Almost every experienced astronomer I know has heard this question in one form or another. Usually this question will generate a flurry of questions back from the person it is ask of, not because they are trying to avoid your question, but rather trying to quantify it. There are now more than ever a myriad of telescope choices on the market to confuse the starting star gazer or fledgling amateur astronomer. It is in essence a tough question to answer, but I am going to take a stab at making a couple of recommendations based on the "all around" factor of both the new user's experience level and the simplicity of the telescope & mount to operate and maintain.
First off the telescope setup for the new user should be easy to understand, in other words it should be a simple process for the new user to be able to set it up and start seeing things with it! Next it should have a usable aperture matched to it's focal length, a telescope with a long focal length theoretically capable of great magnifications but a small aperture will basically be useless for most of the Deep Space Objects, and have a poor performance on the planets & Moon at magnifications much over 60x - 80x. The small aperture is just simply not going to gather enough light from the chosen object to deliver much useable light to your eyeballs at higher magnifications. Next the telescope its self, the Optical Tube Assembly, should have a mount & stand underneath it that has a good stable performance without excessive vibrations & shakes every time you touch any part of the setup. In other words the mount, and associated stand, pedestal or tripod should be able to carry the weight of the OTA with all of the accessories necessary to use it as it is intended comfortably and stability. Lastly the telescope setup should be advanced enough for the user to grow with for more than just a couple of outings, with a small enough learning curve not to immediately overwhelm the new user.
With the above paragraph I have to a degree performed some of that quantification of the new or beginning star gazer, amateur astronomers' general requirements, as for expectations without standing in front of the relatively new astronomer I can only make a generalized guess at what they would expect of their new telescope rig. So I'll attempt to do just that and make a hazarded guess based on what I have heard from people asking the "which telescope is best" question in the past. Based on what I've learned talking with a budding star gazer or two here is what I imagine most people new to the astronomy observation game expect from their rigs. Most of those high expectations they have the beginner is just simply are not going to get from any single complete setup for under $500.00. Sorry to sound discouraging, but the equipment necessary to "see" the sharp well defined features of the planets, the sharp starry dusty lanes and spiral arms of the distant galaxies, the beautiful wispy, colorful, well defined clouds and gas formations of the multiple types of nebulae costs into the THOUSANDS of dollars. OK hold on before you click out of here feeling upset and discouraged, YES YOU CAN see the basic formations of a lot of these objects in even a modest rig in the $500.00 price range. These Deep Space Objects (DSO) are going to have more of a faint grayish sometimes with some faint color hues appearance. Hence why you may have heard an amateur astronomer refer to them as "Dim Fuzzes" still quite interesting and astonishing to view though your new low budget rig once you learn how to use it & what to look for.
Yes with the setups I'll mention in this article you will be able to make out some faint details in the planets, the rings of Saturn, even possibly on a good clear night for viewing the greater Cassini division with in the rings of Saturn. The distinct gas bands of Jupiter, even on a really good night you might possibly glimpse the Great Red Spot, definitely you will be able to make out all of the Galilean moons of Jupiter as they orbit around Jupiter into view. You will on a good night be able to see the faint fuzzy shape of M81, M82, a multitude of Globular & Open Star Clusters as well as several other galaxies that will appear as distinguished faint gray fuzzes. A great view of the Andromeda Galaxy with it's two companion galaxies M32 & M110 able to be distinguished, and most of this will not take a great magnification factor. Most of the DSOs you will be able to pick up at magnifications from 20x - 80x and be able to take the magnifications up into the 100x - 120x for the planets and still get good detail. Some objects are very difficult for even the advanced amateur astronomer to make out in good telescopes with good eyepieces, these objects are just simply to dim to be readily seen without some well practiced observation skills so don't expect to be able to see even all of the Messier objects right away. M33 is a good example a large galactic formation, but dim and hard to distinguish at first glance, even when distinguished it looks more like a faint smudge than the spiral galaxy pictures you see of if.
OK so far we've looked mostly at what to expect of your new budget rig, but not very much at what to avoid like the plague in the low priced telescope market. We touched on avoiding cheap wobbly mounts, and units with small apertures that are being sold on their ability to greatly magnify things, but we need to mention cheap very low quality units with horrid optical components. These units may be advertised with what appear to be acceptable apertures such as six or eight inch mirror containing reflectors, but be ware! There are units being sold at low ball prices with cheaply ground Spherical Mirrors in them, the views in these units are terrible at any magnification. Before buying a low ball unit on the Internet ask what type of optics it has specifically what type of mirror and what are the specs on the mirror, if the seller cannot answer this avoid the product. Unless it is equipped with a Schmidt style Corrector front lens or plate of the same aperture as the mirror avoid the unit with a spherical mirror in it, you want a parabolic mirror with known specs on it, period. Your best bet is to stick with know reputable dealers and manufactures that are willing to stand behind the quality of their units. There are some excellent, reputable dealers on the Internet and some great buys to be had from them so do not rule out the Internet as a recourse to purchase your setup. A reputable dealer and manufacture is the key to finding the right equipment. OK, drum roll please! Are you ready to see the types of setups I have selected for the coveted title of "Best All Around Telescope Setup For The Beginner (for under $500.00)!
