Jimmy Westlake: A telescope under the tree
November 24, 2010
I'll never forget my first telescope. When I was 10 years old, my mom and dad purchased a little 2.5-inch reflecting telescope and put it under the Christmas tree with my name on it. It didn't take me long to discover the moons of Jupiter, the craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn, and a whole universe of surprises. Since that modest first telescope, I have graduated to larger and larger instruments, some of which I made myself. But that first little telescope was really something special. I still have it somewhere up in the attic.
Lots of moms and dads think about giving the gift of a first telescope this time of year, but many don't know where to start. If you would like to put a telescope under the tree for a young boy or girl on your gift list, here are some important points to keep in mind.
First, don't be misled by claims of 400 or 500 magnifying power on the telescope box. Magnification is the least important feature of a telescope, but marketers know that claiming high magnification increases sales. No small telescope can give a good, clear image at 500 power. Instead, you want to put your money into the largest diameter lens or mirror that you can afford. For example, a reflecting telescope with a 4-inch mirror will show the rings around Saturn even at 80x magnification. The larger the diameter of the lens or mirror, the sharper the view will be. I recommend a reflecting telescope, which uses a mirror, over the traditional refracting telescope, which uses a lens. Dollar for dollar, you get more telescope with a reflector than a refractor.
The second important feature to look for is a rock-solid mount. If it came on a wobbly mount, even the Hubble Space Telescope would be very frustrating to use and would probably be left to gather dust in the closet. Two good mounting styles to look for are an equatorial mount or a Dobsonian mount. Avoid wobbly-legged wooden tripods at all costs.
Finally, you can get a "smart" telescope with some fancy go-to technology that automatically will point your telescope to any object in the sky that you choose, but your young astronomer will miss the experience of getting out the star charts and finding the objects on his or her own. That's the best way for him or her to learn the way across the sky. And, when your young astronomer proudly invite you to step up and look at the Orion Nebula that they found all by themselves, you'll share their excitement of discovery, too.
For more tips on buying that first telescope, check out the article "Telescopes 101" at http://www.telescopes.com.
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Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published all across the world. Check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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