Last minute holiday gift advice, Part 1: telescopes!

By Phil Plait | December 22, 2009 7:30 am

It’s that time of year: wherein I get 800 emails every small time unit asking me what kind of telescope people should buy for their kids/brother/sister/aunt/zombie-clone.

OK, first: go read this. It has advice and links on buying ‘scopes.

Then, read this nice breakdown at Science-Based Parenting. There is a TON of great advice there.

Finally, check to see if there is a local astronomy club in your area. Clubs are loaded with good folks who are eager to help out people just getting into astronomy. And they frequently have star parties, giving you a chance to try some ‘scopes out and see what fits you best.

Getting someone a ‘scope for the holidays is a wonderful, thoughtful gift, but remember: there are many types, and it’s a bit like buying a car for someone. What do they need it for? Is it easy to use? Will they use it, or will it collect dust after a couple of frustrating outings in the cold weather?

If done correctly, you may be giving someone a jump start on a rewarding and wonderful hobby, and even a career! So think carefully and do it right.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy
MORE ABOUT: Christmas, telescopes

Comments (36)

  1. Aerimus

    I got a 3.5″ Maksutov (sp?) for Christmas several years ago. Still love that scope, though I don’t us it as much as I’d like. I need to find a thumb screw to hold the drive to the scope properly so that I can get started back in astrophotography (I had just started when I lost the screw), I just haven’t sat down and tried to find a place to order a new screw. I want to get a cheap 8″ Dob from Orion or something so that I can look while the camera is going. Actually, I REALY want to get that bahemoth 14″ Schimt that they used to have on display at the Discovery store in the nearby mall. To dream….

    But I did get a Galileoscope for the kid (she’s 3 1/2, and loves to watch the moon – and can find jupiter on her own! – so I figured something decent and cheap would be fun for her). Can’t wait to bundle her up Christmas night and go with her!

  2. Kent

    Great advice! After buying a scope last year for my birthday, I’m trying again for Christmas, I wish I had taken more time to decide. Right now I’m waiting until I can try out both the Orion XT6 and XT8 to decide which is better for me. Unfortunately that means it will probably be a ways after Christmas before I decide :( But at least I’ll have looked through both and made the right decision.

  3. Aerimus

    @Kent:

    I’ve also been looking at the XT8 and had really been leaning in that direction, but then we downgraded from the huge minivan to a smaller SUV, and now I’m not sure. As it is, I barely have room for the small telescope, tripod, camera, and RC plane (got to have something to do during the day). Oh, and the wife still insist that we actually pack clothes for us and the kid, or some such nonsense, so I have to make room for that too…

  4. Kent

    @Aerimus
    Yes, that’s a similar situation to me (recently got out of the RC plane habit due to moving to a less rural town) My understanding is the XT8 only weighs a couple of pounds more than the XT6 despite it’s considerably larger mirror. So weight isn’t the issue as much as volume :) Hope your decision is easier than mine!

    I have another astronomy friend who insists that aperture isn’t always everything, and the adage “the best scope is the one you use most” certainly holds true. However, I still want to have the best view possible.

    Good luck!

  5. Adam

    Great article. My wife intercepted a telescope customer in the aisle at Toys R Us and sent them off looking for the more useful Celestron first scope. I’ve given them to a few friends, and the one’s who haven’t gotten them were very disappointed.:)

  6. Inertially Guided

    During a ‘tween career period a few years back I took a part-time job in a hobby shop, and am happy to be able to say that I was able to help match-up many people with telescopes for themselves, their kids, etc… During my retail tenure I formulated my Three Rules of Telescope Shopping;

    1) The optics are the heart of the telescope–without them there isn’t much point, is there? Make sure that they are worthy of your investment. Ensure that refractors are well-baffled and that reflectors can be collimated…and STAY AWAY from any telescope which includes .965″ eyepieces.

    2) Make sure the mounting and tripod are sturdy for the size of instrument. If not, then no image will satisfy. Tighten up the clamps and attachment bolts and give the tube a light “thwok” with a finger…if the vibration damps down in two or three seconds you have a winner.

    3) Portability is Pertinent. If the observer (be she bodybuilder or ten-year-old) can’t handle the scope and get it outside with a minimum of dis-assembly then it will end up gathering dust in the corner and NOT starlight in the backyard or a dark sky site.

