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Choosing A Telescope

Picking out a new telescope can be a daunting experience, whether you're a beginning
stargazer or a seasoned amateur astronomer. There are many types of optical systems
in many sizes, and an equally large array of mounting types; a host of manufacturers
and suppliers, too. If there was one best telescope, that's the one everybody would
get; in reality, there are many variables to consider, and each setup will be better at
some, and worse at others. On this page, we'll look at some of those variables; if you
decide which are most important to you, you will be on your way to choosing the best
setup for your observing pleasure.
Does Size Matter?

If you've read the "How Telescopes Work" and played with the Telescope
Calculator pages that accompany this one, you've learned that there are two different
sizes we consider in looking at the optics of a telescope. First is the diameter of its
objective lens or mirror, which is its light-gathering component. Since light gathering
is the #1 function of a telescope, you can definitely say that the larger the diameter of
the telescope's objective, the more powerful it is for viewing faint objects. But if
you are not too interested in faint objects, or are concerned about portability and ease
of use, perhaps Huge isn't for you... The second size we're concerned with is the focal
length of the telescope; the longer that is, the higher the useful magnification range of
the telescope will be shifted (see the section on optimum magnification range on the
Telescope Calculator page). Since longer focal lengths can deliver higher
magnifications, you could say that they're more powerful; but they can't achieve the
lower magnification, wider field views of shorter focal lengths, and perhaps you like
to view objects which need those to be seen well...
We'll take a look at those and other properties, and try to provide some information
and examples which might help you analyze them more to focus on what your needs
are. Let's look at ever-popular Magnification first:
How Much Magnification?

Never buy a telescope because someone says (or you computed) that it can achieve a
super-sounding magnification. In reality, the amount of magnification you can
actually apply out under the stars will always be limited by the blurring effect of
turbulence in the atmosphere; no matter how good your optics are, if the turbulence
(called seeing by astronomers) is limiting you to 200x, any increase in
magnification over that will just provide a blurrier image. In our location in the central
U.S., seeing often tops out at 150-200x (and sometimes below that); a night which
provides sharp viewing at 300x or more is a rare pleasure. But thankfully, many of the

things we observe are big enough to be seen well at much lower magnifications.
Remember that the higher power you use, the less sky you'll see through the eyepiece;
if the object you want to observe is large, you'll have to use lower powers to fit it in
your field of view (and that it is much easier to locateobjects using a low power, wide
field!) Also remember that the more you magnify them, the fainter extended (nonstellar) objects will appear. So, selecting a magnification range (the focal length of the
telescope) will be dependent on what types of objects you most want to observe.
Comparing Object Sizes

View:

The above graphic compares the apparent sizes of some celestial objects as they
appear from Earth (hover your mouse over the Solar System box to see some of the
planets, and over the Deep Sky box to compare some objects beyond our Solar
System). As we see, the other planets look pretty small in our sky, while some of our
other target objects are relatively much larger (the inner planets are shown in two
sizes, largest as when we're closest to them, smallest when we're farthest; the outer
planets just at their largest, but they don't vary as much). Indeed, some deep sky
objects are much bigger yet; the Orion Nebula (M42) is about 1 across, the Beehive
Cluster (M44) about 1.5, the Pleiades cluster (M45) 2, and the Andromeda Galaxy
(M31) a whopping 3 across!
What this means is that we'll frequently want to use relatively high magnifications
(150-300x) to study things in our solar system, and relatively low powers (20-150x) to
view objects beyond. While the magnification a telescope delivers can be changed by

puting in different eyepieces, each 'scope has its own usable range of magnifications,
determined by its focal length and by the range of eyepiece focal lengths which is
commercially available (see the Telescope Calculator page for more discussion of
this); make sure the 'scope you're considering can reach the magnification ranges
you're most interested in.
How Much Light Gathering Power Is Needed?

Some observers would quip that you can never have a big enough telescope. While
the views of small, faint objects will probably be more spectacular through a huge
telescope than a small one, that doesn't always make the larger one superior. If the
object is large, the view in a smaller 'scope, which takes in the whole object and
frames it nicely, might be prettier than the one through the large 'scope, which can
only look at a small portion of the object at a time. And the view through a smaller
telescope, which you popped out into the backyard for a quick observing session, wins
by default over that through a large 'scope which you didn't bother to lug out and set
up!
Just like the wide range of sizes represented by the different astronomical objects we
observe, there is a large range of object brightnesses, too. Larger diameter 'scopes are
needed to view fainter objects, but not all objects are faint. Let's take a look at a
comparison of the brighness of some types of objects. While point-like stars are
simple (see the Theoretical Magnitude Limits section of the Telescope
Calculator page, which gives you the magnitude of the faintest star you should be able
to see with any given telescope), we also want to observe non-pointlike objects like
planets, nebulas and galaxies, which get fainter the more you magnify them
(magnifying spreads out their light). For those extended objects, we look at their
surface brightness, which is the amount of light that shines from a given unit of area
of their surface, as it appears to us.

