Bumbler’s Guide: So You Think You Want a Telescope?

Ya probably don’t.

It’s not that nobody wants one, they’re awesome. They’re also the single biggest frustration and disappointment in astronomy in terms of expectation versus reality.

Ask yourself these questions – do you know the difference between a Newtonian, a Dobsonian and a Maksutov-Cassegrain? Do you even know the correct pronunciation of ‘Maksutov-Cassegrain’? Because I don’t! Can you work out the best useful magnification of your scope by using only the focal length, aperture and the size of your lens? Can you correctly set up and use an equatorial mount? Are you actually insane and want to spend frozen, late evenings gazing at what are mostly the same tiny pin-pricks of light only slightly magnified?

If you can answer all those questions, the last one positively, then a telescope might, actually be for you. In which case, what are you doing? Go get one! Have fun, go on! Fuck off!

Now, for the rest of you, here are the home truths.

Telescopes will baffle you with a variety of names, types and mounts but really they come in two categories: cheap and really fiddly or expensive and even fiddlier. They’re an actual pain in the arse. Most of the inexpensive ones you can get are going to be utter shite, in which case get yourself a set of decent 15×70 binoculars instead, they will be just as good if not better and about half the price.

I will say this with certainty if this is something you’re thinking of getting as a present for your kiddo because they’ve got some Saturn pyjamas and mentioned they like the Sun once. Don’t bother with a telescope. Especially if you can’t be arsed to do all the hard work, the setting up, the learning optics, the understanding seeing conditions, the positioning the telescope, the finding of the objects – if you are not interested in the hobby, I appreciate you trying to encourage your child but what you’re essentially doing is giving a kid who can’t drive a Ferrari because they like watching Formula 1 on the telly. Don’t do it.

Seriously, get them some binoculars. Maybe you can use them for birdwatching, planespotting, shipspotting or nosing on what the neighbours are up to. They have multiple functions and purposes, are easy to store when not in use, are portable and usually come with a strap to carry them about your neck so they’re technically hands-free. They’re so easy to use you just point your face at what you want to look at with them over your eyes. That’s the whole tutorial!  

Telescopes are big, conspicuous to the neighbours, unless you get a correcting lens everything you see in them is upside down anyway, they’re usually massive, hard to store and only conveniently wrap around someone’s neck when they say “I’m sorry, I’ve just nudged it, can you find Jupiter for me again?” for the 100th time.

Surely the views make it all worthwhile though? Nah, mate. The first time I looked at the Orion nebula through my binoculars I felt the awe of the overwhelming spectacle the universe was affording me. The first time I saw it through my telescope I tried to wipe the lens because I thought condensation had fogged it.

The Orion Nebula - red, white and blue filaments of light on a black background
This is not what the Orion Nebula looks like through a telescope. Credit: Astro.sin.

Those bright discs of planets, bright, burning balls of stars, those colourful nebulae and gorgeous swirling galaxies you’ve seen in magazines, on the BBC or on Reddit? All bullshit. Astrophotographers are the second best visual liars outside of whoever takes modelling shots of the Kardashians. There are many techniques that go into making a gorgeous astronomical photograph but the main one is stacking, which is when a composite image of something is made by taking hundreds or even thousands of images of the same thing and layering them to create the bold contrasts and colours. That is not to discredit the art, I appreciate it very much and think that some of the technique that goes into making great astrophotography is genius. It’s just not what you see through your telescope, with your eyes, in real time.

Westerlund 2 - a red, yellow and blue nebula on a black background
You won’t be able to point a telescope at the sky and see something like this. This image of Westerlund 2 has been processed to fuck! Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team

Through the actual eyepiece it all looks a lot less defined, a lot dimmer and a lot less colourful.

Don’t get it twisted, I ain’t about to tell you this means telescopes are shit. They’re not. Just don’t expect to point your scope at Mars and see two Martians shagging at the peak of Olympus Mons, with the presumably male Martian giving you a knowing thumbs up. It ain’t happening. I’ve been able to make out the bands of colour on Jupiter, I am hoping to make out the massive storm, the Great Red Spot, at some point, but I can’t see it yet. I’ve seen the rings of Saturn, they’re amazing, but I can’t see the Cassini division, the gap between the rings, yet. Using a telescope takes a lot of time, a lot of work, a lot of patience and a lot of learning. They are not as point and shoot as binoculars, and what you see will not look like the pictures.

The orange of the Great Red Spot against the pale beige of Jupiter
Again, you won’t see images like this through a telescope. This image was made using processed data from the Galileo spacecraft! Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kevin M. Gill CC BY 2.0.

Then there’s actually finding stuff in the sky. Half of telescopy is throwing your arms up in the air and saying “Where the fuck’s that gone now!?” and if you’re not ready for that you’re going to have a bad time.

