Perhaps you have always promised yourself a telescope for a bit of stargazing, and now that Mars is close this is your opportunity to do something about it.
The good news is that there are now many telescopes of good quality readily available. If you stick to specialist UK suppliers rather than taking a chance on something off the internet, you shouldn't go too far wrong nor pay over the odds.
The only downside is that there are so many different models and systems that choosing the best for you can take a lot of research. So this article aims to do some of that work for you.
Let's get a couple of things out of the way to start with. If you have a vision of taking top-quality photos of nebulae and galaxies through your telescope, accept that you are embarking on a steep and costly learning curve so don't expect that you can get much out of a cheap telescope. And don't expect your views through even a fairly large telescope to be like the photographs. Our eyes are no match for modern cameras, which can bring out colours and details by building up the image over a long period. This is covered in a separate article.
But don't be put off – even budget telescopes can give you good views of the Moon and planets if you use them carefully. You'll see the reddish colour of Mars, make out some of the dark markings that people once thought were vegetation, and maybe even glimpse its white polar cap and bluish clouds. You'll see the rings of yellowish Saturn and the ochre-coloured belts of Jupiter. The Moon becomes a world of craters and mountains and amazing detail.
You can see wreathes of gas in the Orion Nebula, pick out glittering stars in the Seven Sisters star cluster and witness with your own eyes the ancient light from the Andromeda Galaxy as a misty blur. You won't see colour in any of these objects, but the thrill comes from tracking them down and appreciating that you are viewing them for yourself.
Telescopes of reasonable quality begin at under £100. You don't need anything very large to show you some details on the Moon and planets, but telescopes at this end of the market are usually on rather flimsy mountings that make it hard to find the object in the field of view and track it smoothly as it moves through the sky as a result of the Earth’s rotation. You might be surprised by how hard it is to find even the Moon through a small telescope, how much the telescope shudders when you just try to focus, and how tricky it is to keep it in the field of view as you change magnifications. The cheaper instruments put demands on your patience and manual skill.
So while a basic scope is OK for a quick look, and can live in its box under the bed for most of the time, if you want a more satisfying view you should aim to spend over £200. This will get you a larger and somewhat more versatile instrument, although still limited in its capabilities.
In the price bracket you can now get instruments to which you can attach a suitable recent smartphone to help you find objects in the sky. The phone's camera first takes a photo of the sky, then tells you which way to push the instrument to find a wide range of objects in its database - always a problem for beginners.
But for a true ‘GoTo’ instrument with motors that will find objects for itself you need to spend around £300 or more. This will get you a motorised telescope that will both find and track any object in its large database. From there on upwards you can pick your price bracket and get more and more useful instruments, and start to get into the region of serious amateur astronomy. The larger the telescope, the more solid the mounting and the better its drives and computer control, the more you can do with it. Versatile instruments start at around £1500-£2000.
First, a few terms that you may need to get to grips with, and their implications for your choice.
Refracting telescopes (or refractors) are the classic telescopes, with a lens at the top end and the eyepiece down at the bottom. Good beginners’ telescopes, but they do suffer from false colour fringing around objects unless you pay a lot for special lenses using ED glass or apochromat designs. Usually limited to the smaller sizes, with apertures (see below) under about 120 mm (4½ inches).
Reflecting telescopes (or reflectors) use a mirror system instead of a lens, and you need to view the image at the top of the tube, sideways on to the object. The mirrors overcome the false colour problem, but can lose their reflectiveness over time. However, almost all telescopes over about 150 mm (6 inches) aperture are reflectors of one sort or another. The basic reflectors are of the Newtonian design.
Catadioptric telescopes combine mirrors and lenses so as to give a compact telescope, through which you view from the bottom as with a refractor. There are two basic types – Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes (SCTs) and Maksutov-Cassegrains, usually called Maksutovs or Maks. Better suited to viewing planets and other objects requiring high magnifications; not as suitable for wide-field views of extended objects such as nebulae.
