Number 7: Where to buy a Telescope
There are a number of places to buy a telescope... however I advise against purchasing a telescope at a department store (Wal Mart, K-Mart, Toys R Us, etc)! Astronomy (today) is a fairly niche interest and as a result you will almost certainly have to buy your scope from an on-line vendor. There are a few towns that have superb telescope stores, but they are very rare and chances are you don't live anywhere near them.
The following is a list of on-line/mail order outfits I have personally dealt with, and recommend without hesitation (please note that there are many more I have not dealt with that are probably just as good!):
- Orion Telescopes and Binoculars, (Telescopes of all kinds, especially good "first" telescopes, excellent free catalog). I've purchased from them many times since 1984. Here is a listing of some Orion scopes that are excellent choices for a First Telescope.
- Astronomics (major distributor of numerous telescopes and accessories). Visit them on the web at www.astronomics.com. Good honest people, a family owned business since 1979, I've dealt with them many times.
I recommend avoiding most Tasco telescopes (for reasons explained in my article Tasco Telescopes: Why they are to be avoided (and how to fix them up)). If you buy from the so called "New York Camera Stores" be sure you know what you want. These outlets do carry good scopes, the problem tends to be that the people that work at these outfits generally do not really know what they are talking about when it comes to telescopes (and service is less likely to be personal). Be very wary of telescopes sold at "Brookstone", "Radio Shack", and most "chain" type camera stores. Again, look for the classic sign of a low end telescope: eyepieces marked H25, H20, H12.5, and/or SR4 along with a long list of accessories and a fancy box covered with pictures (which were probably taken by a large professional telescope). If you see any of these, I recommend that you look elsewhere! The bottom line: you want to buy your first telescope from a store or company that specializes in telescopes!
I've got $400 to spend... What's my best bet?
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it's best to first learn the constellations and to have sampled the skies using a pair of binoculars. If you've done this and you have a thirst for more, you are ready to move up to a telescope. In my opinion, $400 is probably the least you can spend to get a truly decent starter scope and a few accessories you'll need to round out the package. Most astronomers will tell you to buy the biggest telescope you can afford, and I generally agree with this statement. With a $400 budget, my personal recommendation for a starter package would include a 6" Dobsonian reflector telescope. A 6" scope is big enough to show good detail on numerous objects, and yet is quite portable. A 6" Dobsonian scope (like the ones Meade, Celestron and Orion sell) will eat up about $300 of your budget (including shipping costs). The remaining $100 should be used to purchase another good quality eyepiece (about $40 - $60) , and also a good book (I'd suggest NightWatch by Terrence Dickinson, available at most decent bookstores).
No scope is perfect for everyone, but if there is one I had to pick that best fits this requirement it is the Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian Telescope:
This scope is a great balance between capability and portability, plus it utilizes a classic 6" F8 design (meaning it is "good" at viewing all kinds of astronomical targets). This scope got great reviews in the astronomy press. I have used them at star parties, they are well made and great performers and hard to beat for the cost. A scope like this will far outperform most anything you are likely to find at Wal Mart, Costco, etc. A scope like this can keep you busy for many years! I have several other excellent starter scopes described in my article Excellent First Telescopes.
Other potential sources for telescopes include Ebay, however you are at some risk (you have no assurance that the scope is not damaged, etc). Every once in a while you can find a nice scope at a tag sale, but you need to know enough about the unit to decide whether it is worth the cost. People who have and are selling good scopes usually know what they have, and they will not show up for $25 at a tag sale! As mentioned previously, local astronomy clubs might be your best option to get introduced to a telescope. You may be able to get a loaner scope from a club, one that might cost a lot more than you might want to spend. Also, should you find you are not into astronomy, you can always turn the scope back in and no money is lost.
Some other thoughts...
It is very important to keep in mind that small (and even large) amateur telescopes will not provide visual images like those seen in astronomy books and magazines (the Moon is a possible exception). For many objects, you must take satisfaction in just knowing that you have barely detected a faint smudge of light! Only a few of the brightest objects will be considered impressive by the average person. If you go into astronomy expecting brilliant, color filled views of objects in the sky, you will likely be disappointed. Amateur astronomy is not about dazzling "video game" graphics and Hollywood special effects. Amateur astronomy is not unlike learning to appreciate fine art; you must learn to appreciate what you see in your telescope, which in many cases will only be a very faint patch of light (and this may occur while freezing your butt off or by being bit by a swarm of mosquitos). Even though you might be only able to just barely glimpse a faint galaxy, know that you are seeing an incomprehensibly small portion of the light generated by a billion suns, light which has traveled a journey of humanly unimaginable distance, a journey lasting many millions of years! When you look at a distant planet in a telescope, you are seeing the real thing, live, and you can be sure that only an extremely small fraction of people on Earth are looking at the same object at the same time! You will not be able to see anything close to the American Flag on the Moon. However, you can look at these distant objects like the Moon, the planets and galaxies, knowing that you (nor anyone else) will likely never visit them in person, and wonder what it might be like if you could actually personally visit them. You also know that these objects are countless times older than any person alive, and that they will still be there long, long after Mankind has ceased to exist on Earth.
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