What IS a "real" telescope anyway?
5/4/2012 2:22 PM
I have been posting my videos and replying to some folks on reddit.com's astronomy section recently, and I've come across some posts by others responding to "beginner telescope?" questions with something like the following: "Well, you can't buy a REAL telescope for under $400."
Really? Apparently this person is not familiar with how small the objective lens was on Galileo's telescope. (It was about a 37mm objective lens with a 980mm focal length.) In case you're not aware, there are very inexpensive telescopes available today for $40 and $50 with lenses or mirrors twice this diameter.
Granted, given the prevalence of light pollution in the vast majority of today's work, a 70mm refractor or 76mm reflector isn't going to show you nearly as much as it would under truly dark skies, which are rare for most people. And it is true that many inexpensive telescopes, while adequate optically, are mounted on (ahem... excuse the pun) less-than-stellar mounts - usually too much scope on too little mount. This is likely to introduce frustrating vibrations into the system when focusing or aiming the scope, making them difficult to use.
My very first "real" telescope was a 50mm f/10 Meade. Yes, the mount wasn't great on it either. And it came with .965" eyepieces and a terrible finderscope. But fresh out of college and newly married (with hardly any extra spending money), it was a stretch to get that scope for the $99 I paid for it, never mind the $149 the 60mm next to it in the store would have cost. But I used the heck out of that scope. And I saw - and found! - a LOT with it. Why? I was determined. I loved looking at the night sky. I knew what I wanted to try to see. So I went out and looked at it.
Was a lot of it underwhelming? Yup. But even in some of the largest amateur scopes out there, at 14, 15 or even 20 inches (or more!), many of the "faint fuzzy" galaxies we see at the eyepiece STILL don't show as much detail as a simple photograph through FAR smaller instruments.
So why bother?
Well, some people don't bother. They try that 60mm or 70mm scope, see the Moon once or twice, find Jupiter or Saturn, realize how difficult the scope is to use (because of the mount, usually), and leave it in a closet. Maybe they try to find other objects, discover they can't find things (because the crummy finderscope, usually), and put it away.
Amateur astronomy certainly requires perseverance and patience. It also requires realistic expectations. Yes, more aperture means you collect more light. But to suggest that one needs to spend $400 for a "real" telescope is just plain false. I did a review here on "Eyes on the Sky" of the very affordable Orion Funscope a couple months ago. No, it will not compete with a 6" or 8" reflector, or a 4" apochromatic refractor. But due to it's wide field of view, stable mount, and adequate eyepieces is show the sky to those who have very little to spend on astronomy purchases. It makes a good "This is my very first telescope" option. In fact, I wish that had been available when I first bought a "real" telescope. It is not likely to ever be the final telescope for anyone.
But if it inspires people to learn more about them, to discover things in the sky they cannot see naked eye or with binoculars, and drives them to save the money necessary to get a better telescope (say an Orion 4.5" tabletop or a Bushnell Ares 5, each around $200, or a 6" Dobsonian for $275 or so), then it will have served a good purpose: To encourage, rather than discourage. To see more, rather than have trouble seeing anything. To enable success, rather than evoke frustration.
Shoot, I've seen M1, M81, M82, and a number of other "shouldn't be able to see those in that small as scope!" objects in it. Yes, it takes patience. Yes, it takes practice. Yes, it means using every available means to squeeze out as much light as possible. But that's the point: It IS possible.
Don't let anyone discourage you. But DO make sure that if you have limited funds for a first telescope, that you choose wisely and carefully. There are a lot of options out there under $400 that will frustrate you, and few options that will minimize them. Choose carefully, adjust your expectations accordingly, and then start exploring the sky over you. A "real" telescope is any size telescope that focuses light from the night sky into an image, but more importantly, one that you will USE - not store away in a closet or forget about in the garage.
Wishing you clear and dark skies....