Parent's Resource Center

Choosing the Right Telescope for your Child

So you've decided to take the plunge and get your child a telescope. 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. So what comes next? Not an impulsive shopping spree at the nearest mall! Buying a telescope is very different than buying a television, and department store salespeople are rarely familiar with the needs of amateur astronomers.

Hobbies are good for kids. Please see last month's article on "Should kids get involved in Astronomy".   Astronomy can challenge children at many levels - it can challenge their skill (observing & patience), challenge their intellect (learning the science & honing their imagination), 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 the kid didn't want in the first place. However, as a hobby, early success with the telescope is important so the child will give astronomy a chance.  

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

What to Buy, Besides the Telescope

First, get yourself the First Light kit  that brings together the essential resources a beginner needs to get started observing the sky. This kit includes the Original 2-sided Planisphere (a cardboard-and-plastic disk that gives a miniature picture of the stars in the sky. Just dial in the time and date and it shows you what the sky should look like), Sky Atlas (Nearly 200 deep sky objects...each one visible either in a 2.5" telescope or a pair of 7x50 binoculars.  Perfect first atlas for the beginner), and Exploring the night sky with binoculars (A simple but thorough introduction to observing the sky at night).  Each of these things can be bought separately by clicking above.

Next, get a beginner's star gazing book. My personal favorites are "Monthly Sky Guide" by Ian Ridpath and Wil Tirion ($16.95 USD).  This is not exactly a "children's" book, so young children will need some help with it. But it is for beginners, so don't worry about it being too technical. It gives some basic background material on astronomy, and then gives a month-by-month guide on interesting things to look at in the sky.  Another great book is "Peterson Field Guides-Stars and Planets" by Jay M. Pasachoff, Donald H. Menzel, Roger Tory Peterson ($14.40 USD) this book contains star charts that are broken down by month, good for beginner to advanced astronomer.  Also, check out Astronomy Learn What's Up for a monthly chart on things going on in the night sky.

You should also get a dim flashlight. Most astronomers recommend getting a special red flashlight to preserve your night vision.  You can always use a regular flashlight but put a red acetate on the lens to dim the light.  Or you can spend about $10.00 for a professional one.

You will want a chair and table that you can take outside and which won't be damaged if they get wet from the dew.  

What to Do

If you just buy the stuff mentioned above 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.
  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 one of 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. 

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

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

Finally, to the subject matter.  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 popular belief, 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) also known as an occular.
  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

The cheapest scopes don't have removable eyepieces. For example, I've seen a 50mm (that means the aperture is 2 inches in diameter) with a zoom eyepiece for 25-75 power. I saw it priced around $85.00 USD. If you buy one of these, you won't be able to improve the equipment at all. You throw it away (or sell it at a garage sale for 1/10 what you paid) and buy a brand new scope. Not only that, but an aperture of 2 inches won't really let you see anything fun, but you can see the moon and satellites of Jupiter, but probably wouldn't be able to see the rings of Saturn too clearly.

I don't recommend going this route, and I definitely advise against getting an even cheaper scope. If you're so unsure of your child's ability to stick with astronomy, just get the accessories I mentioned above, and an inexpensive pair of binoculars (Edmund Scientific has "7X50 ES Economy Binoculars" for $50 USD; call 800-728-6999 for info). In 6 months, if the child is still interested and asking for a telescope, spend a little more and take a step or two up.  

The medium-cheap scopes have eyepieces that are .96 inches in diameter. It is possible to buy a limited range of these eyepieces. Also, when you finally get a better telescope, you will need a special adapter to use your collection of .96 eyepieces, and you will be disappointed with the results.  

Go this route if there's a good chance that your child will lose interest. The least expensive ones that are worth buying are from Tasco (many astronomers say that Tasco's aren't worth buying; I consider them marginal, and many people agree). I've seen their 60mm aperture (about 2.4 inches) being sold by JC Penny for $100 USD. If you can spend $120 USD, then go with an Orion "Observer 60mm". This This gives you better overall quality.  I would also like to suggest checking Celestron Novice 60, 60mm 2.4 inches focal length 700mm, wooden tripod altazimuth (up and down, side to side) mount.

The high-end cheap telescopes have eyepieces that are 1 inches in diameter. These are the same size eyepieces used in expensive scopes, so you'll be able to get high-quality eyepieces for your first scope, and they will also work on bigger and better scopes.  

Go this route if there's a good chance that your child (or maybe even you) will stick with it and want to improve the scope. The least expensive ones are from Orion (click on Orion and it will take you to their website). Unlike Tasco, almost all astronomers consider Orion to be of basically good quality.  I would also like to suggest checking Celestron Firstscope 60, 60mm aperature, focal length 700mm, take either .96 or 1 eyepieces.

If you're willing to spend a significant amount more for a significantly better scope, look at two offerings: 

  1. Stargazer Steve's Deluxe Reflector Kit for about $240 US including shipping. NOTE: this one is a kit that must be put together. It has a video that shows how, and I'm told that it's easy to do in one evening.
  2. Orion's "ShortTube 4.5 EQ" for $250 US not including shipping. 
  3. Dobsonian Plans - visit San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers website, this gives complete details on how to build your own Dobsonian scope.
These give you a lot more aperture (4+ inches instead of 2.4). They are "reflecting" telescopes (the above ones are "refractors"), which means that they have a mirror at one end that reflects the light to a second mirror which then reflects the light to the eyepiece is mounted on the side of the telescope. 

Finally, if you've got the money to spend and you want a much better scope, you can go with a Meade or Celestron 8" or above for Deep Space Exploration for $1200-$3000 USD.  

Better yet, go to a "star party" with an astronomy club (ask a near-by school's science teacher or optical store). Then you can actually try out some scopes with experienced people there to help.  

It is often possible to get the scope cheaper by getting a used one. See AstroMart and The Starry Messenger (TSM). 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 or call an optical store), get in touch with them. They are often the best source for a good-quality used scope at a good price.  There is also a place called Astro Directory sponsored by Sky & Telescope magazine which lists museums, planetariums, observatories and clubs.

* * * 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 use depends mostly on the thing you're looking at - star clusters and nebulae usually need low power, the moon and planets usually need 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 can be 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.  

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. 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.  

So, ignore the "power" 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: