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The worst mistakes you can make when buying a beginner telescope 2/2

Welcome to my third blog in the “Enjoying Visual Astronomy” series.  This is the second article, and we will explore in more depth how to get a good telescope for beginners, avoid some pitfalls and get 10 new tips along the way!

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It’s not the first blog in the series – In our first blog, we explored the top 7 mistakes you can make when buying a beginners telescope.  In our second, we explored the first mistake – expecting to see color in space and learned about dark adaptation, you amazing retina, it’s cones and rods and your pupil, if you havn’t read those yet, perhaps enjoy them first.  I’m not even going to bother tell you not to get anything that has the word “Toy” and “Telescope” in the same sentence, or for that matter, the same page.  But let’s move on to a more subtle trap for the beginning astromomer.  I can’t show actual ads, but I can tip you off on what they often include.

First, what’s wrong with what pops up when you put in “Powerful beginner telescope” into google?  Well, let’s see what typically comes up:

“Astronomical Telescope with 675x Magnification!”

This is a small long tube shown inside (where it will probably stay forever) – typically reflectors or refractors are the main-stays of horrible “Christmas Specials” – AVOID.

View the stars with this genuine Astronomical Telescope, a fantastic reflector telescope for beginners and hobbyists too. This telescope comes with high quality objective lenses to deliver ultra sharp images of the night sky. Look up at the Constellations, the Moon, the planets Jupiter, Saturn and more! The metal tripod features a slow motion control rod for easy micro adjustment, and will suit both beginners and intermediate astronomers.  You’ll love this telescope and use it for years thanks to its strong construction and solid quality.  

Large aperture offers clear views
Solid construction provides solid support and easy controls
Includes a metal tripod with slow motion control rod
Performs well in both high and low magnification
Focus on what you want easily with included finderscope! 

This sort of Telescope is typically bought not for personal use, but as a present by mean-meaning parents and grandparents.  You really can’t blame them.  They meant well.  Perhaps they watched a TV program that sparked their interest in Astronomy.  They know that the planets are far away, and that to see them, you must have quite a powerful telescope.  They imagine this because they know that even binoculars can’t see that far, so to see a planet, you need something much more powerful.  As we said, they went and “powerful telescope” or “powerful telescope for beginners” into google, and voila, the vultures of commercialism descend upon them with offerings like this, usually with a closeup of Saturn or Jupiter, with a “Star Trek” type background.

Forget “Fantastic, High Quality” – none of that matters.  Also forget “for beginners/hobbyists” – it gives an easy way out to prevent returns – when things don’t work out, they won’t blame them, they will blame themselves (I guess it’s just one for beginners” instead of “this is a sucky telescope!”.  According to Mobbersley, an Astronomy expert, “a telescope that is easy to use is the best telescope to own1Mobbersley “The New Amateur Astronomer”, p. 21, 2004.  He’s right of course.  By this measure, these department store “Christmas specials” are totally unsuitable for a beginner, a hobbyist or anyone at all.

Let’s discuss “High quality objective lenses“.  Actually, “objective lenses” doesn’t give you any crucial information whatsoever.  Is the lens coated, multi-coated, or fully multi-coated?  If not, it’s just glass, and a proper Astronomical telescope at the very least needs to be multi-coated.  They don’t show the picture of the front lens, so you have no idea if it has any coating at all.  Tip 1 – Look for “Fully Multi-Coated“.

What about “ ultra sharp images of the night sky”?  And the “slow motion control rod”? It’s talking about focus here.  Focus is crucial – but notice that it doesn’t mention deep-space objects or planets there.  Some telescopes use an inferior “drawtube” style focuser.  Because focus is so crucial, I recommend a “Crayford” focuser, which works well.  A 2 speed Crayford is even better.  Tip 2 – Look for “Crayford Focuser“.

Is this really trustworthy?

