The "Best" Starter Instrument?

Jack Kramer

Survey a bunch of amateur astronomers and you're likely to hear different thoughts on the best "starter" instrument. But some collective wisdom emerges.

Many of us suggest that newcomers to the hobby get good binoculars instead of starting out with a telescope. That's still true, in a way. However, small, short focus refractors and longer focus Maksutov-Cassegrains now on the market may be better than binoculars for those just starting out. Many experienced observers didn't begin with binoculars...and for a good reason. We wanted to see things in the night sky at which binoculars could only provide a hint.

The advantage of a refractor is that the new user doesn't have to face the task of collimation, which can be daunting for a newcomer to the hobby. And while the Mak-Cass should have its collimation checked now and then, they hold their alignment very well. For someone who is just getting interested in astronomy, an 80mm f/5 refractor or a Mak-Cass of 90mm or 102mm on an altazimuth mount may be ideal. You can find a setup like this for around $300. The refractor will be as easy to use as binoculars, with a wide, low power field. The Mak-Cass has a narrower field, but higher magnification for good views of solar system objects. Both of these scopes are capable of showing Saturn's rings and bands on Jupiter as well as detail along the lunar terminator. The brighter deep sky objects are also within their grasp. If people get hooked on astronomy they can move up to a larger scope, and if they don't continue in the hobby, it's something that didn't cost too much. Either way, they'll probably want to keep the little telescope as a spotter or telephoto lens. Even experienced amateurs value these as easy-to-use "grab-and-go" scopes. Small Dobsonians are also good choices, though they do require more maintenance and their use is limited to astronomy.

Of course, no one should ever buy a telescope at a department store or from the Home Shopping Network, even if it has a familiar brand name, because outfits like Meade also peddle inferior scopes for the low-end trade. And beware of "bargain" telescopes that feature Go-To capability; most of the cost goes for the electronics (which reportedly aren't very reliable), while the optics are generally so poor that you won't be able to see most of the objects in the system's database.

Published in the April 2003 issue of the NightTimes