The Moon, at an average brightness of 3.3mag./sq", is a bright object, as are all the
naked-eye planets. They can be observed well with a 3- or 4-inch telescope, even at
fairly high powers (if the 'scope has a long enough focal length to reach high power).
But there is quite a jump down in brightness when we get out of our Solar System; for
example, the Ring Nebula (M57), which is a small but bright planetary nebula in the
constellation Lyra, has an average surface brightness of only 17.7mag./sq". M82, a
comparatively bright galaxy in Ursa Major, has a surface brightness of just 21.5;
many galaxies are in that range or are fainter yet. The 3" telescope, under a reasonably
dark sky, can pick up objects as faint as galaxies (as long as the objects are large
enough in angular size), but this is the area where bigger instruments really have an
edge.
The diameter of the telescope objective also relates directly to the instrument's
resolving power; that is how small details can be discerned through it. In theory, the
larger the telescope's aperture (the size of its objective lens or mirror), the finer details
it can resolve. This is assuming perfect conditions, though; a small telescope of high
quality may beat a larger one that's just so-so. Also, as noted before, the atmospheric
conditions (seeing) will limit resolving capability; oddly enough, sometimes in bad
seeing, a small 'scope will resolve more than a larger diameter one, because the large
one catches more turbulence!
Beyond The Tube

Wait a minute, we're not finished with our discussion of choosing a telescope optical
system already, are we? I don't know what to buy yet! Well, it is beyond the scope

(pardon the pun) of this page to look in depth at the pluses and minuses of each
particular optical design (see the "How Telescopes Work" page for more on that).
Using the two above tools (analyzing objective diameter and focal length) which
apply to all telescopic systems is a big start. But there are some other important
factors to consider in choosing a telescope.
Mountings

Astronomical telescopes really cannot be hand-held; they must be mounted on some


sort of machinery which holds them still and stable, yet allows them to be aimed
wherever the user wishes. The one exception would be binoculars, but even those
benefit greatly from being stabily mounted when used for stargazing. It may not be
obvious to the beginner, but the experienced observer learns that the quality of a
telescope's mounting is just as important as the quality of its optics; what good is a
fine telescope if you can't get objects into view and keep them there long enough to
see them?
A telescope looks at a tiny spot in the sky. Consider the graphic above, which shows
object sizes; look at the .5 circle which represents the size of the Moon, then go
outdoors and look at the Moon in the sky. Your telescope is going to be looking at an
area of sky only about that size; you have to center that on the object you want to see,
and hold that position (remembering that any shaking or shifting of the 'scope will be
magnified by as much as the size of the image is.) You need a good mount!
Mount Classes

While there are many designs of telescope mounts, one important distinction is
(clock) driven mounts vs. un-driven mounts. The sky rotates over us continually;
everything in it rides along as it turns, rising in the east and setting in the west. While
this motion looks slow to us, our telescopes (which are fixed to the Earth) are looking
at tiny spots in the sky, and the sky shifts past those spots fairly rapidly. If you point
your telescope with a half-degree viewing field at a star overhead, that star will drift
from your view in a minute or so if the telescope isn't pushed along to follow it.
A clock driven mount will turn the telescope to follow the sky; when you put that star
in, it will stay centered (for the rest of the night, if things are working well). A driven
mount can be a real pleasure, especially when using higher magnifications (with their
correspondingly smaller viewing fields). But they have their drawbacks: Generally,
they are more expensive; they are more mechanically complicated, and therefore
might take longer to learn to use, or be more succeptible to mechanical problems; they
often take longer to set up. So, if you are on a budget, or want a 'scope to pop outside
and observe with quickly, maybe undriven is for you, while if you want to spend

longer times studying things (especially at higher powers), you might really want a
driven mount.
Just a few years back, mounts were generally divided into two classes: equatorial and
non-equatorial (the latter group most often being represented by altitude-azimuth or
alt-az mounts, which allow the 'scope to swing up-down on one axis and and in
horizontal circles on the other). Equatorial mounts have an axis tilted to match the
angle of Earth's axis; by turning that axis, the telescope is clock driven. That was the
only easy way to drive a telescope to track the sky for many years. Now, computers
can control motors on both axes of an alt-az mount, changing their speeds and
directions as needed to follow the sky in whatever direction the telescope is pointed.
Additionally, equatorial platforms are now available which entire telescope &
mount setups can be placed on, turning the whole package to follow the sky. These
changes have blurred the line between the equatorial and non-equatorial mount, and
made classifying them by clock driven and not clock driven a more useful one. (As an
additional change, some folks now use the term "tracking" in place of "clock driven"
when describing mounts, further removing us from the days when actual clock
mechanisms were used to turn equatorial mounts.)
Finding Things

