Purchasing a telescope for the first time can be difficult. There are lots of choices of telescopes and manufacturers. Who can be trusted? Who makes the best telescopes and what are the best ones for a new amateur astronomer? This article will try to answer some of those questions for you.
Before we get too far along I want to talk about two important points which are related and will tend to blow away some of the common misconceptions and advertising gimmicks used by some of the worst telescope manufacturers. First, ignore any claims about magnification. Some scopes sold in department stores advertise that you can see objects 100x bigger or some other such nonsense. All scopes magnify the object. Magnification of the object in the telescope is controlled by the eyepiece that you select not the size or quality of the scope itself. These advertising claims are erroneous at best and false advertising at worst. Second, the quality of the image you see is controlled more by the aperture (size of the opening) of your telescope than it is by anything else. Higher magnification eyepieces can increase the size of the image in your scope but at a significant cost in clarity.
There are several types of telescopes available. The type of telescope that most people imagine is called a refractor. It has an eye piece at one end of the telescope and the viewer must look through the scope at the object in the sky. Refractors are known for having some of the clearest views available among the choices of scopes available. However, they also tend to be among the most expensive scopes compared side by side with other scopes of the same aperture.
Another type of scope available is called a reflector. This is a scope that looks as if the eyepiece sticks into the side of a long tube as if you are looking at the side of the scope rather than through it. These tend to be cheaper than refractors.
Another type of scope is often even cheaper which is called a dobson. These scopes sit on the ground and are not mounted on an equatorial mount. This is bad, however, in that it makes it difficult to track an object with the scope.
Finally there is one other type of scope which many serious amateur astronomers use. This is called a schmidt cassegrain telescope and it is basically a hybrid of a reflector and a refractor. Many of the fine astrophotographs you see on the covers of astronomy magazines come from telscopes like this. However, these tend to be very expensive.
In general you will find that the cost of the telescope is controlled by two factors. The type of scope and the size (aperture) of the opening at the end of the telescope. The bigger the opening the more expensive the scope is going to be.
There are two major manufacturers of telescopes and a whole host of smaller ones. Celestron and Meade are by far the biggest telescope makers both in volume sold and in advertising dollars spent. Many of the discount stores carry a low end version of one of these company’s telescopes.
Computerized telescopes are becoming extremely popular and increasingly less expensive. These often come with computer catalogs of thousands of known objects which the scope can find for you and place within the eyepiece if you have the scope properly polar aligned.
In general I would say that most amateur astronomers could do without the computer although it does offer the possibility of finding some interesting things that you might not otherwise find. But realistically, anyone who lives anywhere near a city is going to find most potentially interesting objects to be too dim in the eyepiece compared to the glow of the nearby city. The objects you are likely to see best will be the brightest and better known ones. Many of the planets can be seen well from an urban location as can the moon and a few of the brighter nebulae. If you live in a rural area then you might get some use from the computerized telescopes but I think most city dwellers would find it an unnecessary additional expense.
You will get more bang for your buck by buying the biggest aperture you can afford. Stick to one of the name brand scopes and you will likely do well. One other manufacturer which makes some reasonably good (and affordable) products is Orion. They have an extensive catalog and web site on line you can shop from.