This article is for people who are in the market for their first telescope – but have only a very limited budget (say $100) at their disposal. Some amateur astronomers will say spending $100 on a telescope is wasted money, simply because there is no great telescope for that amount. Good optics is expensive, but not everyone has hundreds of dollars to spend and there are indeed some decent telescopes that are fun and do not break the bank. A tight budget should never prevent anyone to start a fascinating hobby.
Telescopes are available in three basic types: refractors, reflectors and catadioptrics and they come with different mounts. An Astronomy Source article “Introduction to Telescopes” in coming soon. The link from souledout.org provides also a nice overview on telescope types.
What can you see with a beginners telescope?
Quite a lot. I heard people complaining that the view through their basic telescope did not reveal bright and colorful images. Well, do not expect Hubble quality images with a $100 telescope. Suitable objects for these telescopes are the moon, the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn, some of the brighter deep space objects, and stars. Observe Andromeda Galaxy (M31) or Orion Nebula (M42), you can also see the famous Hercules Cluster (M13). Stars shine in different colors due to their different temperatures and consistence, and there are many exciting double or ever multiple star systems to watch. Did you know that Polaris, the North Star, is actually a 3-star system?
When looking for a budget telescope, keep in mind:
- Do not consider department store telescopes that come with a ton of accessories, parts and pieces, and promise magnifications of whopping 500x or even more. These items are usually toys. There is nothing wrong with toys, but really, don’t expect clear images or lasting fun and excitement with those. What you can expect is inferior optics a lot of plastic parts that will break soon.
- Glass lenses. Plastic lenses simply do not deliver the view quality of well polished and adjusted glass lenses.
New versus used
Telescopes can last very long if they are treated well. Used scopes are often available for half the price of a new one and many astronomers choose to buy used, simply because they want more: for the same money they get a much better (used) telescope, offering better images.
- Be very careful buying a telescope at a yard sale. You may get lucky and find the deal of the century. More likely is however that the item is in a bad shape, because it has been neglected over years.
- However, used equipment sold by serious amateur astronomers is usually in pretty good condition. True astronomers care about their equipment. A good source buying used telescopes and accessories is www.cloudynights.com. Check their classifieds and see what it offered here. Sellers describe their items in detail and provide usually very reliable information about the condition of their goods. Look for other dedicated astronomy sites that offer classifieds.
- If you decide to buy used, you should wait – and be quick. This sounds like a paradoxon, but you should watch the classifieds for a while to get a feeling about a fair market price of the the item you have in mind. When you see the right one, be quick to get it. Good items are often sold within a couple of hours.
Further items for amateur astronomers:
- Planisphere. Easy to operate map like device, that shows you where stars, constellations and planets are – all year long.
- Red Flashlight. Eyes adapt to the dark, this is called night vision. Night vision takes a while, about 15-30 minutes, but allows to see much more and much fainter objects in the dark. Exposure to bright light, with the exception of red, erases light vision immediately and it takes another 15-30 minutes.
- A good astronomy book about telescopes and star watching gives helpful hints for the beginner and advanced astronomer.
Beginning astronomy is the start of a great, very exciting and fun hobby. A simple 70mm or 80mm refractor on alt-azimuth mount is probably the best choice as starter telescope for around $100. These telescopes are very easy to set up and simple to operate – just point and see the universe.