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I'm hoping someone can point me in the right direction for a beginner-friendly telescope for my family.

My husband has mentioned wanting a telescope off and on for a few years, but he's never delved into the idea enough to give specifics. We have an autistic 7-year-old who has developed a Special Interest in astronomy, and since it's our practice to delve into his SI's with him, it seems like a good time to take the plunge.

Pertinent information...

  1. We live in a major metropolitan area -- in the suburbs about 30-45 minutes from downtown Chicago. We will be able to drive to a less light-polluted area from time to time, but realistically, we'll be seeing what we can see from the yard or second-story balcony most of the time.

  2. 7yo will likely be most interested in objects seen with some degree of detail -- planets, stars, comets, our moon, other brighter objects. We adults would like to glimpse some of the dimmer objects as well, though we know they'll be faint. 7yo will likely be impressed by glimpsing those objects, as well, since he's a bit obsessed with the vastness of the universe at the moment.

  3. We are true beginners. Think of people who have never touched a scope. But we're patient and smart, so we can learn. Which is kind of the point, I suppose.

  4. 7yo is not always patient, so an easy, quick set-up would be desirable.

  5. No children will be using the scope unsupervised, but we will be teaching 7yo how to use it while closely supervised.

  6. If giving specific recommendations, we'd like to keep the cost under $500US.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not a telescope recommendation, so I write this as a comment: Have you looked at amateur astronomy clubs in your city? It's probably a lot easier to get specific help there, especially once you have a telescope but have problems setting up/ tracking/ random other thing. But they also might tell you where and what best to buy. Also, they usually have regular meetings where the interested public can look through a (large, good) telescope, at objects that they know are interesting to look at. $\endgroup$ – Alex Aug 9 '16 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Alex That's a great suggestion! I hadn't thought of it, and I will, indeed, look into it. Our schedule is very tight, but we might be lucky to find one we can fit in! $\endgroup$ – writergirlmel Aug 10 '16 at 12:01
  • $\begingroup$ A pair of good big binoculars sounds like a good idea to me. Intuitive to handle and good for experiencing the universe. And easy to bring along on vacation to a not so light polluted area. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Aug 12 '16 at 2:55
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Cheap telescopes are just fine

I won't recommend a specific telescope, but I can tell you the following: I live in the middle of Copenhagen, and with my random 15 year old 4" telescope, which at that time cost \$300-$400, I can see the Moon's craters and mountain ridges, Jupiter's belts and moons, Saturn's ring, Venus' phases, and some nebulae. My telescope is manual, i.e. has no motor to track the sky, but I'd guess that today for the same price, you could get a telescope that does have a motor and a small computer that can find celestial objects, which makes things much easier.

Stay home

In my experience, going outside the city doesn't really add much to the experience (for amateur telescopes). To really see dark skies, you need to be 50-100 km away from the nearest large city, I'd say. Maybe that's not far from you, but when buying a telescope, you should also take into account that larger telescopes are more difficult to transport and set up, so if it's too large, you might end up never pulling yourself together to take it out.

Stay inside

If you take your telescope outside, it takes some time before it has reached the same temperature as the air, and during this time, there can be quite a lot of turbulence, which makes the image flicker. If I quickly want to show my 7 yo something, I simply use it from inside my living room, looking through the window. Two minutes, and he's impressed (until something else catches his attention).

What you see is not spectacular

Also, you should be prepared that there's no way that you can see anything like the colorful pictures that you can find on the internet. You will be able to see that Jupiter and Mars have slightly red colors, but apart from that, most things will look black/white. The reason is that the eye needs much more light than can be collected through a telescope in order to see colors. The largest telescope that I've looked through with the eye was a 31" telescope, and even that didn't reveal much colors.

To see colors, you need to take a picture with a long exposure. Many telescopes have the possibility of attaching a camera to it, but for this you definitely need a telescope with a motor such that it moves along with the sky, or else everything will just leave long white trail across the image.

You should also be prepared that planets and the like will look quite small. You could see something like this (very approximately to scale):

img

Know what you see

The beauty of what you see in an amateur telescope, even if it's small and dim, lies in knowing what it is that you see. Knowing that some nebula is 1000 lightyears away, and that its ever so slightly reddish color is hydrogen being illuminated by young, massive stars makes it much more fantastic to see.

My telescope is of medium quality. What you get for an expensive one is probably more clear images, but the most important factor is the light-collecting area, i.e. a 5" will show you more than a 4". I'm sure users like Florin Andrei can tell you more here.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you so much for responding! I did know the basics about what types of views to. I did not, however realize that moving the scope from inside to outside would affect things. Sounds like we definitely need to make aperture a priority. Judging from just going out and looking at the sky last night, our 7yo is going to be teaching his parents what we're looking at. $\endgroup$ – writergirlmel Aug 10 '16 at 12:10
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Here are some things you might find useful:

Aperture

Aperture is the most important factor that goes into a telescope purchase, NOT magnification! Doubling the diameter of the mirror (i.e. going from a 4" telescope to an 8") results in a light collecting area four times greater. Planets and the moon will appear more detailed and be more enjoyable to observe. More faint objects such as nebulae and galaxies will be visible. Brighter deep sky objects will show more detail, but no color! I upgraded from an old, dusty 4.5" to a 10" with a new high quality eyepiece and was totally blown away. I was able to see the satellite galaxies of M31, the Andromeda galaxy, rich detail in the gas clouds of M42, the Orion nebula, and 40 other Messier objects during 5 nights of observing in December.

