Telescopic gift giving
Over the many years I’ve been writing this column, as well as putting on inside and outside astronomy and stargazing presentations, I’ve gotten inquiries from lots of nice folks about purchasing a telescope either for themselves or that special someone. I’m often asked to recommend a scope that’s “not all that expensive.” That’s always tough for me because I’m not sure what their definition of not too expensive is, so I have to ask them for a specific price range. Since this is the big gift-giving season I want to help as many of you as I can find just the right telescope for the best price, depending on who you’re buying it for. As with anything you get what you pay for. I want you to buy right and not just buy cheap. I don’t want your telescope gift to wind up in a closet never to be seen again!
My strongest recommendation is to avoid telescopes at retail stores and general shopping websites. Nothing against any of them, but there are a lot of junky scopes out there that often find a way onto their shelves and websites. The best brands of telescopes in my opinion are Orion, Celestron, Zhumell, and Sky-Watcher, and all have great websites you can purchase from.
Before I get too specific I want to emphasize that the main mission of your telescope is to gather as much light as you can. While magnification is important, light gathering ability is much more important. That’s the main job of a telescope, to allow you to see objects far too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Galileo said it best: telescopes “reveal the invisible.” Magnification, or “power,” is controlled by which eyepiece you use. Most telescopes come with two or three eyepieces. Usually 100 to 200-power magnification is the most you’ll ever need for most celestial targets. Higher magnification eyepieces can be useful on planets and the moon, but not totally necessary.
There are three basic types of telescopes; reflectors, refractors, and Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes. There are also spin-offs of each type of telescope.
Refractor telescopes gather light with the objective lens, the one where light enters the scope. The wider that lens is the more light gathering power you’ll have. The minimum you’d want to have is a 60mm refractor, which means it has a 60mm objective lens.
Reflector telescopes gather light with a concave parabolic mirror in the end of an open tube. The image gathered by the mirror is sent to the eyepiece with a flat mirror that bounces the image outside the tube to the eyepiece. Reflectors are my favorite type of scope, and I dare say many amateur astronomers agree with me. You just get more bang for your buck. Mirror diameters range anywhere from three inches for young kids to over 30 inches for fanatics! Light gathering power increases by the square of the mirror diameter.
Schmitt Cassegrain scopes are basically a design combining the optics of both the reflector and refractor scopes. They are definitely more expensive, but they are more compact and portable than most reflector telescopes. Another great advantage is that just about all Schmitt Cassegrain scopes have motorized drive systems that keep up with the Earth’s rotation, allowing you to track whatever you’re looking at through your scope as it moves along in the sky, keeping your target in the field of vision. Many of them also have “go-to” systems that will automatically point your telescope at any celestial telescope target in the sky. Many of these systems have at least 30,000 to 40,000 telescope targets in their databases. This is a huge time saver for locating celestial objects, especially in areas with light pollution. Because of the compact optics and the technology these are more expensive telescopes, but if you can afford it they are so worth it. You can get a smaller Schmitt Cassegrain for under $1,000.
Here are my specific recommendations from the smallest to the largest. There are a lot of telescopes in between.
1. The Celestron First Scope — designed for kids about 8 to 10 years old. It’s not a pure Dobsonian scope, but it’s similar with a small mirror. https://www.celestron.com
2. Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Scope — For teens through adults. It has an 8-inch diameter mirror. www.telescope.com, $400
3. Orion SkyQuest XT10i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope — A great adult scope with a 10-inch wide mirror. It comes with a small computer that will help you locate hard to find celestial objects. www.telescope.com, $900
4. Celestron NexStar 6SE — This Schmidt-Cassegrain type has a fully automated GoTo mount with a database of 40,000-plus celestial objects that automatically locates and tracks objects for you. Just type in the celestial target you want to see and it will electronically slew the telescope right to it and then track it across the sky! I have this scope and I just love it! www.celestron.com, $800 to $1,000
Another recommendation I have is to purchase a Telrad sighter to go along with the sighting scope provided with any telescope. It makes locating objects so much easier! You can buy one at https://www.highpointscientific.com, $37
I’m often asked about deep space celestial photography. For that you really need Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes with their motorized tracking. I also highly recommend that you check out the Hyperstar lens available through Starizona in Tucson, Arizona. Hyperstar can be fitted onto most Schmidt-Cassegrain scopes. I have one that I use with my Celestron NexStar 6SE scope as and the images are stunning. Check out www.starizona.com to find out more and get in contact with those folks. I think they’re the best in the business and really great people!
It’s possible to do some limited photography with a Dobsonian telescope, even with your cell phone. You can get great pictures of the moon and some of the brighter planets and possibly some bright star clusters and nebula. There’s a great app called ProShot that will give your camera settings much like a regular DSLR camera. The other challenge is to hold your phone up to the eyepiece and keep it steady. Orion telescopes have a great device that will hold your cell phone – the Orion SteadyPix EZ Smartphone Telescope Photo Adapter.
Find out more at https://www.telescope.com, $100
No matter what kind of telescope you get or give, read the instructions thoroughly. One more thing. Always use your telescope outside and make sure you let it sit outside for at least a good half-hour to acclimate to the temperature. If you don’t let the components of your scope cool off, you might get some real funky fuzzy images.
Happy telescope shopping!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.