Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Advice for First Time Telescope Buyers, and December Star Chart

By David Reneke

Get it right when you put a telescope under the Christmas tree.

What’s on the top of your Xmas list this year? Maybe a telescope?

I get a lot of people asking me about the best telescope to buy, and the short answer is: the dearest one you can afford.

Modern telescopes are a compromise between price and quality and any telescope in this country under $300 is not going to do any serious work for you. Don’t buy from a department store. Buy from a dealer who knows about telescopes, a camera shop for instance, or a telescope retailer.

The best way to get into astronomy is to first learn the constellations, and then use a pair of binoculars to find your first ‘deep sky’ objects. Binoculars really can show quite a number of interesting sights in the night sky. Another great way to start in astronomy is to visit a local astronomy club.

One target that will show tremendous detail (even in a small telescope) is the Moon. Even a small telescope will reveal a wealth of detail. You'll be able to see craters, mountains, "seas", and a number of other fine details. The quality of the view you will have on these kinds of objects depends to a very large degree on how much light pollution you have in your area.

As far as beginner telescopes are concerned, there are many junk telescopes out there, but decent starter scopes are not too expensive. Expect to pay at least $300 for a quality beginner telescope in Australia. You can find scopes for around $100 or less, but beware. They often make claims that are preposterous, and are of very poor mechanical and optical quality.

Perhaps the second most important part of a telescope is its mount. There are numerous types of mounts. The key is to make sure the one that comes with the scope you're considering is smooth, stable, and solid. Poor mountings will make using high magnification especially annoying and frustrating.

If you can pick the entire scope and mount up with one hand it will wobble in the slightest breeze and you will invent words never heard before. Avoid them!

The best telescope for you is the one you will use the most. There are no hard rules. If you are not sure about a telescope model, ask me: I’ll help you. In my opinion, $500 is probably a good amount to spend to get a truly decent starter scope and the necessary accessories you'll need to round out the package.”

Most astronomers will tell you to buy the biggest scope you can afford, and that’s generally good advice. See www.davidreneke.com for free E- Books on buying and using a telescope, a comprehensive telescope guide, plus a number of free info sheets to help you make the right decision.

It is important to keep in mind that small (and even large) telescopes will not provide visual images like those seen in books and magazines. The Moon is a possible exception. Be patient. In no time at all you’ll be an amateur astronomer. Indeed, Galileo himself began as an amateur astronomer, pointing the recently invented telescope toward the night sky out of sheer curiosity.

So, a Xmas telescope makes sense. Go on, let your head go! Now, if you get this silly urge to wave up at the astronauts when you are watching the International Space Station pass over you – give in. I do it every time.