Help me be a smart telescope buyer

I’m not sure if this is the right forum. I thought about CS, but astronomy isn’t really an artistic discipline.

Anyway, I want a telescope. I was big into stargazing as a kid, and had a couple basic telescopes along the way. After getting away from it for so long, I’m interested in picking up the hobby again.

Problem is, I’m not really up to speed on the gear. Whether I get something new or second-hand, I want to have all the right information to get a scope that will fit my needs. So how do I know what I need?

I’m pretty sure I want a reflecting telescope. I always used refractors before, and there just seemed to be so many more optical disadvantages…lots of aberrations that made viewing a drag. That may just be that those telescopes weren’t as high quality as they should have been. But it seems to me that reflecting telescopes are a bit more refined, and have no major drawbacks that I’m aware of.

In any case, I’d like to get a grasp on what kinds of specs are appropriate for typical backyard astronomy. I want to be able to see some of the cooler things out there, instead of just resolving a few more dim stars. I’d like to pick out some features of other planets, maybe some nebulae and galaxies. I don’t know what’s really reasonable to see with consumer equipment, but that’s why I’m asking here.

What kinds of focal lengths, mirror diameters, etc. do I need to see some of these various objects? Is a reflector really the telescope of choice? For the record, I live in a suburban setting, and so my own backyard may be the victim of too much light pollution. But I’ve got no problem with driving out into the country to get a better view.

It would take an entire book to answer what seem like simple questions, Fortunately, many have been written.

One excelent one I’d recommend is The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Dickinson & Dyer. This will not only answer all your questions, but will give you a wealth of info on finding the “faint fuzzies” and other good objects.

It is especially helpful in providing the pros and cons of refractors vs reflectors, and has much good info on the types of each, sizes, etc. As to size, the larger the aperture the better (and of course, the more expensive). I’d say the minimum is 4 inches, and a good 8-inch scope will serve you well. Whatever size you get, you’ll want a few eyepieces of different sizes.

The important thing to remember is to avoid the “department store specials,” scopes with flimsy tripods, no wedge, poor optics, etc. These have done more to discourage beginners than anything.

Unfortunately, the cost of a decent one is high, but anything less is just a waste of money. There are a lot of very good used scopes available.

I’d suggest trying to find out some local astronomy club. These usually have “star parties” where all the members set up their scopes. They are very happy to have visitors look through all the types and they will explain how they work. This is a quick way to become familiar with all types.

One suggestion, after you get a good book on the subject. Start out with a good pair of binoculars. You’ll be astonished at how much you can see, just looking at the Milky Way, a few star clusters, the Orion Nebula, etc. A nice way to do this is to lay back in a lawn chair (outdoors is best :D) and enjoy the night sky. Seriously, with any scope, don’t every try to observe from inside looking through a window.

One important thing when you get a scope is how to polar align it properly. This is sort of a pain in the butt, but if you don’t, you’ll never find anything nor be able to track an object as it crosses the sky. None of the cheapie scopes ever tell you how to do this, and that results in huge frustration.

The traditional way to find objects is by “star hopping,” finding it by using star charts and the finder scope, and getting there by steps. Many good scopes, however, how have computerized finders which will help you locate an object very quickly. Costs more, of course.

Somebody called astronomers “Naturalists of the Night,” a good description. The wonderful thing about being a backyard astronomer is that it is a lifetime hobby, as you’ll never run out of wonderfull things to see.

Do a search of the boards for telescopes. We’ve had many, many threads on this topic, all giving tonnes of good advice.