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Parent's Guide to Children's Telescopes


This guide is intended for an adult who is thinking about getting a telescope for a child. (I like to think that it would also be helpful for adults and children who want a telescope for themselves.) I'll assume that you don't know if the child will stay interested in the telescope. Therefore, you would like to start out as inexpensive as possible.

First a question: Why would a you want to get a child a telescope? The obvious answer is that the child wants one. But I would ask you to consider something more.

Hobbies are good for kids. A hobby like astronomy can challenge children at many levels - it can challenge their skill (observing), challenge their intellect (learning the science), and it can challenge their piggie banks (buying more equipment). In my experience, both with children and adults, those who have hobbies tend to be happier and better adjusted than those who don't.

There is a big difference between getting a child a telescope as just another toy versus as a hobby. As a toy, it doesn't really matter that much if the child is successful at using the telescope. If the child becomes frustrated and loses interest, the telescope ends up in the basement next the other toys that had no lasting value. However, as a hobby, early success with the telescope is important so the child will give astronomy a chance.

I hope that this guide will help you get your child started on a successful, rewarding, and long-lasting hobby of amateur astronomy.

NOTE: everything in here is my own personal opinion. You should know that there are many amateur astronomers who disagree with some of what I say. For example, many would tell you never to buy a Tasco telescope. Also, many would disagree with some of my favorite accessories (like "Monthly Sky Guide" as the best beginner's star gazing book). Just keep in mind that there are many paths to True Enlightenment. I hope my guide will help you find the path that's right for you.

What to Buy, Besides the Telescope

In my opinion, the telescope itself is among the least important things to buy, so I'll talk about it later. Many astronomers recommend that a beginner not use one at all for the first few months of star gazing. Of course, you and I know that this is silly - no child I know of would be happy with that option. That said, the following items are just as important as the scope, if not more so.

There are lots of other accessories you can get (many people insist that a "Telrad" is essential, especially for beginners), but this should get you off to a good start. Even among the accessories I covered, there are many alternate suppliers available. I don't claim to have done extensive research on accessories; the above suggestions are only intended to be representative of what is available.


What to Do

If you just buy the stuff for your child, throw everything in the back yard, and hope for the best, you're running two risks:

  1. your child will be disappointed and maybe even frustrated with using the scope, and
  2. you will miss out on a wonderful opportunity to spend some quality time with your child, and maybe even learn a few things yourself.

I'm a parent, and I know full well that free time is the hardest thing to find in your day. However, I firmly believe that spending a little time up front with your child to get a good start with the telescope will reap benefits that will make it all worth while. If you're still not sure, I hope I can convince you.

You should help your child get a good start with astronomy in several ways:

Rather than explain each of those in detail here, I'm including a pointer to a separate guide to "Helping Your Child".

I will, however, repeat one strong recommendation. If there's an astronomy club in your area (ask a near-by school's science teacher), then you should get in contact with them. They hold "star parties" where you can see first-hand what astronomy is all about. These are "kid-friendly" events that let you see a variety of sights through a range of telescopes.

There's one final thing that you should understand - a child's expectations (and maybe yours too) are likely to be different from reality when using the telescope. We've all seen the amazing and beautiful photographs of planets and galaxies and exploding stars. However, you must understand that these photographs are taken on very sensitive film with long exposure times, often from outer space. You won't see anything like those photos in the eyepiece of a telescope, even a very expensive one.

However, when you point your telescope at the Andromeda galaxy, and realize just how far away it is, and how many stars are in it, and realize that there is probably life somewhere in that vast swarm of stars ... well, it's hard to explain the power of the feelings. All this even though Andromeda looks like a fuzzy smudge through the telescope. Somehow, knowing that the light from that galaxy is passing through your own telescope and into your eyes makes all the difference in the world.


What Telescope to Buy

For an adult interested in astronomy, I would strongly encourage them to start with binoculars - an inexpensive pair will have much better quality than a similarly priced telescope, they're easier to use, and if you lose interest in astronomy, binoculars can come in handy in a variety of settings, from nature walks to sports events to concerts and theater.

However, I understand that many children have their hearts set on a real telescope. And contrary to what many astronomers would say, I think it is possible to get a fairly inexpensive scope to start out with. But there are tradeoffs that you should be aware of.

