One of the things I love most about the world of astronomy & space is its incredible variety and depth. With so much to get your head around, though, this richness can sometimes be a tad overwhelming, especially if you’re just starting out. It’s not a feeling that ever goes away completely, by the way – believe me. Even after twenty five years immersed in this amazing subject, I regularly encounter things that melt my brain!
In the short guides below I’ve tried to demystify the topics I’m most frequently asked about by beginners. Each guide is intended to be a simple introduction that you can use as a launchpad into a more detailed exploration. They’re certainly not exhaustive. Instead, I’ve tried to focus on the elements that I think are most important and interesting to a beginner. I hope you enjoy reading them and that you find them useful.
If you’d like to read my thoughts on choosing a first telescope, I’ve tried to summarise them in a brief note below.
One of the questions I’m asked the most is “What telescope should I buy?”. This is a deceptively complex question to answer and generic suggestions don’t feel particularly satisfactory in my opinion. It’s actually a topic I specifically don’t tackle in the guides above. In fact, as you’ll see in the ‘Getting started’ guide, I don’t believe a scope is absolutely necessary for a beginner just starting out anyway.
Part of the reason why it’s such a tricky question are the many overlapping factors that affect the choice. The numerous designs, mounting arrangements (and even apertures) available can also have different advantages or disadvantages in different contexts. Which scope is ‘right’ for any one person depends on – among many other things – who will actually use it; if there are particular celestial objects you want to observe; where you think your interest might take you in a few years; whether you have any desire to do astrophotography (now, or in the future); your mobility; the location where you’ll typically be observing (both from an accessibility/logistics point of view & how much light pollution it has); how much free time you have; what your knowledge of the night sky is like; and, of course, your budget.
My advice, if you’re thinking about getting your first telescope, would be to get really clear in your mind what your answers are to those points above and then approach a reputable telescope dealer; with this information, they should be able to offer you advice on specific designs & models that match your needs.
A few final points to consider: you’ll no doubt hear the word ‘aperture’ thrown around when astronomers talk about telescopes. This just means the diameter of the main mirror or lens in the scope. This could, for example, be the front lens on a so-called ‘refractor’ telescope or the large mirror at the bottom of the tube in a ‘reflecting’ instrument. Generally speaking, the larger the aperture, the better a telescope is for astronomical observing. That’s because larger apertures can gather more light than smaller ones, which means that faint things like galaxies and nebulae become easier to see. Larger aperture scopes also enable you to view finer details on objects like the Moon and planets.
The optics of a telescope aren’t the only thing you need to put some thought to when choosing a first scope however. The mount and tripod that the telescope sits on are just as important. A mounting system that isn’t sturdy and flexes will result in endlessly frustrating observing sessions, as the view at the eyepiece will slop around and pointing the scope will be incredibly hard. A good mount is a solid, stable one that has controls that move smoothly with precision.
Finally, think very carefully how much you’ll really need any of the electronic gadgetry that’s occasionally built into basic scopes. Modern so-called ‘go-to’ technology – which typically aligns, calibrates and points the telescope, often automatically – is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, and it can often speed up finding and locating celestial objects, if it works well. But its inclusion in a basic setup can add a substantial amount to the cost of a rig. That’s money that has the potential to get you a scope with a much larger aperture, if it was included in the budget for a system with a simpler mounting arrangement.