Choosing a gift telescope

People often ask Seattle Astronomy for recommendations about which telescope to buy, and such advice is in particular demand during gift-giving season. Sure enough, the advice articles have been popping up of late. Sky and Telescope magazine posted this article by Tony Flanders this week, and the Pacific Science Center enews a few days ago referenced a 2009 article by Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info that also offers good tips. We were quoted last year in a similar article by local writer Kate Kershner posted on the website How Stuff Works.

Here’s another advice article.

Astronomy types, whom I have found to be wiseacres in general, have two pat answers when asked for advice on which sort of telescope is best for the beginner: “Binoculars” and “the one that will get used.” Both are good answers.

Binoculars are a good choice for a number of reasons. They’re easy to use. They’re super portable. They give great views of the moon, and are actually better for some objects, such as star clusters. You can actually see the “ears” on Saturn, just as Galileo did, and I reckon today’s binoculars are way better than any optics he had (though his viewing conditions were probably superior.) And binos are relatively inexpensive; the little kit at left from Orion Telescopes, which includes a pair of 10×50 binoculars, a planisphere, star-finding software, and a red-light flashlight, goes for just $80. Orion has several other choices for less than $150. The “10×50” refers to the magnification power (10) and the aperture of the lenses (50mm). For astronomy, this is a minimum on either measure.

Binoculars are easy. Figuring out which telescope will get used is a little trickier. Any telescope that has a long, skinny tube and looks like it could be used by a pirate dangling from the mizzen mast is probably a bad idea; experienced amateurs often deride these as “Christmas trash” telescopes because they often wind up in the back of the garage after an unsatisfying use or two. While they often have rickety mounts, fuzzy views, and prove difficult to use, I’ve also heard many a testimonial from folks who fondly remember, and even still occasionally use, the first dinky scope that got them interested in the hobby, even if they’ve moved on to bigger and better toys.

I’m a big fan of Dobsonian telescopes. These Newtonian reflectors with the Dob mount are easy to use and offer the most telescopic bang for the buck. I own the “Intelliscope” version of the 8-inch Orion scope pictured at right. The classic goes for about $360, the Intelliscope, with a computerized gizmo to help you find objects in the sky, runs $630. If I had it to do over again I wouldn’t pay the extra for the computer, as I like to star hop and find that finding things using charts and such is part of the fun. But your results may vary! This is also a great size because it’s reasonably portable. If, for example, I wake up at 5:30 a.m. (as I did today) to find a clear sky and Venus and Saturn up in the southeast, I can have the scope up out of the basement, onto the deck, and be taking a look within minutes (though it’s ideal to give the mirror time to cool down and come to equal temperature with the surrounding air.)

The key point, though, is that I wound up choosing this telescope because it fit the type of observing I wanted to do and the observing site (my deck) that I most often use. I figured that all out from the book The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. The Guide has a thoughtful and thorough section on the strengths and weaknesses of the various telescope designs and helps the novice work through all of that to assist with the choice. It remains a valued reference as I participate in this great hobby, and would be a useful gift for an adult or teen who may be interested in astronomy but isn’t sure where to start. For kids, the Orion StarBlast or the Astroscan from Edmunds Scientifics are smaller, less expensive telescopes that will still offer enough viewing power to let them to explore and get interested, and may some day be their cherished memory when they’ve received a Ph.D. in astronomy or moved up to the latest whiz-bang gear costing tens of thousands of dollars. On their own dime!

By the way, I tend to recommend Orion products because I use them myself and have found both the instruments and their customer service to be first rate. However the major brands all offer good quality and have their advocates. Some Internet research may well get you to similar products at a price point you seek.

Finally, a last bit of advice is to seek our your local astronomy club. Links to many northwest clubs are in the sidebar at the right. The clubs are full of folks with lots of gear and willingness to share, often at public star parties or other astronomy viewing events. Get a peek through a few different telescopes and see which you like the best, and tap others for their experience and wisdom. It’s easy to get some hands-on experience before taking the plunge and investing in a telescope.

Have fun!