The quality of a telescope is primarily measured in three ways:

  1. the diameter of the aperture (how wide is the opening that points at the stars - the bigger the better),
  2. the optical quality of the eyepiece (the part you put your eye up to),
  3. the quality of the mount (usually a tripod for inexpensive scopes).

Notice that I didn't mention "power". Please understand that power is not a useful measure of the quality of a telescope! Pay no attention to advertisements of power - a 600 power scope is not better than a 400 power scope. I'll talk more about power a little later on.

Which telescope you choose for your child will depend a lot on how well you want to protect your investment. Ideally, you want to spend a small amount of money, just in case the child loses interest. If that happens, then you would like to be able to sell the telescope to recoup a reasonable amount of the expense. However, if the child's interest grows, you would like to be able to improve your equipment gradually and smoothly with incremental expenses.

To improve an inexpensive telescope, you will usually start out by getting more (and better) eyepieces. At some point you'll want to get a better tripod, possibly with a motor to follow the stars as they move across the sky. And finally, you'll want to get a new telescope with a larger aperture (the opening that points at the stars). Ideally, when you take this last step, you'll be able to use the eyepieces and maybe even the tripod that you bought earlier.

Here are the least expensive choices:

Naturally, there are many other choices available (and many other companies - honest, I'm not employed by Orion!). I don't claim to have done extensive research on inexpensive scopes; the above suggestions are only intended to be representative of what is available.

It is often possible to get the scope cheaper by getting a used one. See AstroMart. However, in my experience those sources are usually selling much better scopes for more money than you might want to spend. But it can be a great value if you're serious about astronomy.

Finally, if there is an astronomy club in your area (ask a near-by school's science teacher), get in touch with them. They are often the best source for a good-quality used scope at a good price.


* * * Power * * *

Most inexpensive telescopes advertise that they can do 400, 600, or even 800 power (usually abbreviated 400X, 600X, or 800X). But "power" is not a useful measure of telescope quality. It simply tells you how much it magnifies what you're looking at. The amount of magnification you need depends mostly on the thing you're looking at - star clusters and nebulae usually need low power, the moon and planets are usually better at high power. The simple fact is that any telescope can be made to operate at any power! All it requires is using the right eyepiece. So, the advertising is deceptive.

But it's even worse than that! As you increase magnification (power), the quality of the view decreases. This is true for every telescope in existence, even professional ones. A 200 power view is fuzzier and darker than a 100 power view, a 400 power view is fuzzier and darker still. For any given power, the thing that determines view quality is the diameter of the aperture. A 200 power eyepiece on a 2-inch aperture scope will produce a view that is so fuzzy and dark that it is not useful. A 200 power eyepiece on an 8-inch aperture scope will produce a view that is only slightly fuzzy but quite useable.

Consider an inexpensive telescope with a 2.4-inch aperture. At 50 power, you should see a good view. At 100 power, the view will be fuzzy but still nice. At 150 power, the view will be poor enough to be very objectionable. At 200 power, the view will be so poor that it won't be useful.

So what happens if you crank that sucker up to 800 power, like the advertisements say? You will see nothing useful; probably nothing at all. Technically, the scope is operating at 800 power; they're not exactly lying. But they're misleading you terribly - even super-expensive scopes can't operate well at 800 power.

As a rule of thumb, the maximum useful power for a telescope is 60 times the telescope's diameter in inches, or 2 times the diameter in millimeters. That 2-inch scope should not be used at over 120 power. Even that rule starts to break down with large scopes. A 10-inch scope won't see anything useful at 600 power, just because the Earth's atmosphere isn't steady enough. 400 power is about the limit, no matter what how good your scope.

So, ignore the "power" number advertised for a telescope. Look at the diameter of the aperture (the bigger the better), the quality of the mount, and the quality of the eyepieces when deciding which to buy.


In Conclusion . . .

When you buy your child a telescope:

As the child's interests grow and evolve, look at my main astronomy page for more advanced information.

Good luck, and may your child's experience with astronomy be different from my first experience.


Sfordsez: if you haven't seen my standard disclaimer and copyright at http://www.geeky-boy.com/standard.html then check it out now.