Telescopes are excellent gifts for beginner astronomers, but their enthusiasm can be hindered, if not killed completely, by their first telescope.
If the telescope is too difficult to use, the resulting frustration can curb any astronomical interest the beginner may have.
To keep the passion for astronomy alive, it’s best to learn a bit more about telescopes before choosing and using one.
Here are a few beginner’s tips for what to look for in a telescope, as well as what to look for in the night sky, and some good advice for the beginning astronomer.
3 Tips for Choosing a Telescope
Before getting a telescope, it’s a good idea to learn a bit about astronomy first. Learn about space, the galaxies, planets, and constellations. It’ll be much more fun to use a telescope if you know what’s there and what to look for.
Once you believe you’re ready for a telescope, do your research and choose carefully. Most starter telescopes start at $400 or more; fortunately, there are also good affordable telescopes available for $250 and less.
When choosing a telescope, look for the essentials: high-quality optics and a steady, smoothly working mount. Big scopes can reveal more and are easier to use, but don’t overlook portability and convenience — if your telescope is too heavy and too hard to carry around, you’ll probably never use it.
1. Consider Magnification Power
The most advertised aspect of telescopes is magnification, but it’s not the most important part. Telescope magnification depends on the focal length and the eyepiece you’re using, so you can easily change the magnification power of your telescope.
Power isn’t everything, either. High power dilutes the brightness of an image and makes details shaky. What’s important is the telescope’s aperture or the diameter of its light-gathering lens. A larger aperture allows you to see fainter objects and more detail on nearby and brighter objects.
2. Assess Your Ideal Aperture
As a general rule of thumb, your telescope should have an aperture of at least 2.8 inches. An aperture 4 to 5 inches in diameter allows the observer to see planets, our moon, and Jupiter’s moons. Seeing further-away planets like Neptune and Uranus can be difficult, but not impossible. A telescope this size is a good place for beginners to start.
3. Reflect on Your Options: Reflectors v.s. Refractors
Telescopes can be sorted into two categories: reflectors and refractors. Reflecting telescopes use a smaller, secondary mirror to focus the light in the eyepiece and make an image. Put simply, reflectors reflect light. This type of telescope absorbs a lot of light, so they’re best used for viewing faint galaxies and dim nebulas.
Refracting telescopes use lenses to focus the light in the eyepiece; refractors bend light. These telescopes are best used for observing the solar system and deep-sky objects.
3 Telescope Recommendations for Beginners
Here is a list of the best telescopes for beginners:
1: Celestron Astro Fi 102. This model has an aperture of 4.02″ and a length of 52.17″. The highest useful magnification is 241x, the lowest is 15x. It also comes with two eyepieces, a 10mm and a 25mm, and a fork-armed mount, weighing in total 16 lbs.
No extra tools are required for assembly, and the telescope can be controlled by a smartphone or tablet device. However, this means you need access to the app in order to use the telescope.
This model is perfect for beginners, as it supplies everything needed to observe the night sky, and the magnification provides good views of the moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as the Andromeda Galaxy.
2: Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ. With an aperture of 5.11″ and a focal length of 25.59″, and a maximum magnification of 307x, this reflector model provides a good introduction to astrology. It’s easy to assemble and operate; however, the mount isn’t very durable and lacks a motor drive– which means it takes a bit of effort to push the telescope around.
3: Meade Instruments Infinity 102 AZ. This telescope is a refractor, with an aperture of 4.02″ and a focal length of 25.98″. The highest useful magnification is 204x while the lowest is 15x. This model offers the most supplied eyepieces: a 6.3mm, 9mm, 26mm, and a 2x Barlow. Easy to assemble and light to carry (weighing only 12 lbs, perhaps the lightest on this list), this telescope model is a great introduction to astrology and comes highly recommended.
10 Telescope Tips for Beginners
1. Practice Your Patience
Astronomy takes a lot of patience. Between setting up your telescope, waiting for the sky to get dark enough, and for the astronomical objects you’re looking for to be in place, and then finding them, you’re going to be working for a while. Be patient, and find joy in the process.
2. Pick a Perfect Place
It’s important to find a good spot for your observations. Find somewhere away from the city lights– light pollution will prevent you from properly seeing the night sky. Find somewhere flat to set up your telescope, and somewhere the sky isn’t blocked by roofs or tree branches.
3. Check the Weather Report
If it’s too cloudy, you won’t be able to see the stars. Telescope users often talk about “seeing”, or the steadiness of an astronomical image. If the air is cooler than the ground, imbalanced air will create puffy clouds– but the sky will be free of dust, but these conditions are not optimal for watching the night sky. An air mass that is warmer than the ground will produce haze or mist, but astronomical images will be clearer and easier to observe.
It’s also important to be sure weather conditions are safe for you– if it’s too cold, raining, snowing, too hot, or the wind is blowing too hard, it’s too dangerous for you and your telescope to be outdoors.
4. Dress the Part!
Watching the night sky is fun, but it’s a lot more fun if you’ve come prepared. For low temperatures, dress warmly. Most body heat escapes through the head, so be sure to wear a hat or hood; standing on the cold ground will freeze your feet, so be sure to wear several socks and sturdy shoes.