    A Corollary: Do you REALLY need that computer in your new ‘scope? It’e pretty neat, but chances are that it’s a major part of the cost, and when you are trying to learn the sky it might even be a bit counter-productive to start-out relying on software. Train your mind and eyes to find those celestial wonders and spend those extra bucks on a better optical system, mount and a good star atlas.

    Regards;

    Tom E.

  7. Rob G.

    Great little starter article, Phil. Only thing I would ad is for people to stay away from the big box stores (Wal-Mart, Costco, etc.) when purchasing a telescope. Most of these places sell what are referred to as “trash scopes”. They usually advertise as having 500x power, show beautiful pictures of planets, galaxies and nebula on the box and have a mount that’s more suited to making milk shakes then astronomical observing.

    One of the most highly recommend starter scopes is an 8″ Newtonian on a Dobsonian mount. Good quality ones can be found for under $500 (CDN). The 8″ aperture, combined with the solid Dobsonian mount and low cost are considered to be the perfect combination for a beginner. (Even more so now-a-days with the move towards truss-tube and collapseable designs.)

    I personally got into the visual side of astronomy about two years ago and about a year ago I also got into the astrophotography side of things (shameless self promotion: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ressalg/sets/72157621514070365/ ). I’ve probably spent close to $15K on various equipment and accessories. If I had it to do all over again (knowing what I know now), I could probably keep it under $10K easily.

    The best advice I’d give anyone is to join an astronomy club… of all the equipment I have, my membership is the most valuable.

    @ Inertially Guided: I agree that a go-to (computerized) scope can be a bit counter productive when it comes to learning your way around the sky. But (for me personally) as a father of two (5 yrs. and 2.5 yrs old) my time is very precious/limited. The second scope I purchased was a go-to because I wanted to spend less time searching and more time observing. Just my two cents worth.

  8. Nice advice Tom E. :) Especially #3. Although, if I can convince my wife to let e build an observatory, that may not be a factor! :D

  9. I think as many people are turned off of astronomy by getting a bad telescope as a kid than are turned on to it by getting a good telescope.

  10. Galileoscopes arrived in time! Looking forward to cracking them open.

    I once made my own 4.5″ Dobsonian, but it was a tool only a mother could love.

  11. I have a 2.4 meter Ritchey-Chretien reflector. It’s pretty sweet. It has an infrared camera and spectrometer, a wide field optical camera, an ultraviolet spectrograph, and an optical spectrometer. You might say, “Yeah, but does it have adaptive optics?” To which I say, “No.” But that’s OK, because it was launched in low-Earth orbit, above all the distorting atmosphere, so it isn’t necessary.

  12. Aerimus

    Found this while looking for information on my first scope…

    http://www.cloudynights.com/item.php?item_id=400

    Hilarious, especially loved the last line under the “Performance” section. “As expected, views of planets are small, however the included filters improved contrast as illustrated by the image of Jupiter shown in Figure 9.” [The “filter” mentioned here where slides that could be placed and viewed in the telescope, mush like a “View Master”). Sigh, this was one of my favorite toys as a kid.

  13. Patrick

    I work for one of the big 3 telescope companies here in the US. That article is a good read and I wish that more people would read it.

    I have to say though that a lot of people just buy the cheapest scope and give it to their kid.

    When I was a kid I got a scope from the company I work for now. It was a piece of crap. We still make it, and it is still a piece of crap. However I still saw a lot of things in the sky, the rings of saturn, moons of jupiter, hale bopp. It opened up new worlds to me.

    When I got older I bought a new scope, and it was so much better I was blown away, and the price certainly was higher.

    You don’t need to spend more than 350 bucks to get a scope that will also blow you away, but seriously, if you are buying from the big 3, if you can afford it, step up from the cheapest one.

    However if that is what you can afford I can’t really deny a kid something that will still open up new worlds to them so by all means get what you can afford. My parents did when they bought my first scope, and I still saw a lot.

  14. The other Ken

    I agree, Patrick – a cheapie scope is better than no scope. I started out with a Bushnell I picked up at a garage sale for $25, cleaned it up as best I could and got myself and some friends hooked! I think the key is to not expect too much of it.

