It’s an exciting moment when your child expresses interest in the stars above and asks for a telescope. You excitedly start looking for something affordable and seemingly easy for him or her to use. You settle on something with a tripod and ‘go-to’ system that will find the stars for you. You open it up and set it up only to be disappointed when it is painstakingly frustrating to set up, and you can’t find anything let alone the moon! I see far too many people buy a first telescope and then get frustrated, and eventually the telescope collects dust or sits in a box in a closet. I have been through MANY, MANY telescopes to finally settle on the one I know to be BEST for BEGINNERS and they just happen to be the kind of telescope that most seasoned astronomers use too.
The best beginner scope you can buy is called a Dobsonian mount reflector.
Dobsonian telescopes are named after and invented by John Dobson. He created easy to use mounts for Newtonian, reflector telescopes that became very popular in the 70’s and now widely used by the masses. What makes these different than other telescopes is that the main tube which holds the mirrors is not attached to a tripod mount. Instead, it is placed into a mount that sits on the ground. It uses an alt-azimuth mount which supports and rotates the telescope in two planes, the vertical and horizontal. More simply stated, left to right and up and down. They use mirrors instead of glass optics to reflect the gathered light from celestial objects. There is very minimal setup for Dobsonians, and they are CHEAP and easy to make on your own. Orion telescopes sell them for a good price and they come with a red dot finder which is necessary to be able to find objects easily.
I use the FunScope for the beginners in my classes. They are awesome at seeing the Moon, planets and larger objects in the sky which is all that you need to absolutely hook the beginner. There is also the Celestron Cosmos Firstscope which is basically the same with an eye nebula wrap around the tube (inspired by the COSMOS series recently re-made with Neil deGrasse Tyson).
They can magnify objects up to 30 times their size with the given eyepieces.These are table top telescopes and are capable of being mounted on a tripod or one can simply place them on a portable table or flat surface. I use tv trays. They come with a red dot finder which I find is absolutely essential. FunScopes cost $69.99.
The next level up is a SkyScanner. This scope is the same as the FunScope except it can magnify objects up to 40 times their size with the given eyepieces.
The best bang for your buck that will truly last through growing interest and is quite bigger (but not too cumbersome) is the SkyQuest series. I would recommend a SkyQuest 4.5″ Dobsonian and up. The 4.5″ diameter costs about $268 and is quite impressive and as easy to use at the previous table top ones. They can magnify objects up to 90 times their size with the given eyepieces. I have a SkyQuest 10″ Dobsonian and love it! It is very heavy, but when I show Jupiter to people and they can actually see the bands of color in it’s atmosphere I know it’s worth it.
If you get a bigger scope such as these I replace the factory finders with a TelRad. They project a red bullseye on a window which to us looks like a bullseye on the sky.
This makes finding objects super easy. I would HIGHLY recommend this as it makes finding what you are looking for EASY, fast and a lot less frustrating. TelRad’s cost about $40 and it has been worth every penny. The man who invented the TelRad is Brent Watson. He made Finder Charts that go along with it. I have these charts and have learned a ton using them. I would highly recommend them for someone who is ready to find other objects such as the Messier catalog objects or lesser known objects.
The next step you can take to be proactive and ensure that you will use your scope it to sign up for one of my classes. You will walk away with the confidence to go out and really get to know the night sky.