So hopefully I have gotten my point across: aperture is your number one priority!

Mounts

A telescope that is easy to use and setup will get used more often. A classic Newtonian mount meets both criterion above. The telescope is often quite light and can be kept on its tripod in storage. One drawback with lower end Newtonian's is the inevitable cheap tripod that will come with the telescope. Cheap tripods are not very stable and often feel flimsy. You will find many options for small aperture, cheap Newtonian telescopes on Amazon, but remember, your goal is to maximize aperture! These are most often the telescopes that end up living most of their lives in a closet (I know from experience!)

Pros:

  • Lightweight, easy to move from storage to observing location
  • Can be stored on tripod for easy of use

Cons:

  • Tripod will be cheap and flimsy and lower price ranges
  • Included eyepieces will be junk
  • Low aperture/price ratio
  • No option of using 2" eyepieces (I will cover these below!)

If you want to maximize aperture while keeping costs low, the humble Dobsonian is the way to go. The optical housing can be left on the base just like a Newtonian and moved from storage to your observing location. I will go ahead and tell you that the base+telescope is heavy. Taking this up and down the stairs can be a pain, but the telescope can be removed from the base for transportation. A small stool will make observing much, much more enjoyable. I am 6'2" and have a hard time using my Dobsonian without a one. A big factor when observing is comfort: hunching over for hours will cut your observing sessions short. This is quite a small thing, but it will make quite a big difference in terms of enjoying your telescope.

Pros:

  • Best aperture/cost ratio
  • Most accept 2" wide angle eyepices
  • Easiest in terms of operating

Cons:

  • Big and bulky
  • Mount sits directly on the ground, so observing area must be relatively flat

Final verdict

It's clear from your post you are interested in amateur astronomy, so I don't think you're going to buy a telescope and let it collect dust in the garage. My recommendation below falls into your budget:

This telescope will include a junky 1.25" eyepiece in the box. The eyepiece I included is truly an order of magnitude better than the included one. Meade manufactures some of the best high quality telescope optics that are still affordable. This eyepiece has a greater field of view (it fits roughly 3 full moons from side-to-side in the field of view, whereas the included eyepiece snugly fits 2!) which simply enables you to see more of what you're looking at. The quality of the glass in the eyepiece is also far greater, so the image appears sharper and subtle details can be appreciated.

The last thing you want to do when observing light from a deep sky objects that is 10s to millions of light years away is lose it in a cheap eyepiece. While the 2" eyepiece certainly isn't necessary, I highly recommend you go ahead and get it.

Hope this helps!

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There are several options for you out there, and many good amateur telescopes. I'll just throw some things out that may help in your search.

Telescopes

Brands

I'd suggest going for something like a Celestron. They're well established and reliable from my experience. Aside from Celestron, this Vixen telescope has been rated as great for kids.

What to look for

Don't just go immediately for the telescope with the highest quoted magnification. Making something bigger isn't always the answer. If your image is blurry, magnifying it just gives you a big blurry picture. You'll want a telescope with a good combination of magnification (which can be changed based on your eyepiece) and aperture size (the size of the primary lens/mirror). In general, bigger = better when it comes to aperture size. Bigger means you collect more light and thus the object will be better defined. Usually, when a telescope lists itself as "XXX Telescope, 4 inch", that size is referring to the aperture diameter.

As pela mentioned, there's also the possibility of getting telescopes with automatic tracking software and equipment. Keep in mind that objects in the sky are constantly on the move and this motion is magnified in a telescope. If you get your telescope pointed at an object, it may only take minutes or seconds before that object has left your field of view. Tracking equipment would be built into the telescope and will almost imperceptibly move the telescope with the motion of your object so that it can stay in your field of view for long periods of time. This is especially necessary if you intend to move into the amazing field of astrophotography.

Binoculars

Just to throw another option out there, often a good pair of binoculars is just as good as a cheaper telescope. You can still view many features on the moon, or see Jupiter's Galilean moons. If you go this route, I'd suggest getting a monopod or something to help you hold the binoculars steady. Note also this may be trickier for young children to properly view through as they may have a hard time sighting on a particular object.

Star software

It can be very useful to bring along, or have available, a computer with software that can tell you what is currently in the sky and where to look. Online examples (if you're at home with wifi) would include this planetarium or else the more robust Stellarium software.

Viewing tips

  1. Check weather and cloud coverage before viewing. A good example might be this map. Even if the sky looks clear, there may be tenuous cloud cover that can obscure viewing for most objects.
  2. Get a red flashlight. You'll want to see what you're doing in the dark, but using a normal flashlight, or your phone, will ruin your eyes. To really see fine details, your eyes need to be adjusted to the dark which takes 10-30 minutes. Using a red flashlight to illuminate will prevent your eyes from being over-exposed.
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Sky and Telescope has a brief overview and a more comprehensive article on this topic. Beyond an ample aperture and a stable mount, some choices are matters of preference. Astronomy club public events are good opportunities to try a variety of equipment, with the owners' consent of course. In addition to brands mentioned in other answers, Meade and Orion make decent telescopes. A motivated beginner could get a lot of mileage out of a $200 instrument.

As for what to look at, Skymaps.com makes a monthly all-sky map which you can download and print free for personal use.

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