What about seeing the “Moon, the planets Jupiter, Saturn”?  Well, you can see those – they are the easiest to see, but what will you see?  I’ll try and approximate what you see2Please note that I am doing my best here, and this is in good faith, but it won’t perfectly reflect what you see – I’ll explain what I have done, and why).  Using an excellent astronomical tool, we can calculate the expected view given good conditions.  I have adjusted the focus slightly to accommodate for the lack of a crayford fine focuser and some atmospheric interference, which is typical when observing.   Have you ever held binoculars and noticed a strong wobble, even when you are holding it quite steady?  Imagine that, but far worse – and happening every time you just touch the telescope.   Impressed?  Perhaps not.  “But I’m not going to touch the telescope!” you might think.  Yes you will.  Because everything moves very quickly at that magnification, so you will need to continually adjust it to keep the object in sight.  It’s the number one thing that drives beginners crazy.  “Well, I’ll just get one that tracks then!” you might think.  Okay, so do you know enough to align it correctly – in the southern hemisphere?  Likely not, if your a beginner.  So much for the “Performs well in both high and low magnification”.   Tip 3If they boast of magnifications larger than 150x, run.

This point needs to be expanded upon further.  Many people equate a “good” telescope with one that has a high magnification – because the higher the magnification, the bigger whatever you are looking at is – and, “Bigger is always better!” – right?  I would like your consent to have a look at a picture that may encourage you to question this.  Here it is.

Is bigger always better?

I want you to notice a few things.  Firstly, note that the most enjoyable view, is of course the one on the far right.  Notice that the key object, the bouncing girl is surrounded by a margin – that gives perspective and makes the picture interesting.  As we increase the magnification, note that we lose interesting things, that make the image so memorable.  Notice the 675x magnification – is it really any good?  Do you notice how much detail is lost – or at least, how the resolution doesn’t keep up?  That’s what happens if you go too big.  Now, how can we apply the principle of what we have learned here?  Well, let’s look at a practical example.

Is bigger always better – for Astronomy?

Interestingly, in Astronomy, some of the most magnificent and exciting objects are best observed with a low power, low magnification eyepiece.  I’ll repeat that.  Some of the most magnificent and exciting objects are best observed with a low power, low magnification eyepiece.  One of the most breathtaking sights is the Pleiades constellation.  It’s thrilled people for thousands of years3The Bible, at Job 38:31, which was completed in 1473 B.C.E. asks “Can you tie the ropes of the Kiʹmah (Pleiades) constellation, Or untie the cords of the Keʹsil (Orion) constellation?” Can you lead out a constellation in its season?”.  You deserve a brilliant reference.

This is the group often called the “Seven Sisters”, undoubtedly the most famous galactic star cluster in the heavens, known and regarded with reverance since remote antiquity… To the average eye the Pleiades Cluster appears as a tight knot of 6 or 7 stars, but some observers have recorded 11 or more under excellent conditions…  High powers are absolutely useless on such an object; onviously the impression of a cluster will be totally lost if only one star can be seen in the field at a time!… The nine brightest stars are concentrated in a field slightly over 1 degree in diameter, so it is possible to include the whole group in a telescope of up to 10-inch of aperture if a wide-angle ocular is used.” – Burnham’s Celestial Handbook – An Observers Guide to the Universe beyond the Solar System, by Robert Burnham Jr. (1978).

Note what Burnham said – High powers are absolutely useless on such an object Yes, this alone busts the myth.  A new, aspiring Astronomer is best served with a wider range telescope where they are not readily troubled by micro-

A poor telescope is no fun.  This is a simulated view at 675x, using the 3x barlow that they often provide. Keep in mind you won’t be able to actually find it (see finder notes) and that it will wobble out of the view immediately if you do.

management and bumps.  Should you be impressed when they include a barlow?  A barlow is a “magnifier” for an eyepiece.A 2x Barlow is useful for increasing the magnification, and used wisely, it is wonderful.  But it’s not going to be needed on an object like this – is it?   A 4mm eyepiece on such a tiny telescope is already insane.  Tripling this, in my opinion, by providing a 3x barlow is ludicrous and deceitful.  It is deceitful because they are being supplied knowing they could never be satisfactorily used.  Devices like barlows won’t help you.  Tip 4 – Remember bigger isn’t always better – many  objects are best viewed at low power.

