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If you answer “Yes” to the second question, then you may have issues with light pollution. This can be a real drag, especially if you have your heart set on doing astrophotography of gas nebula and galaxies. Or serious comet hunting, too. Light pollution is the ambient light that urban areas have due to street lights plus lights from residential and commercial properties. If you answered “No”, and you live in a rural area with real, genuine ‘country dark’, then you are in good shape.
But most folks live in or near cities. Then we get to the first question, where do you live, in a house or an apartment? If you live in a house, do you have a backyard? Are there many obstructions around like trees or other homes and such? Is there a nice spot where you can set up your telescope? How about a place where you can actually have a special shed with a removable roof to serve as an observatory? Everybody likes their privacy, even star gazers.
Telescopes are light buckets. Their purpose is to gather light from distant stars, planets, etc., bounce the light through some lenses and a mirror or two, into your eyeball. If you have neighbors with bright security lights on their property, then that will cut down the type of objects you’ll be able to see. Unless, you have a bigger light bucket. But bigger is not always better.
The odds are you’ll need something portable. Something you, yourself, can drag around. Keep in mind, that you’ll be dragging your telescope around in the pitch dark of night, along with anything else you may need, like accessories, a beverage, your star charts, etc. If you have friends and willing accomplices, then that makes life easier. The bottom line, though, is that you will most likely have to transport your telescope from where ever you store it during the day, out to where you’ll use it at night.
The next BIG question is what exactly are you interested in doing with your telescope? Is your main desire to look at planets? No problem, you need to buy a nice refractor telescope then. But what about all those star clusters and faint objects like nebula, etc.? Well, then you need to buy a reflector telescope. Is there a compromise? There certainly is! The best known of which are the Schmidt-Cassegrains. We’ll called them C-S for short because we will talk about them a lot.
Refractor telescopes are the kind that Galileo used. It’s basically just a tube with a large lens in the front and a smaller lens-eyepiece in the rear. The eyepiece is movable so you can adjust the focus. This type of telescope offers very sharp images, just the sort you need to see those rings about Saturn and the Giant Red Spot of Jupiter. A decent one with coated optics will run about $300 to $1,000 depending on the mounting device. More on that later.
Reflector telescopes are the kind invented by Sir Isaac Newton. They involved a large, polished mirror on the bottom of their tube, with a small mirror higher up in concert with the eyepiece higher up. This is a true light bucket. Light is gathered by the large mirror at the base, bounced up to the smaller mirror and then into your eyepiece. They are fantastic for finding those lovely, faint objects like galaxies and nebula.
A Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope offers a compromise. It is a generally stocky tube, shorter than either a reflector or a refractor. Like the reflector, it has a large mirror at it’s base. Like a refractor, it has a thin, corrective lens on top. The light passes through it, down to the large mirror, then up to a small mirror in the center of the corrective lens and back down to your eyepiece. This is why the tube is shorter, it’s a two-way highway for light while the other types of telescopes are one-way streets.
The object of all this moving light is what we call a ‘focal length’. This has to do with how much magnifying power we can expect from a telescope. A long focal length means plenty of magnification, but it also means a narrower view. So we want something long, but not too long. Typically, for our purposes, stay below 1000mm or so. I’ll discuss this and eyepieces, which is a whole separate topic, in another article.
So, unless you are a purest, the odds are that the S-C type of telescope is the best one for you as a novice. They provide a good compromise for more types of objects. Plus, they have the added bonus of being more portable. Most are sold with nice, rugged carrying cases. Another advantage is that they are also highly accessorized. You can buy a less expensive one now and upgrade it later with motorized drives, computer-assisted positioning, etc. Meade and Celestron make probably the best and have a variety of sizes to fit any budget.
My recommendation is that a good, solid very portable telescope for a beginner would be a Meade ETX-80. It comes with an ‘AutoStar’ feature for locating and tracking 1400 objects digitally. For $400-500, you can buy one loaded with everything you need. A nice tripod mount, a good assortment of eyepieces, software to expand your object list to 10,000 and even an attachment for a camera. It may not be a ‘light bucket’, but it is light and very portable. You can get plenty of use out of it. For a bit more money, they also sell a ETX-125, which means it packs a 125mm optic system compared to a 80mm. You’ll get about double the light.
My other main suggestion is DO NOT BUY a telescope from a department or toy store! They suck! Many are an oddball size, meaning buying accessories, like better eyepieces, will be difficult if not impossible. There’s two ways to go with telescopes. Either with as few optics as possible, as in the case of the refractor and reflector, provided they’re good optics, or plenty of excellent optics if you still want something portable with a decent focal length such as with a Schmidt-Cassegrain.. Each optical surface the light comes in contact with, you’re going to lose some. The better quality pieces lose less. It’s as simple as all that.