So it seems easy enough; you see a pretty scope, take it home, lift it to the skies and voila; you're Galileo reincarnated. In reality, buying a telescope doesn't always mean just buying a telescope.
First of all, you need to consider mounts. Although it might just seem like a handy place to store a telescope, a mount is of paramount importance. An alt-azimuth let's you move the scope up and down (altitude) and left and right (azimuth), and is a simple mount for a scope (about $60-$300). The Dobsonian mount is an alt-azimuth mount with a fixed base. Because it can be disassembled, the Dobsonian is easy to carry from, say, the basement to the backyard.
But mounts can get downright fancy. An equatorial mount has a small motor that moves the mount with the alignment of the stars, while a go-to mount actually has software in it that can locate celestial objects for you. No more guessing between the Big and Little Dipper; simply type in what you want and the go-to mount will move itself and slowly track with whatever you're looking at. A beginning model can run about $300, but some of the best ones are easily more than $1,000.
The reasons people choose to stargaze will certainly affect what kind of telescope you should purchase. Greg Scheiderer, editor of SeattleAstronomy.com, says that a joke in the astronomy community is that your first telescope should be binoculars. And before you go out and spend thousands on a telescope, do consider that a standard pair of 6 to 10 times magnification binoculars can allow you to see many astronomical activities. (Scheiderer also points out that a good pair of binoculars is a useful tool in establishing a field of view even with a telescope.)
Leaps in technology have made photographing space -- or astroimaging -- a much more accessible hobby. While it's possible to take pictures on film, the advent of digital photography has made astrophotography downright simple. Orion even offers a $60 photo adapter for an iPhone. Simply mount the phone to the eyepiece, find the magnified image on the screen and click for a pic. You can also buy a fairly inexpensive adapter to attach any digital camera (starting at about $30) or a special eyepiece that can capture images on your computer (starting at $60).
It doesn't stop there. For about a hundred dollars, you can buy a bundle of equipment (including USB cable, video eyepiece and software) that allows you to view your telescope's images on your television, laptop or stream online.
And if that isn't enough for you, train your lens below to learn lots more information about how to buy telescopes.
Learn more about telescopes in "50 Targets for the Mid-Sized Telescope" by John A Read. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.
More Great Links
- Amateur Astronomer's Notebook. "Excellent 'First' Telescopes." Nov. 13, 2011. (Nov. 17, 2011) http://www.rocketroberts.com/astro/firstscopes.htm
- Astronomy Magazine. "Buying Your First Telescope." 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://www.astronomy.com/~/media/Files/PDF/Buying%20Your%20First%20Telescope.ashx
- Astronomy Today. "Guide To Buying A Telescope." 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://www.astronomytoday.com/astronomy/tbfaq.html
- Bakich, Michael E. "Buying a Telescope." Astronomy.com. 2011. (Nov. 17, 2011) http://www.astronomy.com/en/sitecore/content/Home/Equipment/How-To/2004/07/Buying%20a%20telescope.aspx
- Edelman, Michael J. "The Heretic's Guide to Choosing and Buying Your First Telescope." Nov. 4, 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://findascope.com/
- Evans, Robert. "Amateur Supernova Hunting." Swinburne University of Technology. Nov. 19, 2007. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://astronomy.swin.edu.au/sao/guest/evans/
- Prairie Astronomy Club. "Telescope Buying Guide." 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://www.prairieastronomyclub.org/buyers.htm
- Scheiderer, Greg, editor of SeattleAstronomy.com. Personal interview. Nov. 14, 2011.
- Satherley, Jessica. "To boldly show: World's most expensive telescope takes first pictures of deepest space in quest for more knowledge of outer universe." The Daily Mail. Oct. 4, 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2044840/Worlds-complex-telescope-takes-pictures-deepest-space-quest-knowledge-outer-universe.html