So, you’ve probably noticed that I have an astronomy blog. Even if you haven’t, but know me at all, you’re aware that astronomy is one of the things I totally dig. Lately quite a few people have asked me what kind of telescope they should buy if they want to check astronomy out and the fairly consistent budget they tell me they have is (seriously, every time) $200-300. I’m writing this post so I can always just send them a link and go back to looking at Carl Sagan memes.
The thing about this question that makes it so hard to answer is that it makes a few false assumptions. First, it suggests that you need a telescope to do astronomy, which you definitely don’t. Jack Horkheimer knows what I’m talking about. All you have to do is look at the sky, which I’ve mentioned before. I get hung up on that topic because just looking at the sky with the basic technology that’s standard equipment on your face works beautifully and is completely free. Second, it skips over the next least expensive (tool wise) way to enjoy observing: binoculars. Please enjoy this thoughtful explanation by Ken. Astronomy talk starts around 6:20, but listen to the intro if you’re new to all the lingo.
I have a pair of Orion binos that cost me about $99 and work wonderfully. Note, that’s a lot less than $200-300, but you can spend that much if you want. For that much you can have a nice pair, which is WAY better and more useful than a crappy telescope. In fact, every amateur astronomer I know of always takes binos into the field along with their scope, sometimes they exclusively use binos. Seriously, they’re just two little telescopes you aim manually and you don’t have to worry about mounts (unless you go BIG) or eyepieces. If you’re determined to buy some gear, buy nice binoculars first, but just handheld ones, 8×42 or 10×50. Maybe get some cheap app for your smartphone that can tell you what you’re looking at.
But, can you buy a scope for $200-300 that isn’t a worthless hunk of slag? Of course. The trick with scopes is all the baloney that goes with them. Even if you can get a good scope with a mount for the budget, you’ll want a selection of eyepieces and what-not that will make it easy to blow past your target budget. If you get some cheapo scope with cheapo parts (hint: quality scopes aren’t sold by advertising magnification power) you’ll be disappointed and nobody wants that.
Think of it like a used car. You can get a used car for $500 that might function in the most basic ways to be considered a working car, but it’s probably going to break down on the highway, cause a huge accident and kill you, along with dozen other people. Innocent lives snatched away from this world, leaving a bloody wake of chaos and sorrow. Wouldn’t it have been been better if you had just gotten binoculars?
I hope my vehicular manslaughter metaphor doesn’t come across as discouraging, I really want more people to get into this stuff. The thing that I don’t want is people to spend a few hundo, get frustrated, disappointed and think astronomy is lame. Managing your own expectations is key, but don’t get caught up in the material trappings of it all. Sure, there’s some fine stuff out there, plenty I’d love to have, but the actual enjoyment of observing has nothing to do with it. Really. I swear.
Spend a few nights looking at the sky, maybe have your snazzy $2 smartphone app show you around. If you want to see more, get some binoculars, you’ll always want to have those anyway. From there, it’s a question of what you want to see and how you want to see it.
Or, maybe you just want to own a telescope. In that case, buy this one.