Many telescopes come with what are called finder scopes but you still have to know what you’re looking at or for, and where it is. If you don’t, good luck. Yeah, you can buy incredibly expensive scopes where you just tap in the numbers and it points at the right thing, and can even track it, but if you’re rich enough that you’d get one of those on a whim just stop reading, fuck off and do it and throw a few grand at We Lack Discipline while you’re burning money. Most people will not get one of those, they will get cold hands, fiddly controls and a whole lot of looking at the stuff they don’t care to see.

Me, I enjoy it. I go out with my scope and a couple of apps to help me know what’s about, I point at this, I find that, I look for this and then eventually I get bored of knowing and point at the empty spaces to see what’s there. That’s the charm of it to me. But I’m not twelve years old with a PlayStation at home. A space kid can get turned off real quick if you’re not prepared to make your observing an event. I’d think of it more like fishing, set aside a few hours, take some snacks and supplies, take some flasks of hot drink and make an evening of it.

So are you still actually determined to get a telescope? If you’re still going to do that after all my warnings, after everything I have said then do me a massive favour. Either do extensive research on what is available within your budget, consider the space it will take up and where you will store it, learn the types of telescopes and lenses and how they may work for you or, let me give you the easy mode.

  1. A minimum 130p Dobsonian telescope.
  2. 3 x lenses of different sizes (one large, e.g. 25-35mm, one medium e.g. 9-12.5mm and one small e.g. 4-6mm)
  3. A decent 2X Barlow lens (Celestron do some decent ones for around £30-40 but if you’re a real peasant like me the SvBony is about £20 on Amazon or £10 on AliExpress, though that comes with the China shipping wait).

I’ve had a go on a few different scopes now and I think the Dobby is the best for punch and accessibility. SkyWatcher do some cheap models that aren’t the best, but they’re affordable, portable (relatively) and will do the job. The Dobsonian is amazing because it has a very simple mount. The base spins around in a circle on the horizontal axis, the telescope is held on a hinge that moves it up and down on the vertical axis. It’s what’s known as a type of altazimuth mount. The mount design makes it easy to have a portable, easy to use, large aperture scope that is accessible in use for beginners.

The 130 number indicates the aperture size in millimetres – in this case 130 mm or close to 5 inches. The bigger the aperture the more light you can capture, and telescopes are all about getting that light. The more you can take in the clearer the object will be and the further you will be able to see. This is resolution.

With lenses, the higher the number of millimetres the less zoomed out things will be, the lower the number the more zoomed in. You might think that means you want the smallest number possible but hold your horses, there. For one, as mentioned, telescopes are a fiddly ball-ache. Using a lower magnification to find what you want, centring it in your eyepiece, then putting the higher magnification eyepiece in, then focussing, etc. makes this process a lot easier. Plus there are things for which you want the field of view. My 25 mm eyepiece fits the entire Pleiades cluster in it, my 9 mm doesn’t. If I want to look at the whole thing, I need that 25 mm. For two, your scope is going to have a highest useful magnification. Exceed that and everything is going to look dim and grainy.

The Pleiades - several blue stars against a black backdrop
The Pleiades don’t look like this through a telescope, either – you’ll see a lot of bluish-white dots. Still pretty, but don’t get your hopes up! Credit: Dylan O’Donnell.

Those eyepieces also come in a variety of types (I told you this was a pain in the arse), the most affordable and available of which are Plossl, Kellner and Orthoscopic. Manufacturer, optics quality and cost will all factor in but a beginner with a starter kit of three Plossl isn’t going to know the difference.

Finally, the Barlow lens is a clever little bastard of an eyepiece that acts as an attachment between the telescope and your standard eyepieces, increasing their magnification. A 2X Barlow Lens, then, would effectively double your magnification. If you got 32 mm, 12.5 mm and 6 mm eyepieces you could use your Barlow to effectively transform them into a 16 mm, 6.25 mm and 3 mm equivalent.

The article is remarkably negative, and there’s a good reason for that. Go on eBay right now, type ‘telescope’ into the box, look at every one and see how many have been “used once then chucked in the loft.” Look at reviews for them on Amazon and see how many people say “Not what I was expecting, it took ages to get it set up, then it was so fiddly and I didn’t get to see anything.” People see those ‘National Geographic’ branded telescopes for £20 in the Argos sale and think it’ll be great but it turns out they’re rubbish and have no better magnification than a decent set of binoculars. They come with garbage lenses and mirrors, crappy eyepieces and everything looks blurred.

Taking up the telescope as part of your amateur astronomy hobby is like being into juggling and deciding to set fire to the clubs you juggle with. Eventually, with practice, it will be incredibly impressive. Until you learn, though, you’ll just get burned. If you’re not willing to deal with that pain, don’t bother.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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