Australian Sky & Telescope

Choosing your first telescope

ASTRONOMY = TELESCOPE. It’s perhaps the simplest equation in all of science. But that apparent simplicity masks a host of subtleties. What kind of telescope is best? How ‘powerful’ does it need to be? How much will I need to spend? Do I really even need a telescope? Those questions are just the tip of the iceberg! But don’t panic. We’re here to help you find a path through the jungle of stargazing equipment and to guide you to a place of peaceful enjoyment and enrichment.

So, is a telescope a must? The short answer is “probably yes”. It’s true that you can see a lot without any optical help — constellations, meteor showers and a host of other sights are best enjoyed with just the eyes you were born with. But chances are you’re also interested in detailed views of the Moon, the planets, star clusters and observing nebulae and galaxies too. To do all that, your eyes are going to need a little help.

What about binoculars? No question about it — binoculars really expand what you can see. And though this is going to sound odd coming from a guy who wrote an entire book about binocular observing, I don’t recommend binos as a substitute for a telescope. In many ways, binocular astronomy is a bit of a specialty — it’s more of a side dish rather than a complete meal. The meat and potatoes (or tofu and quinoa, if you prefer) of backyard astronomy generally requires more magnification and light-gathering capabilities than everyday binoculars can bring to the table.

Working with a scope

A telescope has two jobs. First, it has to gather better — the larger the main lens or mirror, the more light you collect and the fainter you can see. And make no mistake — except for a few celebrated objects, most things in the universe are faint. That’s why the specification that matters most is a telescope’s — the diameter of the main light-gathering element, or . So, a 20-cm telescope is generally better than a 15-cm one, a 100-mm is better than a 75-mm, and so on. This holds true regardless of the specific optical design.

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