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What to Expect when looking through a telescope

The most important thing before getting into this hobby is setting your expectations. Most newbies to astronomy think "a telescope makes far away things bigger." Yes, and no. The primary purpose of a telescope is to gather light. The eyepiece (or ocular) is what determines your effective magnification. To determine that, you divide your scope's focal length by the millimeters of your eyepiece. Therefore, a 8" Newtonian reflector telescope with a 1200mm focal length and a 25mm eyepiece will have a magnification power of 48x. That same 25mm eyepiece on an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a focal length of 2000mm will have a magnification power of 80x. All things being equal, for visual astronomy, aperture is king, but beyond price, all things are not equal - and thus the telescope recommendation for someone who lives in Manhattan in a 3rd floor walkup apartment is different from someone who lives in rural Montana with a large garage and acres of no light around.

When using a telescope, no matter how big, stars will look like stars. They will always be pinpoints of light. If they aren't, then you're not in focus. Stars are just too far away for telescopes to resolve (see more clearly/get more detail).

 

Nebula and galaxies WILL NOT look like the vivid, colorful, and detailed pictures that you've seen. Our eyes are simply not cameras. To get those types of images, you have to take very long exposures many times, run it through a program that stacks the images to pull out detail, and extensively process it in a photo editing program. TO OUR EYES, DSO's (Deep Space Objects like nebula and galaxies) will look like faint white smudges. If you don't have accurate expectations, a genuine love for space, and an appreciation for what you're actually looking at, you will be very disappointed. That being said, if you go into this with the right expectations and mindset, those faint white smudges are beautiful, fascinating, and awe-inspiring. The longer you spend observing them, the more details you will start to pull out. It's almost as if your brain gets trained into resolving more and more detail, making you want to revisit them over and over again. Here are some accurate depictions of what you can see through a decent telescope in a DARK site (little light pollution). (The pictures are blurrier than they should be, but you'll get the idea). The more light pollution you have in your area, the harder it will be to resolve things. Here's a website to find out how much light pollution you'll be dealing with. Some examples would be: Pinwheel Galaxy Swan Nebula

 

Our solar system's planets, especially the gas giants, are amazing to look at. The bigger the scope, the more detail you can resolve. Regardless of someone's interest in space, I've personally never seen someone not "wow'd" by Jupiter or Saturn. Keep in mind, they will not be super close up views. Here's what to expect when looking at Jupiter through a decent telescope on a clear night. Planets (and obviously the moon) are very bright, so light pollution doesn't factor nearly as much - they're great to observe from typical, light polluted, suburban driveways.

Also, keep in mind that pictures don't do them justice. There's just something so amazing about seeing it with your own eyes.  Now that you understand the expectations of what you'll be able to see, here are some of the most commonly recommended telescopes.

Recommendations By Budget

Under $250

Spending less than $250 on precision optical instruments means keeping your expectations in check, these scopes are decidedly for "in the neighborhood" solar system observing, although some Redditors use them quite happily on deep sky objects that aren't local. If at all possible, save a bit more money and buy in the next $250+ tier, scopes at that price will be ones you can keep forever and won't immediately outgrow. Buying once is cheaper.

$250-350

These are called "Table-Top" dobs. They are small scopes meant to be set on top of a table and used. You can get a cheap and stable stool or crate to use instead. They are great little beginner scopes that are easy to use and can help you decide if you want to transition into something bigger. OneSky and Heritage are identical scopes. OneSky profits go to a good, charitable cause. Remember, if you drive to a dark sky site, it's not always guaranteed to find a picnic table or park bench to sit these scopes on.

$400-500

These are the entry-level into "grown-up" telescopes. Three are large 6" Dobsonian scopes, almost 4 feet tall when standing straight up. The other two are tabletop models on a computerized base. Regarding the larger scopes, the actual telescope tubes weigh roughly 15 lbs. and the base roughly 20 lbs. These will get you fairly close to the representative pictures of the objects above (again, in a DARK site). They can easily fit across the back seat of a vehicle with the base in the trunk if you plan to travel with it.

