One question I get asked frequently, especially in the weeks before Christmas, is what is a good starter telescope to buy? Many people who ask this question have already glimpsed telescopes for sale at the big box stores and are looking for a price tag of $200 and under. The telescopes that you find in these stores that promise amazing sights (see unrealistic photos on the box they come in) are not worth your time or money. The small sizes won't give you views better than most binoculars, the mounts are rickety and often the scope is not assembled well and little support is provided.
Because there generally aren’t stores around that offer a wide range and selection of good quality telescopes, your best bet is Internet shopping. Three well-known companies that sell an assortment of equipment worth checking out are Meade, Orion, and Celestron, although there are certainly many other brands that will also provide you with a quality telescope.
There are a lot of factors to consider when buying a telescope, such as whether you want a refractor or reflector, what size to buy, how stable is the mount, can it be easily transported to my viewing site, and so forth. Not to mention how much money you have to spend. The answers to these questions will differ depending on the person, which is why it makes it hard to give general recommendations.
One additional factor that has become very popular over the past decade is the GOTO telescope. This type of telescope allows you to align with a couple of bright stars and then you use the keypad to punch in what you want to see and the telescope motors its way to your desired object. GOTO telescopes have positive and negative attributes. A few negatives are that they are definitely pricier (and it’s getting harder to find scopes without the GOTO feature) and they don't really help you to learn the sky. A benefit of a GOTO scope is that if you’re efficient at aligning, you can maximize your time at the scope by having it do the star hopping for you.
Some telescopes are sold without mounts, as "tabletop" versions, which helps to cut down on the price for those just starting out, but be sure you have a sturdy place to view from. A shaky table or tripod will ruin anything that could have been gained with your inexpensive scope.
Dobsonian telescopes are one of my favorite types of scopes for those starting out, because you can get a decent-sized scope (4.5-inch, 6-inch, or 8-inch) for under $500. The simple design makes it the best value and easy to use for beginners. Although if you’re an apartment dweller who has to load up your telescope and drive to a dark-sky site every time you want to observe, a 4.5-inch reflector may be more practical.
One caveat about buying a telescope for Christmas: depending on where you live, that telescope may not see much use until it’s warm out. While a telescope always sounds like a fabulous Christmas present, the truth is, for those of us in the northern climes, it’s just not that pleasant to stand outside on a below-freezing night and fiddle with eyepieces and try to find your target in the scope. First timers can get a bit disillusioned as they shiver and try to get a hang of their new gift. Fortunately this year, the week after Christmas features a crescent moon visible just after sunset, allowing new telescope users to go out early in the evening and train their scopes on the easiest target in the heavens.
Despite awesome claims on some telescope boxes, you won't see the Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula in this picture through any amateur scope. Photo credit: ESO.
-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.