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Buying a Telescope. Advice and Guide for Amateur Astronomers
Before purchasing a telescope it is very important to know what you want and what. $30 invested in a good book will not only ad to your enjoyment of the night sky, but may save you from making a $300 mistake. The best advise is to visit your local astronomy club and learn from the experience and mistakes of others who have gone before. Question the scope owners about the advantages/disadvantages of each of their scopes. You will quickly learn that there are many different types of scopes and mounts. There is no "best" design, each has its strong and weak points. The only way to know what to expect and what you really want is to look at and through as many different scopes as possible before deciding what to buy.
When you are ready to buy, avoid department stores. The types of telescopes that sell in department stores for up to $300 and more are mostly junk. Despite outrageous advertising claims they are all but unusable and are more likely to kill your interest in astronomy than encourage it. A telescope shop is the preferred place to shop though some larger camera stores may be approached with caution.
When getting started in any new hobby the best advice is always to start with the basics. Every avid amateur astronomer, no matter what other equipment they own, has a good pair of binoculars. There are several good reason for this. The wide field of view and erect image of binoculars allow easy navigation around the sky. Many of the best astronomical objects can be seen in binoculars including; 150,000 stars (Compared to 3,000 with the unaided eye), the complete Messier Catalogue of 109 best star clusters, galaxies and nebulae, all the solar system planets except Pluto, 2 - 4 moons of Jupiter, 100 craters and mountains on the Moon and bright asteroids. Note also that binoculars are better than telescopes for observing extended objects such as star clouds of the Milky Way, open star clusters and bright comets which are to large to fit into the field of view of a telescope. A pair of binoculars that you already have around the house are the most cost-effective way to get started but if you have to buy a pair 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars are an ideal beginners instrument. You can get a very good quality pair of binoculars for around $150 which will give views far superior to a cheap telescope that cost twice that much. The next accessory you should consider is a camera tripod and an adapter for your binoculars. The view through a solidly supported pair of good quality binoculars is comparable in quality to a wide field view through a good telescope. The secret to enjoying the night sky is not having fancy equipment, but knowing what to look for and where to look. A telescope is no better than the naked eye if you don't know where to point it.
Once you learn your way around the sky and how to locate the brighter objects you may decide that your interest justifies the purchase of a telescope. The move from binoculars to a telescope is motivated by the desire to see finer detail in bright objects like the moon and planets or fainter objects like galaxies and nebulae. Long focal length refractors are best at showing planetary and lunar detail; a large aperture reflector excels at showing feint galaxies and nebulae, while wide field scopes are better for comet and supernovae searches. Alt-azimuth mounts are portable, inexpensive and easy to operate, while heavier, more expensive equatorial mounts are best for photography and high power tracking. For these reasons it is strongly advised against buying a telescope until you have looked through several different types and talked with a few experienced owners.
John Weasner is a long time amateur astronomer. He is currently working on a web site about telescopes and telescope making, but until it will be ready you can visit http://www.nightskyinfo.com, a nice and useful weekly guide to the night sky.
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