Fingerless gloves will be useful, as you can keep your fingers warm, but will also be able to properly operate your telescope. Hand warmers don’t last long, but tucking a few into your pockets will help to keep your body and especially your hands warm.
5. Prepare Your Pack
Remember to bring snacks — you’ll be outdoors for a while — as well as flashlights and fully charged phones: if there is an emergency, you don’t want to be stuck in the dark with no way to call for help. Depending on the environment you’re in, you’ll also want to bring pest repellant. When you get back indoors, be sure to check yourself for ticks, and teach yourself how to properly remove any you may find.
6. Optimize Your Night Vision
A deficiency in vitamin A can lead to impaired night vision. Foods like eggs, cheese, liver, carrots, and most green veggies have vitamin A. If adjusting your diet doesn’t help, you can always take vitamin A tablets. You should also avoid drinking alcohol since this will also impair your vision!
7. Allow Time to Adjust Your Eyes
Many amateurs will choose to wear an eyepatch over their observing eye. Wear the eyepatch for as long as possible before you start your observation, to give your eye time to adjust. By the time you’re ready to begin observing, your eye will be fully adapted to the dark. While observing, move the eye patch to your other eye; this way, you’ll always have an eye prepared. The eyepatch will keep both eyes open and reduce eye fatigue.
8. Take Steps to Avoid Straining Your Eyes
It’s important not to strain or injure your eyes when using a telescope. Take short breaks every twenty minutes, step away from the telescope, and let your eyes relax. Try eye exercises: look up and down, around, and side to side for 20 seconds, then close your eyes and relax for another 30 seconds.
9. Record Your Observations
Bring a notebook to record what you see. Be sure to jot down any details — what magnification are you using? What shape is the object — what color? By keeping detailed records, you’ll be able to remember what you saw and easily find it again.
10. Try ‘Rocking the Scope’
This is an odd technique professionals use to help their observations. To do this, gently tap the mount or the telescope tube, so it wobbles a little. The rocking motion will help faint, harder-to-see details stand out more sharply.
6 Top Objects for Beginners to Look for in the Night Sky
When observing the skies, there are a few things to take into consideration. The earth and other planets constantly rotate on their individual axis and orbit around the sun. Because of this, your view of the night sky will be constantly changing; you won’t be able to see certain constellations and planets at certain times of the year.
Depending on whether you are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, certain astronomical objects will be positioned differently; the different hemispheres will have a different view, and at different times of the year. Some astronomical objects are only visible from one hemisphere– for example, the North Star is never visible below the equator.
To find the planets, you’ll need software or an astronomical events calendar to know whether the planet will be visible, and where to find it. Planets are easiest to see when they are in “opposition”, or when it is positioned opposite the sun. But with all this in mind, here’s a list of the easiest astronomical objects to look for, for beginners.
As the biggest planet in our solar system, it makes sense that this giant is the easiest to find. If conditions are right, it is actually possible to find Jupiter with your naked eye. In the northern hemisphere, your best chance to see Jupiter will be at 11pm, when Jupiter and the earth’s orbits temporarily sync up. Jupiter is mostly yellow, which means you should use the blue filter on your telescope for the best view possible.
The second largest planet, but further away than Jupiter, Saturn is harder to see in clean detail without a more powerful telescope. Once you get the planet into your view, use a lower-power eyepiece in your telescope. At 25x magnification, you’ll see Saturn, and at 50-60x magnification should reveal the planet’s famous rings. The gases that make up the planet’s atmosphere give it a yellowish-brown color. Use your telescope’s yellow filter to make the image clearer.
3. The Moon
This one seems a little too obvious, as the moon can easily be seen by the naked eye. But when observing through a telescope, you can easily see the craters, hills, and mountains that cover the moon’s surface. It is best to observe the moon when it’s slightly more than a quarter, and not at full magnification. This will allow the best light and definition, shadowing the moon’s surface and throwing everything into sharp detail.
As our closest neighbor in the solar system, we can easily observe a lot of surface details and definition on the red planet’s surface, especially if we use a red filter in our telescope.
5. Orion Nebula (M42)
As part of the constellation Orion, located just under Orion’s belt, this Nebula is easy to view via telescope. Its specific shape, brightness, and prominence make it easy to spot and identify. However, this constellation and nebula are best viewed in late fall, winter, or early spring, and will disappear completely by summer.
6. Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
This galaxy is the farthest celestial object that can be seen with the naked eye. Due to the massive distance between us, the M31 can appear dim, and can be tricky for a beginner to find. However, once it’s found, it can be equally frustrating: the galaxy is too big to fit entirely into view of your telescope.
In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s best to view the M31 from August to February. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s best to view from October to December.
Have Fun with Your Telescope!
Now that you’ve learned a bit more about choosing a telescope and what to look for in the atmosphere, remember the best advice of all: have fun!!
Don’t worry too much about aperture and magnification, what to do and what not to do.
The best part of astronomy is to simply get out and observe, and to enjoy doing it!