How to Buy Your First Telescope
So you’re interested in buying a telescope. How can you make sense of the myriad of different suppliers, designs, mounts, accessories – and prices? Whether you’re looking for a gift for a family member, or starting on your own stargazing journey, this article is for you. The good news is telescopes are higher quality, more affordable, and easier to use than ever before. But buying a telescope is not unlike buying a car. One answer does not suit everyone. You need to consider several factors in your decision:
Image source: Sky & Telescope
Google “astronomy clubs in [my area]”. You will probably find there is at least one club near you with members who gather periodically to show the night sky to the public. There’s no better way to get a feel for what you want, and what value you can get for the dollar, than going to a ‘star party’ and looking through different designs of telescopes. You’ll get a feel for what you can expect to see, costs, necessary accessories like eyepieces, and how interested you really are.
There are two fundamental classes of telescopes. Those that use lenses (refractors) and those that use mirrors (reflectors). There are sub-types of both classes. The ‘reflector or refractor’ debate will never end, but here are some generally useful points to consider:
A common type of compound reflector is Schmidt Cassegrain design, which is essentially a folded reflector making the instrument more portable. Celestron makes a very popular 8” model. I happen to have the 9.25” version. But these scopes have 33% central obstruction, which reduces effective aperture and decreases image contrast. I routinely outperform 8” SCTs with my 5.5” refractor. So you can’t directly compare a 5” reflector to a 5” refractor. You need to factor in optical quality, size of central obstruction, cost, the nature of your target, and other factors.
Observing the Sun
Anyone who has followed me knows I have done a great deal of solar observing, photography, and time lapse videos. NEVER look at the Sun through any telescope without proper solar filters. The simplest way to get into solar observing is with a full aperture solar filter. This reduces the Sun's intensity 100,000x and allows you to see sunspots, granulation, eclipses, or a transit of Mercury in the Sun's photosphere. To see the Sun's chromosphere, including solar prominences, spicules and active regions you need a hydrogen-alpha telescope. These are complex and expensive and beyond the scope of a beginner's consideration.
GoTo mounts are computerized mounts (can be Alt-AZ but are usually equatorial) that once aligned, can go to your desired target with the press of a button. This is very helpful if you don’t know the night sky or do not have very dark skies.