Avoiding the Trash Telescope Blues

"Am I doing something wrong or is it this telescope" the caller on the telephone asked. "It doesn't seem to focus, and I am never sure what I am pointing at."

Writer Terence Dickinson describes a call from another frustrated owner of a $200 department-store telescope, the kind that comes in an attractive package announcing "450-Power Astronomical Telescope." 

"It's the telescope" is the answer. Dickinson goes on to explain that the caller had a typical example of what astronomers dub "Christmas Trash Telescopes." They're designed, not to use, but to sell themselves. Loaded with an impressive selection of accessories, emblazoned with color photos of planets and nebulae, these packages have tremendous appeal to well-meaning gift givers or would-be beginning astronomers.

Unfortunately the scopes in these gaudy packages generally suffer from several major flaws:

  • The tripods are flimsy. Magnified images require a rock-steady mount if they're not to jump all over the place.
  • Quality of the eyepieces and other accessories is low. Face it - 1 really fine eyepiece can cost more that the total cost of these packages. 
  • The magnification is unusable. It's easy to put together a combination with a dramatic-sounding magnification: put a 6mm eyepiece on a 900mm scope, add a three-power Barlow lens, and you've got 450 power telescope. But you've gone beyond the maximum resolving power of the telescope, the image is abysmally dim, and it's totally impossible to focus.
  • These scopes can't grow. Most use a .965" diameter eyepiece, and few quality eyepieces are made in this small size. 

We'd rather not sell anything than sell a telescope that will turn enthusiasm to disgust. One visitor to my store said his daughter's telescope, purchased last Christmas, now stands in her room as an informal clothes rack!

What to look for in an entry-level telescope:

  • Sturdy tripod
  • Good focusing mechanism
  • One or two decent, relatively low-power eyepieces

Here's a decent First Telescope

Check our Guide To Choosing A Telescope

Terence Dickinson is the author of 14 astronomy books, the editor of SkyNews magazine, and an astronomy columnist for The Toronto Star and the Canadian Discovery Channel.

His book NightWatch is a wonderful introduction to telescopes and astronomy. $29.99

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