Give them the moon, the stars and the planets. Telescopes are a great gift that give years of wonder and enjoyment. There are so many options, where do you start?
This article will shed some light on terminology and features to look for when purchasing a telescope.
First here are some things to consider...
1. What do you want to view? Planets, galaxies, birds or other earthly/terrestrial objects?
2. Is the person a beginner, hobbyist or advanced user?
3. Do they enjoy the manual hunt to find celestial objects or do they prefer the telescope to aid in the process with a Go To mount?
4.Where will they be doing their viewing? Is close by, in the backyard or do you have to carry the telescope a distance. Consider the size and weight of the telescope.
5. Will the person want to do astrophotography?
6. Of course, What is your budget?
Understanding the numbers and the description on a telescope will help you understand what you will be able to view and give you an idea of the price. Lets look at the Meade beginner telescope the Infinity 70mm Altazimuth Refractor.
I forgot an important detail, what do telescopes do? They gather light and allow us to see objects much fainter than our eye can see. So on the Meade Infinity 70mm, the number 70mm stands for the diameter of the front lens, the objective. Why is this important? The higher the number or the larger the objective the more light it can gather and the more fainter items you can see. Also, the higher the number usually the more expensive the telescope is.
A telescope with a lower number will allow you to view larger objects like planets. A telescope with a higher number will allow you to view deep sky, fainter objects like galaxies.
The diameter of a telescopes objective is more important than the telescopes magnification. Some stores will tout 300x magnification. More magnification is not necessary good. It magnifies everything from the simple movement of your hand on the telescope to the atmosphere ( ex. heat rising from the ground). Magnification is determined by dividing the eyepiece diameter by the focal length of the telescope. So changing your eyepiece or adding an accessory like a Barlow lens will change the magnification.
When looking at telescopes there are basically 3 different types: Refractor, reflector and Scmidt Cassegrain or SCT.
1. Refractors use a lens to gather light. This makes the image contrast better. You view direct through them so they tend to be longer; something to think about if you travel with it. A benefit to a refractor telescope is that they are low maintenance.
2. Reflectors, like the Meade Polaris 127mm use mirrors to gather light, this tends to make them more affordable. Because of how the mirror attaches it is sensitive to bumping when transported.
3. Schmidt Cassegrain-SCT-use both a lens and mirrors. They are more compact, but tend to be a little more expensive. An example of a SCT is
Besides the telescope itself, you need to consider what kind of mount, how it attaches to the tripod. The mount defines how the telescope moves.
There are basically 3 types of mounts:
1. Alt-Azimuth, simply it moves the scope up and down and left to right. Easy, but not as easy to track with.
2. Go-to mounts- this is motorized. There is a simple set up for alignment. Once aligned, you can input what you want to see and the telescope will go there. This type tends to be more expensive. Meade even offers a telescope that I say has a built in astronomer. It is called a LightSwitch and with the flip of a switch the built in camera that is used with the GPS sees the night sky. The astronomer will come on and tell you what is in your night sky and then it will guide the scope to what you want to see. It does not get easier than that.
3. Equatorial mount- Since the earth moves, what an equatorial mount does is it tracks the stars in an arch. This is a manual system that takes more time to align, but is allows for better tracking and for photographers who do not want stair trails, this is the mount to go with.
Using the above information you can decide what your budget allows to get the biggest diameter telescope that you want for your viewing purposes.
Now that you have the basics, please do not forget the accessories, extra eyepieces, filters, especially the moon ND filter and more.
As Carl Sagan said "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
So get out there and start discovering..
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