It’s a couple of weeks since Christmas and you’ve had the binoculars out and have been enjoying the beautiful sights of the night sky, probably because you don’t live in Wellington and could actually see the night sky instead of clouds. Though, to be fair, we did have awesome weather before Christmas. You’ve done what we, at Milky-Way.kiwi, suggested and you’ve learned the night sky, you’ve seen some great clusters and you’ve even spied some far off galaxies. Maybe you’ve seen the Sculptor galaxy or maybe you strained your eyes in the binoculars trying to see the dust lanes of Andromeda Galaxy. It goes without saying that you’ve definitely seen the slight greenish hue to Orion Nebula and I’m sure you took the opportunity to observe Mars and Jupiter getting all up close and personal a few days ago. But biggest of all, you’ve been bitten by the astronomy bug and now you want more, you want to see further back into time, you want to see the Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings, you want to see the polar ice of Mars and you want to see the famous Great Red Spot in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Maybe you want to go back in time 2 billion years and spy the quasar 3C273 in all of its red shifted glory or maybe you want to see the E and F stars of the Trapezium in Orion. Well to do those things, you’re going to need a telescope unless you own this large pair of binoculars:
And here comes one of the most asked questions in astronomy…
What telescope should I buy?
The answer is not easy, it is laced with personal preference, with personal bias, with expertise bias, with selection bias and with the biggest and baddest limitation of all – your budget.
Whenever I get asked what telescope to buy, I always reply with: well, what do you want to look at?
And that’s really the first thing you should think about. What is it that you want to look at with your telescope, the options are huge. Do you want to see the planets or detail on the floor of a crater on the Moon? Do you want to see the knots that indicate the star forming regions of M33? Do you want wide awe inspiring views of the star fields of the Milky Way? Unfortunately you can’t have it all, like with most things, there’s a trade off – unless your budget is big enough that you really can afford it all! Then there’s the added complication of whether you want to take pictures of the night sky or not (the setup I used for imaging is in the featured image). That can really make things challenging. But these question need answers not just more questions, so here’s what I think:
If you are like me then buy a mid sized dobsonian mounted reflector. I’m suggesting that, in part, because that’s exactly what I did, and I didn’t regret it. The reason is because, for me, it was easy to move around and I wanted to see a little bit of everything. I bought an 8″ reflector and with that scope, I thoroughly enjoyed views of the planets, nebulae, globular clusters, open clusters and some galaxies. Now because that telescope was good for me, it doesn’t mean it would be good for everyone. I’m a reasonably tall person and have no problem lugging around a sizeable telescope. In addition, I lived in a good dark site so didn’t need to travel. Other budding astronomers may need to travel or may not be able to lug around a large telescope so these considerations will influence what telescope gets selected.
What did I learn? Well I remember, at the time I got the telescope, that Mars was in a good position and perfect for viewing. I so wanted to see Mars and was very happy to finally see this little orangey/red ball in the eyepiece. After a while, it got annoying having to readjust the position of the dobsonian mount to keep the planet in the field of view (FOV), especially with 9mm and 4mm eyepieces. I remedied this a few months later by buying a equatorial mount and rings to hold the reflector tube. This worked very well and once I figured out the challenges of polar aligning I was able to keep the object I was looking at easily in the field of view. The lesson here was, the dobsonian mount is cheaper than an equatorial mount, but it made it harder to keep fixed on an object. If you don’t want the hassle of nudging a dobsonian mount every 30 seconds or so, then you are better off with a equatorial mount. Of course, I could have purchased one of the dobsonian mounts that is computer controlled but that was out of my price range. Here’s a picture of the telescope now, 10 years on.
Another complication with the reflector was the need to collimate it, which I didn’t mind doing and I found relatively easy, but it was still another thing to do every time I moved the telescope because it would go out of alignment every so often. So, if collimating a telescope is not your thing then a reflector probably isn’t the best idea. When I decided to get an 8″ reflector it was because I wanted the most aperture I could afford so I could get good views of deep sky objects, I only had a limited budget. I wasn’t disappointed, the telescope was brilliant for all the rich and fascinating objects that I could see and these were definitely where the reflector came into its own.
So, to summarise the advice here, ask for a lot of different opinions, because what is great for one person is not great for someone else. Think about what you want to look at, whether it’s planets, the Moon, deep sky or all three. There are compromises with each type of telescope so make sure you understand about them all, and, of course it all has to fit in your budget. I haven’t touched on the different attributes of refractors or Maksutovs or any of the other types of telescopes on the market. Like reflectors, they all have their pros and cons. Good luck!