Aperture is the diameter of the telescope’s lens or mirror. The smallest useful aperture for astronomical use is about 70 mm, and many amateur astronomers have telescopes with apertures in the range 200-300 mm (8-12 inches)
Focal length is basically the length of the telescope, although in catadioptrics the tube length is reduced by folding the light path. Photographers will be familiar with this – a telephoto setting might be up to 200 mm, whereas telescopes are 500 mm focal length upwards.
Focal ratio is also familiar to photographers, and refers to the image brightness and scale (it’s actually the focal length divided by the aperture). A typical f/6 telescope can give a fairly wide field of view and is good for use in dark skies, while the f/10 of refractors or f/14 of catadioptric telescopes are more suited to the planets and for viewing in cities, but this is not a hard and fast rule.
Altazimuth mounts have simple side-to-side and up-and-down movements. This usually means adjusting two controls to follow an object through the sky. This is not a major problem for the motorised tracking mounts, though it has its limitations for long-exposure photography.
Equatorial mounts need to be aligned with the Earth’s axis so as to allow tracking using one motion only. Most beginners find them tricky to set up, but they do have their advantages. If you just want to do occasional casual viewing you may find them more trouble than they are worth.
There are several factors that will influence your choice:
So here are a few options with their pros and cons.
A small refractor on an altazimuth mounting
The smallest refractors you can routinely get are around 70 mm aperture these days. The cheapest camera-shop and catalogue shop refractors are best avoided as they are made down to a budget. Short-focal-ratio f/5 instruments are compact but will not perform well at the high magnifications (100 or more) which you really want for seeing detail on planets, although they are good for taking on holiday to get nice wide-field views of deep-sky objects. For viewing Mars, get a longer-focal-ratio-instrument such as f/10. Cost: £100 upwards.
A small reflector on equatorial mounting
Sizes start at 114 mm but 130 mm is preferable. These can give nice sharp views of planets and deep-sky objects but the equatorial mountings often mean trouble for beginners - a problem, because they are usually sold on these. If it includes a motor drive and you can be bothered to set it up properly, however, it can be a worthwhile instrument at comparatively low cost, which may even be adaptable for some forms of photography.
Avoid small Newtonian reflectors with short tubes but long focal lengths (around 1000 mm). These are achieved by putting an extra lens into the focuser which reduces the optical quality. Cost: £140 upwards.
A Maksutov on driven altazimuth mounting
Here, small means 90 mm upwards to about 130 mm. The smaller units are generally Maksutovs at about f/14, which makes them very portable and provides high magnification, so they are good for travelling and for viewing the Moon and planets as well as the smaller deep-sky objects such as galaxies and planetary nebulae. Motorised telescopes can be run off small battery packs, or larger power tanks or car batteries. Cost: £400 upwards.
Larger reflector on Dobsonian mounting
There is a very basic type of altaz mount known as a Dobsonian mount, and Newtonian reflectors mounted in this way are called Dobsonians. Although they start at 130 mm aperture, they are the cheapest means of getting a large telescope for your money, and 200 mm to 300 mm Dobs are popular with committed amateurs who want to observe visually and don't mind their cumbersome nature. Not really suited to imaging. Cost: £150 upwards.
A Schmidt-Cassegrain on driven altazimuth mount
Catadioptrics larger than 130 mm are usually Schmidt-Cassegrains at about f/10. These are still good for a wide range of observing but you are now into more heavyweight instruments and heavy mountings and tripods. The ubiquitous amateur instrument is a 200 mm (8-inch) SCT, invariably motorised with GoTo. Cost: £550 upwards.
There are specialist astronomical suppliers around the country, but very few of these have showroom facilities. Those that do have showrooms usually have to charge somewhat more for their instruments, so if you want to see before you buy, play fair and buy from them. Many others can still offer expert advice over the phone. If telescopes are just a small part of their range, you may not get as knowledgable advice as from a specialist.
Look at the astronomical magazines and get to know the established brand names, but bear in mind that at the budget end of the market even some top manufacturers who make highly regarded equipment for discerning observers still sell some pretty poor stuff.
If you buy something from an unknown name off the internet you are on your own!
Last Updated: 2020-11-08 15:44:50