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Stargazing: Telescope question — do we buy or do we wait?

Stargazing: Telescope question — do we buy or do we wait?

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Through the years I have been writing the “Stargazing” column or speaking to a large number of interested groups, I will usually get quite a few inquiries concerning the purchase of binoculars or telescopes for a budding stargazer, and at what point in time is the right time.

There are many variables that need to be considered before making a purchase like this. First should be whether the recipient is indeed interested in the heavens and all things therein. Second is their age — are they at an age they can rationalize everything they need to learn? Third, can your pocketbook take a hit?

Having been an amateur astronomer for over 70 years, I have used a variety of optical aids to view the heavens and have found that there are both advantages and disadvantages to every instrument.

One of the problems I’ve found with binoculars is the larger the size the more weight you have to deal with.

Holding a pair of 10x50 binoculars while looking at the moon or stars can be very tough on muscles and a steady view.

Since they are normally used in the backyard or transported from point A to point B, you’ll quickly find how vital it is that the instrument be of such size and weight that carrying them around will not become a physical impossibility.

Parents can find out quickly that looking for a quality telescope to encourage the interest of a child have a tough decision. What is available, especially when the price could be an object of concern.

I’ve often recommended that the best place to see what is available is to go to the public library magazine section and look for two periodicals, “Astronomy” and “Sky & Telescope.”

If you look in either of these magazines that deal solely with astronomy, you will find a very large assortment of telescopes in a variety of sizes, features and cost. It will be a daunting task to select the right telescope from all you see being offered.

I do know from past experiences that many prospective buyers will often opt for the larger department store chains since there is a fairly significant cost savings. As an example, Wal-Mart and Target, often feature both refracting and reflecting telescope at prices ranging from $50 and up.

No matter how tempting the price may be, please do not be taken in by the sales hype where magnification is the sole feature being advertised or promoted.

Many of these “high power 500x” models – most of them 50mm and 60mm refractors — just won’t stand up to typical use and frustration and disappointment on the part of the viewer will soon follow.

The two basic telescopes on the market today are refractors and reflectors and, as I mentioned above, each has distinctive advantages and disadvantages.

Inch for inch of aperture, the reflector is by far the cheaper since its objective, a ground mirror, is much more economical to manufacture than is the lens of the same dimension for a refractor. I have seen a 6-inch reflector advertised for $480 where the 6-inch refractor was more than $700 in price. It is something to take into consideration.

For best service, I would recommend an equatorial mount with one caveat. If you are getting a telescope for a child who may lose interest in the whole business in a month or two, it makes more sense to get a less expensive telescope and then trade up if the child’s interest ramps up.

Good Luck!

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