A volunteer prepares a Dobsonian telescope with a solar shield to observe a partial eclipse of the Sun in San Francisco on October 23, 2014. Dobsonian telescopes are often the best choice for a first telescope due to their simplicity and ease of setup. Photo Credit: Pablo Nelson/Astronomical Society of the Pacific
A telescope is a great gift for the budding astronomer in your life - or, of course, for yourself! While it may be tempting to go for an ultra cheap impulse buy spotted while shopping at a local store, or to splurge on a super expensive, deluxe computerized model found online, we urge you to hold off on a major purchase before first doing a bit of research. You might even be able to try out a few potential telescopes with the help of your local astronomy club before making your final decision.
Right off, the best way to start observing the night sky is with your own unaided eyes, the most old-fashioned way to stargaze. The following tips will assume you have been stargazing for a while and want a better peek at the Moon, planets, and stars. A good telescope doesn't work like a video game cheat code that instantly turns you into an expert astronomer, not even with a computerized setup that claims to instantly slew to any one of thousands of targets. You still need to practice your stargazing skills, and a good first telescope or pair of binoculars will help you do just that while expanding your skillset and giving you the confidence to search for more and more celestial sights.
The Moon makes a perfect first target for a new telescope owner. Here, a visitor takes a peek at the FBAC's Astronomy on Wheels Popup Supermoon Watch Party at the San Montego Apartments Photo Credit: Jo Ellen Sutter/Fort Bend Astronomy Club
A first telescope should be easy to use and still be of a high enough quality and power to provide years of use-while not being terribly expensive. Those requirements give a surprising winner for many novice stargazers: a good pair of binoculars!
Binoculars, it turns out, are an excellent first instrument for many stargazers due to their ease of use and versatility. Binoculars can be used not just for stargazing but for bird watching and other outdoor activities and can be easily packed away while traveling. Binoculars can easily fit onto carry-on for airline travel, which is an impossible feat for most telescopes. A good pair of 7x35 to 10x50 binoculars will give you great views of the Moon, open star clusters like the Pleiades, the brighter, larger galaxies like Andromeda (from dark skies), large nebula like Orion, and even peeks at Jupiter's moons and some globular clusters once your observing skills improve. Try not to get anything much more powerful than a 10x50 pair, as larger binoculars with more power often have narrower fields of vision, are heavier, and the increased magnification makes the handheld "jiggle" much harder to keep steady-unless you buy binoculars with image stabilization, or mount them to a tripod. For many objects, binoculars are even the preferred method for viewing them due to their large field of view compared to a telescope. Most telescopes are unable to keep the entirety of the Pleiades or Andromeda Galaxy in their field of view, for instance. Binoculars are also a great investment for more advanced observing, as later on they are useful for spotting objects to observe in more detail with a telescope.
A good pick for a starter telescope retains much of the same requirements as a pair of binoculars: small-ish in size, sturdy, and easy to handle. Many astronomers will recommend avoiding a computerized, "GOTO" scope until you have learned the sky a bit better, as these systems still require you know the sky fairly well, since their initial setup usually involves their systems pointing to several test stars and asking you to confirm if those are indeed the correct stars, and then having you fine-tuning their aim and focus; these are steps a beginner may find intimidating or confusing.
That's why a small manual telescope often works best for most beginning stargazers! For many, a small reflector telescope on a tabletop or Dobsonian mount (rather than tripod) works out best due to the bare-bones nature of the setup. With a small Dobsonian telescope, you can pick it up, bring it out to your yard, set it down and immediately start observing (though you might want it to cool down a little bit first). Most models in the range of 4.5-8 inches (the size of their light-gathering mirrors) will cost anywhere between $200-$500 and include the telescope tube, the mount or base, a finderscope or red dot finder to help in aiming the telescope, and a couple of good starter eyepieces. An example of a Dobsonian mounted telescope is at the top of this article; they are often compared to "cannons" or "light buckets" because of their appearance. A good recommended size for a first reflecting telescope with this type of mount usually ranges between a 4.5 inch to 8 inch mirror. Those sizes usually give good to great views of the heavens while keeping costs, weight, and size down to easy to manage levels.
A visitor gets a first peek at the Moon at the Chesmont Astronomical Society's InOMN event at Marsh Creek State Park. Photo Credit: Daniel Acker/Chesmont Astronomical Society
The classic "refractor" telescope on a tripod is often what most people think of when a telescope is mentioned-liek in the image above. These telescopes use lenses rather than mirrors to gather light, and require very little maintenance compared to reflector type telescopes, which may require a bit of adjustment, or collimation, of their mirrors every now and again. Refractors tend to be larger and more expensive than similarly powerful reflectors, however, and are often aimed at the higher end of the market, and so for many folks would not make a good first telescope simply out of cost or size. However, if you find a good deal on a refractor, it can indeed make an excellent starter scope. Just don't buy a cheap one at a local store advertizing amazing magnifications of 600x. Those are, to be honest, bad telescopes-truly a deal to good to be true!
Good luck, and may you have clear skies this holiday season!
Last Updated: 12/02/2016
We invite you to join the NASA Night Sky Network astronomy outreach community on Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates on astronomy events, outreach opportunities, and astronomy activities. Pictures of your astronomy outreach and other behind the scenes photos are featured on our Instagram feed.
Subscribe to the Night Sky Network channel on YouTube and watch demonstrations of astronomy outreach activities and recordings of our monthly webinars with astronomy professionals and NASA scientists.
The Astronomical Society of the Pacific
The NASA Night Sky Network is managed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The ASP is a 501c3 non-profit organization that advances science literacy through astronomy.