    This fall, after listening to a bunch of advice from folks on this blog (thank you all!), I picked up an XLT-150[*]. I’m glad I decided to go for better optics and mount and skip the go-to; I enjoy trying to navigate my way around the skies! The hook was set the very first night I tried it out – I was able to find the very faintest smudge of the Ring Nebula. Way cool! I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of looking at Orion Nebula. My Xmas list now is full of eyepieces, filters, an eq drive, camera mount, etc. :-) Oh, and there are a pair of Galileoscopes queued up on the wrapping table for the kids. :-)

    I might add another suggestion for someone getting started – a good sky map application. I grabbed Sky Gazer and Sky Voyager for my ipod touch when it was mentioned here; they have been immensely valuable for learning my way around, and having it right there in my pocket is great.

    ken

    [*] Nice scope, the heavy mount is kind of a pain but that’s the tradeoff for something reasonably stable. Wish it came with a better eyepiece. It took a beating in shipment to me; someone must have gotten their definition of “drop ship” from too many hours in a C-130. Before it was useable I had to take it apart and clean the bits of packing foam off the mirrors, and align the whole business. No permanent damage fortunately, and the process was kinda satisfying…

  15. There’s a thread going on Cloudy Nights about someone running into a scope at Kohl’s.

    I think the best advice after “talk to the local club” would be that a quality telescope cannot be purchased at Wal-Mart.

  16. I disagree about the cheap vs. no ‘scope: it’s best NOT to get a cheap one. They can be extremely difficult to set up, aim, focus, and see through, making the experience bad for beginners. The best thing to do knuckle under and accept that you need to spend a couple of hundred bucks at least to get a nice instrument. That’s why I recommend binoculars first, especially if you live in a relatively dark site. I use my binocs all the time, and won’t go hiking without them, either!

  17. Melanie (Australia)

    My four year old who has been nagging me for a “microscope to look at the moon” for a year is getting a Galileoscope which thankfully arrived recently! I cant wait to see her face when she has her first look.

  18. Ray

    So which telescope should I get if I my neighbor leaves her curtains open at night? ;)

  19. Aerimus

    Personally, I’m on the fence in the “Cheap vs. None” debate. I had several cheap scopes when I was little, and none of them ever turned my off. And in the end, someone going out expecting to see Hubble-like images is likely to be disappointed anyway. I remember the crappy tabletop Bushnell (which my mom still has) and the even crapper Tasco that I got when I was young. the Bushnells are still useful as a spotting scope for my mom, but it was never that good for anything other than looking at the moon. And don’t even get me started on the Tasco. For the price of the two or three cheap scopes that my parents got me, they could have gone a long way towards getting a good scope, one that, if cared for, could still be in use today!

    But I do agree with Phil. Everyone should have a good pair of binocs. I have a decent pair of Orions and I love those things. Compact, well made, coated optics, light and only $150. And I love the view in them. I’ll sometimes set up the 3.5″ and start the camera, then I’ll just pull and the binocs, laydown, and go to town (or, at least I used to). Love those binocs…

  20. Patrick

    @Phil

    There are some telescopes out there now for beginners that are table tops that are cheap, and by their nature are more stable, and easier to use, and I think are better than something on a junky eq mount, or the god awful alt-az mounts that are on the basic scopes.

    @Ray 19

    Get an Apochromatic refractor with a nice long focal length. Sharp images with good contrast, and no fringing from the lights to distract you…

  21. I get asked about telescopes a lot. What I recommend to the gift giver (or the novice star gazer just starting out) is to get a decent set of binoculars. An 8×50 binocular with good optics is small and portable, has a nice wide field of view, and will give the user wonderful views of so many objects…

    … and it’s relatively inexpensive, so if the interest doesn’t take, it’s not a huge financial setback. Also, binoculars can be used for other things that are difficult with a telescope, such as bird watching.

    I had 3 sets of binoculars before my first telescope: 8×45, 11×80, 25×100 and I still use them more than the scope (8″ schmidtt-cassegrain). The 100mm binos really need a tripod to use them for stargazing, so the total price kind of adds up, same for the 80mm. But the smaller set can be picked up and carried anywhere with ease.

