How To Choose a First Telescope?
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. 
 Photo of a visitor looking at the Moon through a telescope courtesy Fort Bend Astronomy Club
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 binoculars, anywhere from 7x35 to 10x50,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.

What do those binocular numbers numbers mean? The first number is the magnification, while the second number is the size in milimeters of the lenses.  So a 7x35 pair means that these binoculars will magnify 7x, and have lenses 35 mm in diameter. When starting out it is tempting to get the biggest you can find, but try not to get anything much more powerful than a 10x50 pair at first. Larger binoculars with more power often have narrower fields of vision and are heavier. So whie technically more powerful, they are much more difficult to hold staedily in your hands and "jiggle" quite a bit-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 telescope until you have learned the sky a bit better, as these systems generally 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, before fine-tuning the 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- plus you will save quite a bit of money by forgoing electronics. 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 child looks through a telescope at an InOMN event by the Chesmont Astronomical Society.
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 too good to be true!
We hope this helps you in your search for a first astronomical instrument! There are many other great guides to finding your first scope or pair of binoculars. Some can be found at the  EarthSky, Sky & Telescope, StarDate, Cloudy Nights, the Planetary Society, and many more. A fair warning: it's easy to get a bit overwhelmed by the wealth of information found in all of the astronomy resources found online.

If you are able to do so real-world advice and experience is still the best for something you will be spending a lot of time with! The best place to go for advice is with your local experts in a nearby astronomy club. You can find a club or star party near you on the Night Sky Network's very own Clubs & Events page. Whlie current social-distancing recommendation may limit the amount of real-world interactions you can have right tnow, some folks will be glad to assist over email or other online methods. While you may not be able to do so right now, going to an in-person star party hosted by a local club is a great way to get familiar with telescopes and binoculars.  Some clubs and local  libraries even have telescope lending programs. Just like with a car, you could take a potential model of telescope out for a "test drive" before deciding to buy.

Good luck, and may you have clear skies this holiday season!
Last Updated: 11/25/2020
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