The best way to get up close and personal with the moon (and anything else in the solar system) is also probably the most obvious — by using a telescope. It’s a bit of an investment, sure, but not as expensive as you may think, and it would certainly make for an unexpected way to entertain (and educate!) guests at your next rooftop party or your kids’ next pyjama party.
If buying a telescope sounds like a somewhat intimidating task, fear not: Some affordable entry-level models will do the trick, according to the six astronomers we spoke with, all of whom say the biggest rule in deciding which telescope to buy is to choose one you’ll actually use. In other words, save the huge ones for the pros and opt for something that’s easy enough to carry to your roof or back garden or to toss in your car for your next road trip. “The main thing is that it’s easy to set up and easy to use,” says Irene Pease, president of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. ‘As long as you have something that’s easy to set up, you’ll use it more often’. Read on for Pease’s and our five other experts’ favourite portable, easy-to-set-up telescopes that’ll have you gazing at galaxies far, far away in no time.
Best telescope for beginners
All of the astronomers we spoke with say beginners should start with a Dobsonian telescope. Invented by amateur astronomer Jon Lowry Dobson in 1965, Dobsonian telescopes are portable, relatively inexpensive, and don’t require much setup — not even a tripod, because the telescope sits on the ground. They have a Newtonian (named for scientist Sir Isaac Newton) reflector system, meaning there are two mirrors — one concave and one flat — inside the telescope tube that gather light and produce the image you see in the viewfinder. Mary Odekon, an astrophysicist and professor of physics at Skidmore College in New York, says, “If you get a Dobsonian telescope, you have enough magnification to see the rings of Saturn (looking tiny, not large — but definitely like rings!) and the moons of Jupiter, visible even from a city.” And Rick Bria, vice-president of the Astronomical Society of Greenwich in Connecticut, says, “They are easy to use, very powerful for the price, and can take rough use.” Where our experts diverge, though, is on the size of the Dobsonian telescope a beginner should get.
Justine Haupt, a developer of astronomy instrumentation at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, recommends buying “the biggest Dobsonian telescope you can get for your budget.” The size refers to the diameter of the mirror used to reflect light inside the telescope (a larger mirror collects more light, letting you view objects that are dim in the sky). Haupt tells us that although a lot of telescopes advertise magnifying power, what you really want is one with a greater capacity to collect light, thus allowing you to view dimmer objects in the sky. This is determined by the diameter of the telescope’s aperture (light-collecting area), which is measured in inches. “It’s not magnification we need but light-collecting area, and Dobsonian telescopes are like big ol’ buckets for light,” she explains. But the larger the telescope, of course, the heavier and more difficult to carry it will be. That’s why Odekon and Bria both like the Orion Skyquest XT6, which has an aperture six inches in diameter (making it big enough collect plenty of light) but isn’t too heavy to lug outside. At under £300, it’s in the more affordable price range for telescopes but is still high quality, according to Bria. “The materials and design are simple and strong,” he says, noting that the telescope’s centre of gravity is low, so if you accidentally bump into it, it won’t tip over (you will be using it in the dark, after all). “In short, it has a simple design, robust build, and low cost per size,” he adds. “This allows the beginner a bigger entry-level telescope to view everything from the moon to the galaxies.”
Best binoculars for beginner astronomers
Many astronomers we spoke with say binoculars can be a good (and less cumbersome) way to kick-start your stargazing hobby. “I’m often tempted to recommend binoculars first and Dobsonians second,” says Haupt. “The thing is, once most people get the idea in their head that they want a telescope, they want an actual telescope, and the idea of binoculars might, I think, feel anticlimactic. But they’re great, and many amateurs who start with telescopes wind up coming back to binoculars as their primary thing.” She notes that even a smaller pair of binoculars will allow you to make out the moons of Jupiter, rings of Saturn, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Orion Nebula — some of the main night-sky attractions for amateur astronomers. While our experts say beginners can really use whatever binoculars they might have at home, we’ve written about these Celestron SkyMaster Astro Binoculars before, with Strategist contributor Steven John saying they “let me see details on the surface of the moon I thought were reserved for Apollo astronauts.” For less labour-intensive viewing, Haupt recommends setting up your binoculars with a parallelogram mount, like this one from trusted astronomy brand Orion, “so you can lounge in a beach chair while using them.”
Best computerized telescope for beginners
Rick Fienberg, press officer of the American Astronomical Society and former editor-in-chief of Sky & Telescope magazine, also recommends binoculars for beginner astronomers. But if you want something a bit more high-tech, he suggests a computerised style of telescope called a GoTo. “In the ’90s, a new technology emerged which is now extremely sophisticated in the era of the internet, Bluetooth, and mobile phones — it’s what we call a GoTo telescope,” he explains. “This telescope is mounted on a mount, can track the sky with electronic motors, and has a computer built into it that knows where everything in the universe is located.” To find what you want to see in the sky, you simply enter coordinates from a sky map via the control pad and the telescope will focus on the item at that coordinate point. This GoTo telescope is made by Celestron, one of the three major brands in telescopes Haupt told us about. GoTo telescopes can be a bit more costly than Dobsonians, but this Celestron is in a lower price range, so we think it’s a good beginner option.
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