My first choice for a new astronomer with limited experience would be a simple to use and set up rig based on the Newtonian design reflector telescope on a Dobsonian style mount in the 6 to 8 inch range. This rig is super simple to setup, the mount points by a simple Up & Down (Altitude) pivot and a simple sideways (Azimuth) rotation. The price per inch of aperture is the absolute champ of budget rigs, in the 6 to 8 inch size it will still be fairly light and portable yet provide enough raw aperture for some wonderful views of the "dim fuzzes". Planets will present at with a fair amount of distinguishable detail, and limited false color, but transverse through the Field Of View rapidly resulting in having to manually move the telescope to keep them in view. The same is true of the DSOs, but the FOV can usually be a little greater due to less magnifications needed to see them well. So lets' review quickly the pros & cons of this setup's design'
-Larger aperture available per cubic dollar
-Super easy setup
-Simple operation to point at your chosen target
-Higher level of user input required for maintenance, the Newtonian Design occasionally requires the optics be collimated for the best views.
-Viewed from the close to the top of the OTA, may require a step stool to look into the eyepiece sometimes for smaller observers
-The "Dobsonian" style of mount requires 2 directional movement from manual pushing to keep objects being viewed in the FOV
-Limited room for growth adding motor tracking is a tough and expensive upgrade, no ability to upgrade OTA size or type without complete swap of the entire package.
Good examples available for under $500.00:
The Celestron Starhopper 6 Inch F8 Dobsonian @ $250.00 - $300.00
The Celestron Starhopper 8 Inch F6 Dobsonian @ $370.00 - $400.00
The Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic 6 inch F8 @ $270.00 - $300.00
The Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic 8 inch F6 @ $370.00 - $400.00
The Galileo 1300 x 160 (6 inch F8) Dobsonian @ $270.00 - $300.00
The Zhumell 8 Inch F6 Dobsonian @ $350.00 - $400.00
My next choice for a new or budding astronomer with limited experience would be an Achromatic refractor telescope OTA in the 80mm - 102mm aperture range with a focal length of between F6 - F8 mounted on a middle weight German Equatorial style mount. This rig is a little harder to set up for the new astronomer at first as it uses a set of circular rotating axis to point the telescope at what you want to look at. The mount being a little more user intensive is the only reason I rate this as the second choice for the new astronomer, but this mount will actually help the new use to learn the sky better. Once the new astronomer learns how to use the "setting circles" of this mount they will begin to get a better grasp on locating the objects they want to view. In the 4 inch aperture (100 -102mm) this OTA can be used to view both DSOs and Planets decently, the Achromatic objective lens means there will be some false color to the brighter stars & planets, but this can be reduced some by a V-Fringe filter (around $40.00 - $60.00) which will cut down on the purplish fringe hue. When the GEM is setup to the North Celestial Pole correctly it can track an object from it's rise to viewing sky to it's set theoretically by either a user turned mechanical knob or a fairly inexpensive electronic drive motor. The GEM is capable of taking on a different OTA all together with in weight limits of the mount and the refractor OTA likewise can be simply switched to an upgrade mount. There is some room for growth with this setup without having to buy a complete new rig altogether.
-When set up properly can track objects easily
-Electric motor drives cheaply & easily added on
-Ability to upgrade to a different OTA very flexible to optical upgrades with in weight limits
-Limited medium exposure photography capable
-generally decent resale values together or as separate components
-Easy transport, lower maintenance optics
-Set up a little more complicated at first
-Pointing to targets a little different at first
-Chromatic Aberration, some purplish false color around bright stars, planets & moon
Good Examples Available for under $500.00:
The Orion AstroView 100mm EQ Refractor @ $420.00 - $450.00
The Celestron Omni XLT 120 EQ Refractor @ $500.00
The Celestron Omni XLT 102 EQ Refractor @ $400.00
There are many other really capable mount and OTA combinations out there to be had, all would do a nice job for the beginning astronomer. An Orion Star Blast 4.5" reflector would make a nice rig sitting on the Astroview or any other reliable EQ4 type mount. Any of the refractors mentioned would do nicely on a good Atl/Az mount too. The selections I have up as my choices because I believe they give the beginning astronomer that good "all purpose" rig most seem to be looking for capable of delivering good performances on all sorts of celestial objects.
A Word On The GoTo Computerized Systems:
The computerized GoTo mount that allows the user to select an object from the menu, then have the telescope slew to it (point to it) are becoming more common and affordable. The computerized systems that have a good stable mount under them do not fall into the under $500.00 category. Most of the small GoTo Systems that are priced below the $500.00 mark have mounts that usually are constructed primarily of plastic structural components and are very limited in their ability to grow with the observer. I personally do not recommend a goto system to the beginning astronomer! The beginning astronomer will be much better off in the long run to learn how to navigate the heavens first. Learning a first hand knowledge of how to navigate the night skies will give the beginner an invaluable tool to use through out the times they spend perusing views of the thousands of celestial objects. A good GoTo computer system takes a little firsthand knowledge of the heavens to set up & have point accurately. Getting a decent GoTo system before having the experience & knowledge to properly set one up and use it can actually be extremely frustrating for a beginner, leading to a lot of disappointing experiences and possible loss of interest. A good GoTo Computerized system makes an awful expensive piece of clutter & dust collector!
The prices listed in this article are only estimated based on the current average prices at the time of the writing of this article. The actual prices may vary from dealer to dealer or be subject to market changes.
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