There are several ways of observing the celestial wonders that can (supposedly) be seen in the skies over Washington (or more likely, 40+ miles out of town). Perhaps the most inexpensive and easiest method is to simply look up (to prevent a crick in your neck, lie down on a blanket or lawnchair). Using just your eyes, you can see satellites, our Moon, planets, meteors, stars, and one or two galaxies (on a very clear and dark night!). But if you are really interested in observing and want to see more, then you will need an optical aid (other than eyeglasses!).

So you are thinking about buying a telescope. And you saw a great deal over at the department store. You know- that telescope with the long, shiny, red tube. STOP! THINK! A telescope is a precision instrument. So buying a telescope is going to require some time just like buying a stereo or a car. Surely you wouldn't buy a car without comparing it to others?!

To help you decide on what kind of astronomical equipment you need, consider the following questions:

  • How much do I know about astronomy?
  • Will I still be interested in astronomy in a year or two?
  • How much money am I willing to spend on equipment right now? in the long run?

If you are just starting out, then the best idea is to obtain a handbook of the night sky, learn the constellations, and look. Borrow or buy an issue of ASTRONOMY or SKY & TELESCOPE (monthly magazines for amateur astronomers). Attend local astronomy club meetings and their observing sessions. Visit planetariums and observatories. Ask questions.

Basic naked eye observing kit: lawnchair, bug spray and/or blankets (depends o the season), planisphere, magazine subscription(s)... Learning the night sky (constellations) -- well, I like analogies, so if you were to visit Paris, you'd probably get a guidebook to learn about tourist sites and probably a map to help you find those sites. If you can recognize constellations that will help you in finding some of the objects that you want to observe. The planisphere is your map and the magazine sort of your guidebook. How familiar are you with finding constellations and identifying some of the brighter stars? Do you have to know where all the constellations are? No, of course not. But recognizing that Orion is a winter constellation and so you therefore can't see M42 in the summer means that you won't waste time and frustrate yourself looking for something that is not visible.
No telescope needed! You can visit clubs and observatories and take your time to learn about
  • what to observe: As you attend meetings or look through telescopes, you'll be learning about and looking at a variety of different objects. You might find that globular clusters are particularly fascinating, in which case that would lead you towards a different telescope than one for observing planets.
  • equipment: as you can look though a variety of instruments and see how the views compare. You can talk to the owners and get sense for what is involved in setting up, carrying the equipment (how heavy/big is the equipment, will it fit in your car, does it have lots of parts or is it easily portable?)... how much their telescope cost, why they got that one. You can compare views of the same object through different telescopes. This helps with tempering expectations (many beginners expect Hubble Space Telescope views through their telescope). But different telescopes do provide different views, so seeing some realistic views will help. Some clubs have loaner telescopes so that you can try before you buy.

Now after you have learned a little about astronomy and you think you still want a telescope, consider buying a good pair of binoculars. Most amateur astronomers and even professional astronomers with their giant telescopes have binoculars. Binoculars are low power magnifiers which means that typically objects are magnified about 7 times (as in 7x50 binoculars). However, binoculars can also be used for other purposes, are easy to transport, and a pair with excellent optical quality is relatively inexpensive. Also, the larger field of view, and being able to use both your eyes, make it easier for you to find many deep sky objects that are not visible to the naked eye.

Now if you still want to buy a telescope:

  1. Learn about the different kinds of telescopes (reflecting, refracting, Newtonian, Schmidt-Cassegrain, Dobsonian,...).
  2. Go to your local astronomy club's observing session or to an observatory. There you can look through the different kinds of telescopes. Feel free to ask the owners or staff questions such as how much their scope cost, how much time is involved in setting up, how difficult is it to set up, how hard is it to clean or repair, why did they buy that telescope, and other questions that come to your mind.
  3. Obtain a past copy or wait for the issue of Astronomy OR Sky & Telescope which has the "Guide to Telescopes." (Nov 1997 S&T) Basically, it is a listing of commercial telescopes arranged by style and price range. Comparisons are then made in each grouping as to quality, stability, and other factors. There is also a book now available - I think it's called 'Starware.' Since I originally wrote this piece (back in 1996 for the Midlands Astronomy Club), the internet has become much more ubiquitous... Both magazines now have telescope and equipment comparisons online. And there are other sites that compare and review telescopes!!
  4. Once you have picked out a telescope all you have to do is buy it. There are two shops in the DC/Baltimore region that we know of that carry telescopes and accessories -- Company Seven in Laurel, MD, and Hands on Optics (now online only). (email me if there are others!) You can also check photo shops and hobby stores, but those are notorious for carrying cheaper telescopes and often do not have staff who are competent to answer questions about astronomy. Otherwise, and most likely, you will have to order your telescope from a catalog.
  5. After your telescope arrives, read the directions, fill out warranty cards, familiarize yourself with the buttons and knobs, and enjoy the night sky!

Analogies

Getting a telescope without doing some prior research (not just reading, but also the experiences like visiting club observing sessions, learning the constellations) is like being handed a bicycle (or rental car, depending on your budget) in some strange city that you've never heard of and not being given a map or guidebook or people contacts. Sure, you might randomly find some interesting places, but it will be harder.

Can I buy a telescope first and then figure all this other stuff out? Well,...It would probably be more economical to learn/experience some stuff first so that you can buy the right telescope to start with. Buying a telescope first, then figuring stuff out is like buying a Porsche and then realizing you need an off-road truck. Would you buy a car without knowing how to even drive? Of course, we happily accept donated telescopes!

New Telescope Owner Nights

An annual program that we hold in January to help you learn how to use your new telescope. Details...

Resources

Still have questions?

First, have you read this page and followed the advice? To summarize the advice, here are questions to guide you along the path to getting a telescope:

  • Do you have a planisphere? binoculars? magazine subscription?
  • Have you attended any astronomy club meetings? Observing sessions? Observatories? Are you a member of an astronomy club?
  • Have you explored some of the observing resources and how-tos online? (Such as the numerous articles at Astronomy and Sky & Telescope.)
  • Have you determined what you want to observe/sketch/photograph, your budget, carrying capabilities...?
  • Where will you observe the most often?