    I took my 25×100 with me on a cruise to Alaska many years ago. Aside from being able to stargaze from the deck, they were really handy for looking at the glaciers. Caused a bit of binocular envy too :)

  22. Adam

    I’m going to take a bit of issue with your comment about no scope vs cheap scope Phil. I’ve purchased a number of Celestron first scopes for children of friends and while it’s nothing compared to my CPC-800, it is probably the perfect quality and price point for young children who may take an interest in astronomy.
    Sure, if the child loves the first scope, buy them a nice dob or a motorized goto. But unless you are buying your child a gift with the intention of using it yourself, to prevent them from breaking it; a dob might be a bit too much machine.

  23. Kevin

    Every year around Thanksgiving I put up on our astronomy club’s site a page about buying a telescope. Once I do that the number of emails drops to almost nothing, as people use the information provided to make decisions.

    We always point out that joining an astronomy club might be the best thing. In our case, they can use a fully equipped observatory for a lot less than buying a scope. Then, if they still want a telescope, they will be fully aware of what they are getting in to.

  24. Anthony Cochetti

    @Phil 17

    I’m a beginner but I agree with this. When I was very young my parents bought me a telescope, likely from a department store (shudder!) for about $150. They meant well but I don’t think they did enough research. I was pretty much left to fend for myself as far as learning was concerned and I quickly lost interest. Maybe if I was steered in the right direction the telescope could have been salvaged but from memory it didn’t seem to be good at anything except looking at the moon. Jumping in without any research and a subpar scope can easily kill your interest.

    Recently however my interest has been rekindled and I’ve started the proper way: with tons of research! I found Phil’s guide using Google, I explored the Sky and Telescope website, and I went so far as to search newsgroups on Google Groups (the amateur astronomy newsgroup is excellent and I recommend it to other beginners). I’ve decided that eventually I’d like to get an Orion XT10 Dobsonian (though if the $499 price tag is off-putting to some the XT6 [at $279 it's a modest investment] and the XT8 are also good beginner ‘scopes as far as my research has found) but first I’m going to read more. Besides barely making a dent in all of the myriad websites out there (the resources for amateur astronomy are simply huge, it’s really wonderful) I intend on buying a few books and star charts. Once I’m familiar with that I intend on buying a pair of Orion UltraView 10X50 binoculars to properly learn the sky. From what I’ve read even amateur astronomers who have big expensive ‘scopes still use and rely on their binoculars and you can still see quite a bit with them, they’re certainly nothing to laugh at!

    This is speculation on my part but I think binoculars are a good way to start for children if you’re unsure whether the hobby will take. If you’re concerned that the child won’t appreciate the subtly of binoculars in comparison to the impressive flash of a telescope then maybe the hobby isn’t for them. It’s what you see that’s important, not what you’re using! (at least at first; later on I think it’s okay if a tear runs down your eye when you see an Astro-Physics refractor in person)

    This research intensive approach maybe isn’t for everyone but so far I’m having a lot of fun just reading! Thanks Phil, and of course to the rest of the amateur astronomy community for putting together such an incredible wealth of free information.

  25. Steve

    Any advice on software or websites? Back when I last flirted with telescopes I used a DOS program called XASTRO to help me find targets. Yes, DOS. 8)

    Surely similar software or Java applications now exist to help us find where M23 or Mars is in my sky tonight. Surely some are better than others and I’d appreciate some advice.

  26. Aerimus

    @Adam:
    “I’m going to take a bit of issue with your comment about no scope vs cheap scope Phil. I’ve purchased a number of Celestron first scopes for children of friends and while it’s nothing compared to my CPC-800, it is probably the perfect quality and price point for young children who may take an interest in astronomy.”

    I can’t speak for Phil – obviously – but to me, when I say cheap, I’m thinking those crappy Tasco scopes from K-Mart. I think there’s a difference between a bottom of the line, entry-level quality scope and a piece of junk that you find in the “impulse buy” section of your local WalMart.

  27. Jess Tauber

    Late for Xmas, but I’ve gotten most of my largish collection of astro equipment secondhand off the Bay or Astromart. Vintage stuff (esp. Japanese) tends to be much better quality than equivalents made today in China or India. And you save big on the price. I trust Amart better because its a relatively small community and most sellers have to worry about feedback, much more than with the auction site. So more caveat emptor there. But I picked up a ’60′s 125 mm top of the line reflector and a ’70′s 80 mm refractor for about the price of two pizzas each, both in great if not brand-new condition.

