Starwatch: Telescopes for under the Christmas tree

November 24, 2018

Another Thanksgiving is history, and we’re full bore into the Christmas shopping season. Every year about this time I like to put out my column on telescope gift giving.

You have someone on your holiday gift list who’s looking for a telescope no matter how old the giftee is. Maybe the giftee is you. No matter what the case I want to help you as best I can. There’s tons of scopes out there and shopping for them can make your head spin faster that a pulsar!

My strongest recommendation is to avoid telescopes at retail stores and general shopping websites. Nothing against any of them personally, but there’s so many cheap and mainly worthless scopes out there that are no more than glorified toys in my book. It’s best to stick with major and creditable brands. In my opinion they are still Meade, Celestron and Orion, and all have great websites you can purchase from.

Before I get to specific recommendations, I really want to emphasize that the main mission of your telescope is to gather as much light as it can. The more light that enters your scope, the clearer the image is going to be. Magnification or “power” is controlled by which eyepiece you use. Most telescopes come with two or three eyepieces. Usually 100 to 200 power magnification is just fine for the moon, planets galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. You’ll especially use the higher magnification eyepieces on planets and the moon.

There are three basic types of telescopes; reflectors, refractors, and Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes.

Refractor telescopes gather light with the objective lens, the one where light enters the scope. The wider that lens is, the more light-gathering power you’ll have. The minimum you’d want to have is a 60mm refractor, which means it has a 60mm diameter objective lens where the light from whatever you’re targeting enters the scope .

Reflector telescopes gather light with a concave parabolic objective mirror at the back end of an open tube. The image gathered by the mirror is sent to the eyepiece with a flat mirror that bounces the image outside the tube to the eyepiece. Minimum diameter on reflector scopes should be at least six inches, but my suggestion would be eight inches for only a little more money. Reflectors are my favorite type of scope and I dare say many amateur astronomers agree with me. You just get more bang for your buck. Isaac Newton did a nice job when he invented this type of telescope in the late 17th century. I also recommend that you get a reflector telescope with a Dobsonian mount. These kind of scopes are known as Dobsonian reflectors. They are so user friendly!

Schmitt Cassegrain scopes are basically a design combining the optics of both the reflector and refractor scopes. They are definitely a little more expensive but the trade off is that they’re more portable. If you ever want to do serious celestial photography you need this kind of scope.

All three types of telescopes use various mounting systems. The more expensive ones have a motor drive system that will keep up with the Earth’s rotation. What’s great about that is that whatever celestial target you get into the field of your scope, it stays there.

For more money you can even get a “go to” mounting system that will automatically direct the telescope at whatever you desire and then track it across the sky and keep it in view. There are also manual versions of these as well. “Go to” systems are so nice because they can save you so much time trying to find faint celestial targets. Without it you’ll need to use star maps and “star hop” to find those fainter celestial treasures. Go-to’s are especially nice if you’re observing in areas of light to moderate light pollution. If you can afford it they are worth it though!

Here are my four recommended scopes for this holiday season. All of these are under $1,000. Also all but one are Dobsonian reflector telescopes.

Celestron FirstScope: This is a wonderful telescope for kids ages 5 to 10. It’s a miniature 76mm reflector that’s permanently attached to its mount. The whole unit can easily fit on a tabletop. It’s great for the moon, brighter planets and brighter stellar objects such as the Pleiades star cluster. The cost of the scope is right around $50 and you can find it on the Celestron website at www.celestron.com

Orion XT6 or XT8: These are wonderful Dobsonian reflector telescope scopes for teens as well as adults. The difference between the XT6 and the XT8 is the diameter of the objective mirror. If you can afford it, the XT8 scope gathers almost twice as much light as the XT6. The XT6 scope costs around $280 and the XT8 runs around $380. You can find both scopes at www.telescope.com

Orion SkyQuest XT8 Intellescope: This scope is optically the same as a regular XT8 Dobsonian reflector but it’s equipped with a computerized object locator that includes more than 14,000 objects in its database. Punch in the object you want to see and it’ll point you right to it. Move the telescope vertically and horizontally, following the directional arrows displayed on the hand controller and your target should be in the field of view, or darn close to it. It’s so easy and such a time saver, especially in areas where there’s light pollution. The Orion SkyQuest XT8 costs around $700. Find out more at www.telescope.com

Celestron NexStar 6SE: This Schmidt-Cassegrain type telescope lacks the light gathering ability of the XT8 Intelliscope, but I think it more than makes up for that with its extreme portability. Along with a fully automated GoTo mount with database of 40,000-plus celestial objects, it automatically locates and tracks objects for you. Just type in the celestial target you want to see and it’ll electronically slew the telescope right to it and then track across the sky so you never lose the object from your field of view. I have this scope and I just love it! This scope costs around $800. Learn more at www.celestron.com

No matter what kind of telescope you get or give, read the instructions thoroughly. One more thing … Always use your telescope outside, and make sure you let it sit outside for at least a good half hour to acclimate to the temperature. If you don’t let the component of your scope cool off, you might get some really fuzzy images.

If you’re at all interested in celestial photography it’s possible to to get some images but you’ll be limited to just brighter celestial objects. If you’re interested in serious deep space astrophotography, check out the Hyperstar lens available through Starizona in Tucson, Ariz. Hyperstar can be fitted onto most ” Schmidt-Cassegrain scopes. I have one that I use with my Celestron NexStar 6SE scope as the images are stunning. Check out www.starizona.com to find out more and get in contact with those folks. I think they’re the best in the business and really great people!

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