Often, when selling you a “Christmas special” – they give you a .965″ eyepiece.  Let’s talk eyepiece jargon.  As bad as that image of Saturn is – I havn’t adjusted for the horrible eyepiece they provide.  Usually if you read the fine print carefully, you will see 0.965” – sometimes with the word “standard” in front.  It’s not standard, it’s substandard.  A 1.25″ is satisfactory, a 2″ is very good.  Tip 5 – Look for 1.25″ eyepieces at the least – 2″ is better, but expect to pay more.

Many of these types of scopes also have an aperture stop – this makes the telescope less wide in diameter on the inside than it looks on the outside, which reduces the light you can gather and makes the image darker than it should be.  That hasn’t been simulated here, but it would result in a duller image, as it would typically gather another 25% or so less light per 10mm of lost aperture.  Tip 6 – Check for an aperture stop – Insist on seeing a shot looking down the telescope tube.  If you see an obstruction, it’s a rip-off.

We should spare a few words for claims of telescopes suiting “beginners and intermediate astronomers”.  The implied meaning here is that beginners and intermediate astronomers don’t need a very “good” telescope, and this will do.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Especially beginners need an easy to set up, enjoyable telescope that won’t overly wobble, give horrible views and they deserve good eyepieces.  Astro Dog, and most reputable telescope I know in QLD anyway, will refuse to stock bad telescopes.  Tip 7 – There are no cheap “Beginner Telescopes”.  Sorry.  Why not save up a little longer, and then grab a suitable one?  We stock a great beginner telescope package without the pitfalls for just a few hundred dollars is it really worth skimping on the essentials?  If you really can’t afford that, read my upcoming blog on our 1250 Astronomical Binoculars.  You’ll love ’em!

Notice the claim of “strong construction and solid quality” – Well, almost always – no.  There are different types of tripods/mounts.  I recommend an EQ2 or EQ3 at the least, even with a very small telescope.  The one they often provide – every vibration will wobble up the telescope.  Every touch will distort every view.  By the time the telescope settles, whatever your trying to watch has long moved on.  Does that really sound like fun? The mount doesn’t seem like something you want to invest in, I know, it seems so boring, but truthfully, it is massively responsible for your telescope – A perfect telescope with a bad mount is not an average telescope, but a dreadful telescope.  There is no averaging here.  The mount can completely ruin any experience you have.  Tip 8 – Get an EQ2 or EQ3 mount, or one that tracks – pay the extra.

Let’s discuss the cruel claim “Easily Focus on what you want with the included finderscope!”  You need a finderscope because trying to find Jupiter in the sky with that eyepiece and barlow we discussed is like looking for a flea on a football field.  Even if you take the widest eyepiece they usually offer, a 20mm, it’s still tough to find in the sky.  So what is recommended as a finderscope?  Tip 9Get a 8×50 or 9×50 erect prism finderscope with crosshairs.  These are great.  When you look through it, you see what you see in the sky (not upside down – which is what will happen if you don’t have the erecting prism).  Once you have adjusted it (during the DAY time) and aligned it with your telescope, it will help you put your telescope on target.  What is often supplied with these cheap telescopes?  Often a 5x24 – As a reseller, they would cost me $3.  They are horrible.  I would never stock one.

Next, where’s the support?  You want a person to call if you need help, or who will at least call you back if there’s a contact form.  Even for an online store that’s true.  Buy from a specialised Telescope store – not a reseller who stocks thousands of products and doesn’t know anything about them.  There is often no such support from resellers who provide these sorts of telescopes. Tip 10Make sure that you can get hold of a human if there’s a problem.  Try it out by asking a question pre-sale.  This can give you an indication of what post sale support will be like if something goes wrong.

Well,I hope you have enjoyed the latest blog from ASTRO DOG.  The next blog will do the opposite of this one, it will look at a Good Telescope for Beginners.

If you are enjoying this completely free education series, please add this page on your social media, use the share buttons or of course, I’m looking forward to your comments below!  If you havn’t subscribed to the alert service yet, you can get an alert when new blogs are put up.


Crazy about Astronomy, Reading, Photography and Brewing, Marcel is an Educator, Teacher and Business Manager.

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