooden accessory tray. Replacing the smaller metal tray with the bigger tray will spread the tripod legs out as much as possible, and improve stability. 

Most of these oriental scopes also come with stamped aluminum tripods that are hollow on the inside. These transmit the smallest of vibrations, much like a tuning fork! To dampen vibration, you could fashion your own wooden tripod legs. An easier solution is to fill the hollowed aluminum with spray foam. The foam acts to dampen vibration. The cheapest and easiest fix is to increase the weight of the scope and tripod combo by hanging a milk jug filled with water.

In summary

Cometron 60Credit: Darren Wong

These fixes need not cost a lot. Most of these fixes can be accomplished with a minimal outlay, especially if you are a handyman. Also most of the accessories can be got for cheap on the second hand market. Astronomers are a careful bunch and usually look after their gear pretty well. You just need to know where to buy these from. And there you go, you now have a scope you can use for some rather serious observations.