  28. Daniel J. Andrews

    First, do not buy a telescope from the Galileo company! They do a lot of advertising on the Home Shopping Network, and they lie. It’s that simple. Read this page for more info.

    From Phil’s link to his advice on buying a scope.

    Probably not an issue for regular readers here, but perhaps you (Phil) should point out that the Galileo company is not the company that produces Galileoscopes just so there isn’t any confusion?

  29. jcm

    Sky & Telescope also has a guide on buying a first telescope:

    http://bit.ly/5RrisX

  30. Paul Kinzer

    I agree with Phil about binoculars over crummy telescopes as an introduction to astronomy: even a great telescope takes time to set up, and even more time to learn how to use properly. If, after taking that time, the experience ends up being frustrating and disappointing because of crappy construction and poor optics, it can — and often does — turn people off to the hobby. People typically seem to assume that a telescope is the FIRST thing to get when starting out in astronomy, but I think it’s something to work up to.

    I posted an article about holiday astronomy gifts other than a telescope on my publisher’s blogsite a couple of weeks ago. They’re all much less expensive, too. The article can be found here:

    http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2009/12/astronomy-gift/

    When I wrote the article, I wasn’t aware of the Science-Based Parenting post. It’s nice to see we agree!

  31. Charlie In Dayton

    Not to be too terribly picky, but as the resident bino dude for the Miami Valley Astronomical Society (Dayton OH — http://www.mvas.org ), I must drop my $.02 in here.
    When asked what is needed to get started in stargazing, I recommend (A) a beginner’s kit such as that at Orion Telesscopes ( http://www.telescope.com/control/accessories/astronomical-maps-and-charts/orion-beginning-stargazers-toolkit ) and (B) a decent pair of binoculars anywhere between 7×50 and 12×60, depending on the physical capabilities of the user — littler kids need a smaller lighter set.
    If they’ve already got a pair of 7×35′s at home, use those — don’t spend money you don’t have to.
    With this, spend six months learning the sky. If after that there’s still an interest, THEN go spend some larger quantity of bucks for a telescope.

    Why binos? A larger perspective on the sky — a whole constellation at once in relation to others, as opposed to maybe a star or two. Learn the sky first. If the interest is still there, then go for a scope.

    I shall now step down off my soapbox.

  32. Grant Gordon

    I’m kinda jealous about all the cheap scopes that are available in the states and Europe. I’ve just ordered my first scope, but unfortunately in South Africa, they aren’t cheap. The general rule that dobsonian’s give you more bang for buck doesn’t apply here as they are heavier and thus the shipping to get them here is frighteningly expensive. As it is the scope I ordered is more than twice the price of the same scope else where in the world. But I’m looking forward to it arriving, the weather has been fantastically clear of late, so if it stays like this should get some phenomenal views!

  33. I’ve recently begun to look up and take a more active interest in the night sky so this will be helpful indeed.

    @Phil telescopemaking.com is no longer active and is just one of those generic search pages.

  34. I have to weigh in on the cheap vs. no ‘scope debate.
    My husband got a hand-me-down Sears ‘scope as a kid. When I met him, he told me that he thought astronomy seemed really interesting, but didn’t really get why anyone would actually want to be an amateur astronomer.
    So I showed him the Moon through my Astroscan.
    Now, we have several small ‘scopes, and he’s enthusiastic about helping out at public events, including giving people advice on telescopes and binoculars.

  35. The other Ken

    Phil,

    I certainly understand your opinion about no scope better than cheap scope. If you buy a wal-mart scope and expect it to live up to its advertising you’ll absolutely be disappointed and disillusioned. However I think the key is the other part of my statement – making your expectations fit the equipment. My Bushnell was an impulse buy (spotted it set out at a yard sale while driving to work) but I had absolutely no illusions that it wasn’t a piece of junk. However I was able to get a good look at Jupiter and its moons among other things (I could even see a few faint stripes). After pulling it out and gazing a half-dozen times or so I knew that astronomy is a hobby I could get into. The last straw was the reaction of my kids when I was able to show them some things – their excitement was infectious. Again, expectations were at the level the scope could deliver.

    Having said all that I do agree that decent binocs might have been a better choice – but I doubt even a middling set of binocs could have been had for the $25 I spent. (If I was going to buy a starter scope new I might have gone the binocs route).

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »