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Buying a Telescope as a Christmas Present

It’s that time of year again. Burnt turkey, chimney fires and family rows (never mind Covid this year): Christmas can go wrong.

One common mistake you can avoid, though, is killing someone’s budding astronomy interest with the wrong telescope.

Having bought scopes for my own daughter, run astronomy evenings at the local Cubs and done a fair bit of outreach at a local dark sky site, I’ve got some idea what works and what doesn’t when it comes to telescopes for beginners. Here are some seasonal guidelines and recommendations based on those experiences.

I will work through some basics to let you make an informed choice. Alternatively, if you’re pushed for time, skip straight to my recommendations.

So, what makes a telescope good for a beginner?

Here are six basic criteria:

1)    Wide field of view

2)    Good finder

3)    Simple, stable mount

4)    Good optics

5)    A smooth focuser that takes 1.25” accessories

6)    Quality eyepieces and diagonal

If your scope meets these six criteria you won’t go wrong. Let’s briefly look at each in turn.

1) Wide Field of View

A telescope’s field of view is governed not by the diameter of its lens or mirror, but by its focal length (same as a camera lens). You’ll find this somewhere on the tube or box.

Stick to telescopes with a focal length (see explanation below) under about 700mm. These scopes show a large area of sky and make finding things easier for a beginner.

2) Good finder

Simple red dot finders are best for beginners because they are easy to align and use. Avoid optical finders with plastic brackets: they never keep their alignment and are frustrating to use.

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3) Simple, stable mount

A simple up-down (alt-azimuth) mount, preferably with slow motion controls, on a good, lightweight tripod is ideal for a beginner. Failing that a simple equatorial mount. Aligning GOTO mounts can be frustratingly hard.

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4) Good optics

To be sure of good optical quality, stick to major brands. Avoid scopes under 60mm aperture and toy telescopes.

Good optics are vital, but how can you tell if the optics are any good? This is hard to do in a shop and impossible online, so buy an established quality brand. The major manufacturers – Skywatcher, Celestron, Meade – are safer than some others, but even their smallest scopes can have optical issues.

Don’t buy telescope toys like these – some have useless plastic lenses:

5) A smooth focuser that takes 1.25” accessories

The focuser should have a metal tube and an opening of at least 1.25” (not 0.965”).

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6) Quality eyepieces and diagonal

Look for quality eyepieces, with metal barrels and proper coatings, that give low to moderate magnifications: 10mm to 40mm are ideal.

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My Recommendation

That’s it for my six buyers’ guidelines. Let’s get specific (at last, I hear you say!)

This is my recommendation:

Skywatcher Startravel-80 (or Startravel-102)

This is a small refractor (lens telescope) with a wide field of view on a simple alt-azimuth or basic equatorial mount. It comes bundled with quality accessories and meets all my six criteria. The 102mm version is even better, but not much more expensive. I’d enjoy using either setup myself. It should cost £180 or less.

Later on, it’s easy to start doing basic astrophotography and you can even use it for nature viewing/photography as well.

ST80

Other Recommended Options

On a tighter budget, I have heard good things about Celestron’s Travel Scope 70 (but absolutely not the Travel Scope 50, which has issues that I’ve described elsewhere on this site) and other similar small Celestrons, like the Power Seeker.

If you must have GOTO, I recommend Meade’s EXT80 (NOT the ETX90 which is a very different scope with a small field of view). But be prepared to learn how to align it yourself before you give it as a present.

Dobsonians (‘Dobs’) can be good for older children, perhaps those with a more serious interest from a previous smaller scope. Skywatcher’sSkylinerDobsonians (130mm, 150mm or 200mm) are all an excellent choice. The tiny Celestron Firstscope isn’t a bad budget choice – it’s tiny Dob’.

Amazon can be a good place to buy thanks to their extended Christmas returns, in case there’s a problem (I can recommend other major photo’ retailers like Wex too):

 

Merry Christmas 2020 from Scope Views!

(If you do head out on Christmas day to try out a new scope, be sure to check out the Moon and Mars, both in the southern sky in early evening)