$600-700

The 8" Dobsonian telescope is the most recommended beginner telescope - just about anyone in the hobby will recommend one. They hit a great balance between size, portability, and value. They are simply the best bang for the buck. The telescopes weigh roughly 20-25 lbs. and the base 20-25 lbs. They still easily fit across the backseat of a vehicle with the base in the trunk. These are many people's "end-game" scopes, as well as their first scopes. If you're going to own just one telescope and not spend a fortune, 8" of aperture is a "goldilocks size."

But I live in an apartment and need something smaller...

We often recommend various Dobsonian models because of their benefits, but as you're finding out, once you're past the tabletop models, they're not known for being especially small or light. As such, here are some options for scopes that are a little smaller, which may benefit shoppers who live in tight quarters, or who deal with stairs or meaningful distances when it comes to astronomy.

  • An¬†airline portable¬†60mm¬†or¬†72mm¬†refractor. Or cheaper with less fine optics, an¬†Orion ShortTube 80. You'll need a suitable mount or tripod for these, at a minimum,¬†something like this. Cheap photo tripods will struggle to properly support your scope, even a small one. Figure $300-500 for the telescope, and at least $125-300 for a proper mount/tripod.

  • A smaller "Go To" Schmidt-Cassegrain, the legendary Celestron C5 offered as a¬†NexStar 5SE¬†on a computerized mount. About $900.

I really want help finding stuff up there, my sky is too bright, money is less a concern...

Some new astronomers just aren't going to star hop and learn the night sky, either their light pollution makes it impossible, or they'd rather sit back and let the telescope's computer drive, and these days... manually using your telescope has become optional if you have the tools. The recommendations below offer smartphone assistance or use conventional star alignments to find their way. Be forewarned though, many a newbie has become frustrated while trying to align their scope. It's simple for seasoned astronomers, possibly daunting for newbies. In the case of Celestron's Sky Align, the telescope needs to be pointed at 3 bright stars (not a bright planet like Jupiter) or you need to know two bright stars up there for an Auto 2 star align. Also note that Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes on computerized mounts require a lithium battery ($40-100+) and dew mitigation if you live anywhere with humidity.

$700+

From here, just go with as big a Dobsonian as you can afford and can realistically carry/transport. Many of these will be Dobsonians with extra features like "push to" or even "go to" systems, but that adds complexity and cost. They start to get heavy and super awkward to move as you approach 10 inches. Many people buy/build wheeled transports or something similar to move them, and they usually have them in a very convenient place to quickly wheel in and out, such as a garage. 10" Dobs are more common. You'll notice quite the price and mass jump on anything bigger than that - truss/collapsible designs past 10" are strongly recommended to keep size/weight in check. Heavier tends to get used less in astronomy... if a scope isn't convenient to setup, you may not have the motivation to do so at the end of a long day.

Recommended Accessories
 
  • Joining a local astronomy club is the best "accessory" you'll ever purchase. The collective experience and wisdom of its members will astound you, it may also lead to stellar deals on lightly used telescopes sold by members! Here's the¬†directory by US state
  • A car/ride to take you (and your telescope) to darker skies. If your home skies are Bortle 7-8, driving just 30-60 minutes out of the city/suburbs can get you considerably darker skies (in most places). You don‚Äôt have to drive 2 hours (or 2 days) to find pristine Bortle 2-3, even Bortle 4-5 can be a¬†significant improvement.
  • An absolute must is an adjustable chair. It's the first thing you'll wish you bought when you start using your telescope.
  • Turn Left at Orion¬†is a fantastic book with a wealth of information that will help you on your journey of understanding your telescope, learning the night sky, and viewing the heavens.
  • A "planetary" eyepiece. The 6mm "Goldline" eyepiece (can usually get it from Amazon) is most often recommended. The 4mm 58¬į HR Planetary is another decent, cheap eyepiece. I'd look into getting the 4mm if you're going with one of the smaller table top dobs, and the 6mm if you're going with a bigger dob.
  • A Telrad or red dot finder, in conjunction with the telescope's finder scope, is often recommended to help you get pointed in the right spot.
  • A battery powered head lamp or flash light with¬†red LEDs, so your hands are free and you don't ruin your night vision with white light. Tripping over things in the dark, including your own telescope, is not ideal.
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