Want a Telescope for Christmas? Here's What You Need to Know

4 Telescopes for Beginners
Christmas is a popular time to buy a new telescope, but there are some things to keep in mind when looking for your first instrument to observe the night sky. (Image credit: Space.com)

Over the years when I’ve spoken with many other amateur astronomers about their interest in the sky most have said that it could be traced back to receiving their first telescope at Christmastime. 

While it is true that many have been "hooked" for life by viewing the wonders of the sky through their first scope, it is also true that many others have had their initial enthusiasm for astronomy severely dampened by their first telescope — especially if the pleasure-to-frustration ratio becomes too low. 

As we approach the holiday season, many people may be seriously considering the purchase of a telescope. I'm sure that you have already seen telescope ads in newspapers, junk mail catalogues and on those TV shopping channels. [Best Telescopes for Beginners: Buyer's Guide]

A typical ad might say something like this:

"Bring the mysteries of the universe up close for your inspection. Study the Sun, the Moon, the planets, stars, comets and much, much more with this practical learning tool!"

Such claims are a seductive lure to the astronomy neophyte or the well-meaning parent or grandparent wishing to get their prospective space-minded child an instrument that he or she can use to "discover the wonders of the heavens."

But sadly, while most of these "department-store" telescopes, may seem like a good deal and user friendly, they usually end up being a complete frustration to the recipient. One of the things that is usually promised is incredibly high power. 

Telescope basics

Now be aware, that virtually any telescope can provide you with, say, 500-power. However, in most cases, such an advertised magnification is well beyond the practical maximum magnification of the telescope.

A 2.4-inch refracting telescope, for example, should never use more than 120-power (the rule of thumb is 50-power per inch of aperture).  In fact, for such a telescope, the most rewarding views will probably come using one-half of the practical maximum magnification (60-power).

Another problem is the telescope mounting, which for most "off-the-shelf" instruments is usually lightweight and unstable. Such mountings are, in turn, attached to a wobbly tripod. Consider this: A telescope can have the finest optics in the world, yet can be rendered totally useless if the mount is so poor that the image can't be held in place. [How Telescopes Gather Light (Video)]

But of course, the uninitiated (usually that “space-minded child”) will want to "test drive" the telescope at the highest possible magnification. The result will be an enlarged and hopelessly fuzzy image that will be virtually impossible to keep in the telescope’s field of view thanks to its defective and unbalanced design. 

Before you know it, that “practical learning tool” has ended up in the back of a closest or up in the attic, never to be seen again!         

If you still have your heart set on purchasing a telescope, here are a few good tips to follow:

  1. Go to your local bookstore or newsstand and browse through one of the various astronomy magazines where well known and reputable manufacturers advertise astronomical telescopes.
  2. Many planetariums across the country offer courses on "How to Use a Telescope." Such classes typically assist both the prospective purchaser and those who wish to get the most out of an instrument that they already have.
  3. Make an effort to contact a local astronomy club. You can probably locate the one nearest to you by consulting the Website of the Astronomical League, by far the largest national organization of amateur astronomers. The Astronomical League is composed of scores of local amateur astronomical clubs and groups, totaling thousands of individuals. By attending local club meetings, you’ll get to meet any number of fellow sky gazers who can offer you valuable advice. If you own a telescope, but are experiencing problems with it, there is no better place to go than an astronomy club whose members can offer assistance and helpful suggestions.  Besides, there is also the camaraderie of spending time with other people from different walks of life who all share the same love for the nighttime sky.

But now, I’m about to make a suggestion that few prospective telescope buyers – especially those neophytes of astronomy — do not want to hear: To seriously consider the merits of binoculars before moving up to a telescope.

Binoculars can serve as a great tool for amateur astronomers. Shown here, Celestron SkyMaster 25x100 binoculars. (Image credit: Space.com/Jeremy Lips)

Binoculars bonanza

Some might think that binoculars are a bit of a come down from a telescope, but the fact is that for certain aspects of sky watching they are the best instrument of all to use. [Best Astronomy Binoculars: Our Editors' Choice]

Binocular vision provides our central image processing system (the brain) with confirmation of what both of our eyes are seeing.  In effect we improve our signal-to-noise ratio by using two eyes. The brain filters out the random impulses from each eye and leaves us with a better view of the real object. The result is increased contrast (about 40 percent) and the ability to see fainter objects.

A good pair of binoculars makes a very good instrument for the beginning amateur skywatcher. As to what type of binoculars you should purchase, that’s sort of like asking, "What breed of dog should I buy?”  Everybody has his or her personal favorites.

Most preferable for star gazing are the 7x50 "night-glasses," although my own personal preference is a pair of 7x35 binoculars that give a much wider-than-normal field of view. The first number states the power of the binocular (7 power), while the second number represents the diameter of the objective lens in millimeters (35 or 50).

Find a reputable store that carries a good range of binoculars and get a knowledgeable salesperson who can talk you through all the pros and cons of the different models.  Insist that you be allowed to look through five or six pairs across the range of prices. A lot is going to depend on what feels right to you: binoculars that fit comfortably in your hand and across your eyes that have controls in the right places, and seem to offer a good balance between economy and performance.

Easy to use and relatively inexpensive, binoculars are helpful in learning the constellations and in getting acquainted with many attractive deep-sky objects. And when held steadily (though you can also mount them on a tripod) they'll give you a glimpse of the craters of the moon, the crescent of Venus and the moons of Jupiter. 

Should a bright comet come along, there is no better instrument to give you a great overall view of both the head and tail. And by sweeping along the Milky Way, you'll be treated to a myriad of stars. Because they don't give an inverted view (as is the case with most telescopes), binoculars are especially convenient for comparing a sky map with the stars themselves. 

And since binoculars require an absolute minimum set-up and takedown time, a frigidly cold winter's night won’t deter you from enjoying even a brief session outside.

Last, but certainly not least, the practical experience binoculars give will enable any beginner to get much more satisfaction when they’re finally ready to purchase their first telescope.  

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer's Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Joe Rao
Skywatching Columnist

Joe Rao is Space.com's skywatching columnist, as well as a veteran meteorologist and eclipse chaser who also serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications. Joe is an 8-time Emmy-nominated meteorologist who served the Putnam Valley region of New York for over 21 years. You can find him on Twitter and YouTube tracking lunar and solar eclipses, meteor showers and more. To find out Joe's latest project, visit him on Twitter.