A second main mounting class distinction has to do with how you aim the telescope.
Some clock-driven, computer-controlled mounts can also take directions from the
computer and turn the telescope to point at whatever object is selected by the user.
This Go-To type setup may sound ideal -- just sit back, and your telescope will show
you things -- but it should be approached with a little caution. First off, it is a
mechanically complicated system; do expect to have to spend some time learning how
to make it work properly, and remember the engineer's axiom that the more complex
something is, the more things there are to go wrong. Secondly, don't expect to be able
to use it successfully if you have no knowledge of what's up in the sky (at least some
constellation identification ability, etc.); you need to verify that the machinery is
sending you to the right places. This brings up the other side of the coin: Many
stargazers find that learning their way around the night sky is a joy unto itself; the
heavens become your playground, not just something you're shown a tour of. Using
star charts (maps of the sky) and locating hidden objects on your own can be a great
adventure in itself.
Both driven and un-driven mounts can feature what are called setting circles; these
can tell you the celestial coordinates of the spot the 'scope is pointed to (the sky
having a coordinate grid system on it analogous to Earth's latitude-longitude system;
in the sky, north-south is measured as degrees of Declination, east-west in hours of
Right Ascension). On some mounts, there will be actual inscribed circles or disks with

pointers to indicate Dec and R.A.; more commonly nowadays, you see digital setting
circles, which show the Dec and R.A. information on an electronic display. Setting
circles can be a great aid in locating objects which are too faint to see with the
unaided eye; there are other techniques which work well, too, based on comparing star
charts to the sky overhead.
If a telescope is ever going to ever be manually pointed at objects, it needs some sort
of finder instrument on it; again, telescopes view too small a spot of sky to be
effectively aimed on their own. Often the finder is a smaller telescope, which looks at
a wide field of sky at very low magnification, and has a crosshair or other marker at
the center of its field; when the marker is aligned on the location of the desired object,
the object will be centered in the field of the main telescope (if the user has properly
aligned the finder when he or she started observing!) Generally, a finder 'scope needs
a fairly large objective lens to be really useful; some observers would say that 50mm
diameter is the minimum. Also popular are reflex finders (also called "unit power"
or "red dot" finders) which do not magnify, but when viewed through, superimpose a
lighted target (a red dot or circles) on the sky, centered on the spot which the main
telescope is viewing; they can be very effective finders, but like the telescopic ones,
they must be kept aligned with the main 'scope to function usefully.
Clock-driven or not, Go-To vs. setting circles vs. star hopping and other methods of
locating objects manually: These are personal preference choices; each stargazer
needs to discover what gives them the most pleasure, and gets them out observing and
enjoying the wonders of the skies. But again, the mounting of your telescope is not a
part to be overlooked when you are choosing an instrument!
Making Decisions

We have grazed the surface in this look at factors to consider when choosing a
telescope, but the basic qualities of the optical and mounting systems are things you're
locked into with a given telescope, which affect usability for various types of
observing, and which will have a notable effect on the amount of pleasure you'll get
from using it, so they are worth focusing on. Other points to consider include:
--Your Budget: On the bottom end, plan on spending at least $150US on a starter
telescope; on the top, well, there is no limit! Remember that there are definite
differences in the cost-per-inch of aperture for different telescope types, and in the
base cost of different types of mountings. Used equipment is often available at good
prices (see our Astro-Ads page for examples).
--Portability: Where do you want to be able to use the telescope (i.e., in your yard, vs.
transporting it to other spots, taking it on vacation)? How heavy are the parts? How

long will it take to haul out, set up, take down and put away? Where will you store it
(hopefully somewhere clean, without high humidity!) Telescopes which are too big,
too heavy or too much trouble to set up do not get used much!
--Easy of Use: Are the potential users interested in applying mechanical and computer
skills, or would they rather have simplicity?
--Versatility: Do you want to be able to do other observing besides stargazing
(birdwatching, etc.)? Photography through a telescope is a complicated subject; most
telescopes can be used for simple afocal snapshots, while other types
astrophotography are extremely complex; if astrophotography is one of your goals,
you need to do considerably more research before you choose a telescope and
mounting!