We tend to avoid buying used things as gifts. That’s usually the best way to extend your astro-dollar, but it’s understandable that hand-me-downs aren’t popular under the tree. If you stick to the basics listed below and come across good used stuff, you may go bigger for the same or less money. Astronomy gear tends to be well cared for and makes for an excellent value. I’ve never owned a new scope!
The first rule is to NOT purchase from discount, sporting goods, electronics or department stores. It is very rare that reasonable quality scopes are found in such places. The brand names populating our astronomy club’s list are Orion, Celestron, Meade and Vixen. While these brands range from middle to higher quality gear, some of their less expensive gear doesn’t fit the bill for a beginner. These brands are usually found only in astronomy shops.Without going into great detail, there are two types of telescopes in the price range for beginners: Newtonian reflector and refractor. A refractor uses a main lens to collect light and focus it to a point where it can be viewed through an eyepiece. This is the typical tube telescope we’re used to seeing. Binoculars and spotting scopes work in this manner. A Newtonian reflector collects the light with a large mirror which focuses the light to a second smaller mirror and then the eyepiece. Larger diameters collect more light which allows the observer to see dimmer objects. Of the two designs, the reflector gives more light collecting ability than the refractor for the same money, generally speaking.
It makes no difference what “power” the telescope is. Quality scopes advertising magnification power are, generally speaking, not worth having. There are quality optics like binoculars and fixed-power spotting scopes where this number is important, but astronomical scopes have to be a bit more flexible. Interchangeable eyepieces are used in astronomy to vary the field of view and magnification power to suit the conditions and the object viewed. Very seldom is maximum magnification used. Remember, diameter is king.
The reflector with its larger diameter will provide good views of the moon, planets and stars with the added advantage of seeing some deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulae. Refractors in the same price range are less likely to see the “faint fuzzies” in deep-sky viewing but typically work for planetary and lunar work. The refractor is a bit more durable and maintenance-free than the reflector. Reflectors require collimation, which is the aligning of the mirror. It’s a little tricky to learn but not impossible. Fortunately there are some good YouTube videos on the topic in addition to several sites explaining the process.Finally, you have to decide on a mount. The general consensus of the locals is that the Dobsonian is king of the beginner mounts. It’s a cradle that holds the scope tube like a cannon barrel. It stays at a reasonable height and there’s very little setup involved. Don’t worry, as you expand your interest in the hobby you’ll be able to spend thousands on a suitable mount. I started with a “Dob” and it’s still a favorite. The mount was invented for “sidewalk” astronomy at star parties.
Here come the specifics. The highest overall recommended scope by our local club is the Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian. At $309 shipped, it’s a turn-key setup with everything needed to get started. As for refractors, the Meade Terrastar 90 and Vixen Space Eye 70 are good values. The refractors come with a tripod. Make sure the scope you pick comes with an eyepiece or two. Prices fluctuate, especially around the holidays, so make sure you search for the best deal.Entire books have been written about eyepieces, and they can get extremely expensive. The most hardcore amateur astronomers I know still have a few $20 eyepieces as spares. These are a very popular item to trade among other stargazers. Just about any scope can use something in the 10, 15 and 20mm range.
If you’re willing to spend a little more money, larger diameter never hurts! Keep in mind that larger scopes get heavy, so check the specs. Computer guidance is nice, but it’s always best to start with an unguided scope to browse and learn the sky. Pick up a star chart, Google Sky phone app or Stellarium and you’re set for stargazing!
I strongly recommend hitting a star party or two WITH your scope. You'll receive plenty of friendly support from your local astronomy club. Any input is appreciated, so please feel free to leave comments!