Hello and thank you for contacting the York Astronomical Society. Unfortunately there is not a real easy answer to what type of telescope to buy, but there are some good guidelines that can hopefully guide your decision.
One of the first and foremost things that we always tell people is that the best way to see what kind of telescope would be good for them is to actually go out and see the different kinds of telescopes in action. That is why we have a free public observing session every month at YCAS where we invite members of the public to come out and see the different kinds of telescopes that we have and that our members have and they can see which ones might be good for them. You can check our YCAS schedule on our web site to find the date of the next one.. So here is some generic information.
It is best to stay away from the big box stores (i.e. Wal-Marts, Targets, etc.). While they do offer a selection, most of the telescopes they sell end up causing confusion and discouraging people from getting into astronomy. That is not to say that you can’t get a perfectly fine telescope from them, you just have to be very careful. My first suggestion is to visit some sites on the internet where they have extensive articles about choosing your first telescope. Here are some that we recommend:
See: How to buy an Astronomical Telescope PDF
See: Sky & Telescope
See: Astronomy Magazine
See: Orion Telescopes
See: Meade Telescopes
See: Celestron Telescopes
The last three above are very reputable telescope manufacturers.
A good beginner telescope will range in price from $200 – $1000, the difference being whether it is a Go-To telescope or not. The Go-To telescopes have handheld controllers that, when the telescope is set up correctly, allow the telescope to automatically point to lots (typically 10,000 or more) different objects in the sky. On the surface this sounds like it would be ideal for a beginner and they are when they work, but they need to be set up correctly for that to happen and it is not a trivial task (many of our own club members find this hard to do!). The cheaper they are, the harder they are to get set up properly and have work properly. A good one of these will run you ~$500.
You can easily get a very nice telescope that is not a Go-To telescope for about $200 that will show you amazing things in the sky. If you know where to look. That is the hard part and that is the hard thing to learn from a book. It is best to learn by having other people show you how to do it. That is the main function of our astronomy club, to help our members learn how to use their telescopes better and to show them how to find all of those neat objects up in the sky. If you get one of these telescopes I would strongly recommend that you start coming to some of our club meetings and events where there will be lots of people ready and willing to help you learn your way around the night sky.
What size telescope is best to get? Stay away from anything that advertises that is a 200X or 400X telescope. Telescopes are not measured by their magnification, but rather by the amount of light that they can gather. That is why telescopes are measured by the size of their main lens or mirror. So you will see a telescope advertised as a 4.5 inch telescope or 3 inch telescope. Anything less than 3 inches will most likely disappoint you in it’s views. They are useful for certain kinds of observations, but people are typically not very impressed by them. A 4-inch or larger will be able to show you great views of lots of things. Typically the kids scopes from the reputable manufacturers are ~4-inch size telescopes.
It is a very hard decision to make which telescope is best and takes a lot of research to figure out exactly what will be good for a particular person. My advice is to search the web for reviews of telescopes that you are thinking about. You will find a lot of great information out there from all sorts of people. Start with one of the ones sold either by Meade or Orion and see what people out there are saying about them. Over the years I have seen far too many kids get very discouraged when trying to use one of the cheap telescopes and lose all interest in science because of it. Getting them a telescope that they can use and actually find things with will encourage them to explore their interests in science more.
I also encourage you to come to our club meetings and events. We have people of all ages who are very active in our astronomy club and we all like to encourage their interests. Plus it is a place where you can get first hand experience about all sorts of telescopes and observing techniques. This is especially true if you do end up buying a telescope. We encourage people to bring their new telescopes to our club meetings and we help them learn how to use them better. Our public observing sessions also function as New Telescope Users Clinics.
Hopefully some of the links we have provided will help. If you have any more questions, especially if you are wondering about a specific type of telescope, please let us know. We may be able to provide you with information that will help in your decision.
Written by Mike Wenz
If You Have A Question Concerning Telescopes, ask a YCAS Telescope expert using the E-Mail or better yet, come to a meeting!
Additional online information below.
For more information Call YCAS ( 717) 578-9109 )