Recommendations for Beginning Amateur Astronomers

Copyright (c) 1998, 1999, 2000 Jay Reynolds Freeman (

Amateur astronomers occasionally seek advice on telescope buying, learning the sky, observing skills, and so on. Here are some thoughts.

(My credentials? I do visual astronomy: I have logged about 13000 observations of over 5000 objects, and used some thirty telescopes and binoculars enough to know them well. I have made about ten optical surfaces to 16-inch diameter. My forte is deep-sky work: I am especially proud of logging the Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy (10x70 binocular), Maffei I and Einstein's Cross (Celestron 14), and Simeis 147 (6-inch Maksutov). My interests led to a physics PhD, studying the interstellar medium from a spacecraft: By training I am an astrophysicist, but I have amateur status in the visual -- my thesis work used extreme ultraviolet light.)

What to do First.

Written words do not replace experience. Join an astronomy club, go to observing sessions, try others' telescopes. You will learn a lot.

To find clubs, ask at science stores, museums, and planetariums. College physics or astronomy departments may know, though clubs aren't their line. The magazines Sky & Telescope and Astronomy publish annual directories of clubs, stores, observatories, and such. Find them on newsstands, or in a library -- or try their respective web pages, and

Been to a club already? Honest? Okay, keep reading...

If you have a telescope, you might skip on to "What about observing skills?". Otherwise, here are some hints on telescope selection.

Hey! Just Tell Me What To Buy.

If you must be led by the nose, I have put specific recommendations in a postscript at the end. Just don't come crying when you find you would have made a better decision with more homework: I told you so!

Some Basic Questions.

Telescope buyers face bewildering, expensive choices. To deal with the confusion, ask yourself these questions.

With these thoughts in mind, I can make some general comments.

Some Realities.

What are common mistakes?

What about mountings?

A badly mounted telescope may jiggle too much, or move in jerks too big for finding things. Beginners often do not appreciate these problems, and many units advertised as first telescopes have mounts that are way too flimsy, particularly mass-market junk refractors.

Good mounts can be expensive. For equatorially mounted telescopes, a very rough rule of thumb is that a decent mounting will cost as much as the optical tube assembly. Good altazimuth mountings are generally less costly, but that does not mean cheap altazimuth mountings are good ones.

Carefully weigh the benefits of an equatorial mounting versus its added cost, weight, and bulk. Even without a sidereal drive, an equatorial mounting often makes it easier to find objects and track them across the sky, and it also helps figure out directions in the field of view. Yet if you mostly prefer to observe deep-sky objects at lower magnifications, these advantages may be minor.

A driven mounting, whether equatorial or altazimuth, also offers advantages. It helps when you are making precision observations at high magnification, or when you want to step away from the eyepiece to consult your charts or make notes, and it is invaluable for showing things to long lines of people at a star party.

Among altazimuth mountings, the style invented by John Dobson has special merits. Sturdy construction from materials that damp vibration well makes a good observing platform. Slippery plastic -- like DuPont's "Teflon" -- in the bearings lets you track stars by hand, without electrical or mechanical slow motions. Simplicity permits inexpensive Dobson mountings that are solid and durable. Unfortunately, some commercial manufacturers of Dobson-mounted Newtonians have cut too many corners, and produced units that are too flimsy.

What about accessories?

I have already said most of what you need to know about accessories, which is that APERTURE WINS. If you are budgeting a telescope, and eyepieces, finders, and such account for most of your funds, think more on what you plan to do -- it might be better to get a bigger telescope instead of fancy accessories. A 10-inch telescope with a hand magnifier as eyepiece will give a better view of most objects than an 8-inch with the world's best eyepieces. Why? Because APERTURE WINS.

Yet if you are up against limits of telescope portability, or have lots of money, or like technology, go ahead and buy fancy accessories. I won't tell, provided you remember that APERTURE WINS.

In any case, I will mention some plain-vanilla accessories that you might want to have, and maybe a few chocolate ones, too:

What about observing skills?

Even some experienced amateur astronomers think seeing things comes free and easy, with no more effort than opening your eyes: But as current popular slang so evocatively articulates,


Vision is an acquired skill. You must learn it, you must practice, and you must keep learning new things, and practicing them, too.

Buying a big telescope to see better is like buying a big pot to cook better, or a big computer to program better. It might help, but cooking and programming depend more on knowledge and experience than on hardware. So does visual astronomy. People with garages full of telescopes (I can't close the door to mine) are victims of materialism, marketeering, and hyperbole. Practice is cheaper, and works better. As I said before, an experienced observer may see things with a small telescope that a beginner will miss with one five times larger.

Canadian amateur astronomer Gary Seronik has said that telescopes are like musical instruments. It takes time to learn to play them well, and even an accomplished musician cannot necessarily make beautiful music with a new or unfamiliar instrument right away. And it certainly doesn't make sense to buy a bigger piano or guitar with the hope of thereby making better music.

What skills may you hope to cultivate? What techniques should you practice? Not all have names, but here are a few, in what I think is order of importance; what matters most comes first.

I am not kidding by putting patience and persistence first. There is a lot of stuff in my logbook that I did not see during the first five seconds, or the first five nights, or even the first five years. If you give up, you won't see a thing.

Clear sky, and enjoy your telescope.

                                                -- Jay Freeman

PS: Specific Recommendations For The Lazy.

If you are too lazy to do your homework, for shame! Oh, all right, here are some recommendations which may help if you are buying in the United States. Since you forfeit any claim to making an informed decision, I will not explain or justify them.

If you simply must have a telescope right away...