Thursday, January 12, 2006

So You Want to Buy a Telescope, a Wife's Guide

My husband recently bought his first telescope. I've decided to share what little I've learned (mostly from my husband) to help other women out there. (I suppose it could also apply to a man whose wife wants one.)
  1. Do not buy him one. Let him pick his own, but set a budget.
  2. If you choose to ignore #1, do not buy a telescope from Wal-mart or a department store. These have several problems 1) they are too small to see anything really interesting 2) the mounts are unsteady. This means that the scope will shake in the slightest breeze making it impossible to see anything. This is the quickest way to kill interest in a hobby. OK, maybe that's a good thing. But if he is seriously interested, he will probably return it. (My husband did buy the cheap scope, "just to see". Decent optics, horrible mount. Can't recommend it.) Plus, if he can use it, he'll just want a nicer scope.
  3. The cheapest you can get a decent scope is around $250.
  4. Encourage a smaller telescope. My husband got a fairly small one and it is still bulky. The easier it is to get out, the more he will use it. Also, make sure it will fit in the back of your car. Also, make sure he has somewhere to store it.
  5. There are many different kinds of telescopes. The two main kinds are reflecting and refracting. Reflectors use mirrors and refractors use lenses. Reflectors are less expensive because it is cheaper to make nice mirrors than nice lenses.
  6. Have him decide if he want to use it for terrestial viewing. That is, does he (or you) want to use it to look at the mountains in the distance? Telescopes made for astronomy show the image to you upside down (invert the image). Fine for stars, not so fine for scenic views.
  7. Terminology: lenses are inside the telescope. What you look through is an eye piece.
  8. Eye pieces are very expensive. If you buy a scope, your husband will probably want a Barlow lense next.
  9. What the telescope sits on is called a mount. (It looks a tripod). There are two main kinds of mounts, altazimuth and equatorial. If your husband wants to take long exposure pictures, he will want an equatorial mount (so he can attach a motor). Otherwise, get a azimuth, it is more intuitive to a beginner or better yet, get a dobsonian mount. Sure you can't attach a motor to a dob and get pictures, but you can't attach a motor to a cheap equatorial either.
  10. Telescope motors are expensive. The cheap telescope motor from Orion is not a good choice. The expensive one from Orion is not steady enough to work with a cheap equatorial mount.
  11. and are not the same thing. They both sell telescopes.
  12. A good resource is
  13. Another good resource is Sky and Telescope magazine. Their November issue usually features a buyer's guide.
  14. Saturn and the moon are cool through a telescope. Most everything else in the sky looks like fuzzy blobs, unless you use a long exposure camera and/or know what you are looking at.
  15. Most of the pictures you saw in your science textbook were false color/long exposure photographs. (Long == several minutes up to several hours) Most things are white to you looking through the telescope. (So, white, fuzzy blobs sometimes with hints of color.)
  16. It is cold outside, at night, in the winter when the sky is clear. Your husband won't care. You might.
  17. If you are in a city, it will be hard to see nebulas and distant stars due to light pollution. But you can see more stars with a telescope than you can with your naked eye.
  18. There is a new telescope curse. Once your husband's scope arrives it will be cloudy for the next month. (My husband managed to beat this one with his scope, but not with his motor.)
  19. You can take pictures through a scope, but it takes lots and lots of patience.

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