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Telescopes: Myths and Facts


Van Gogh's 'Starry Night'

Amateur astronomy equipment ranges from telescopes that will barely fit in the back of a truck and expensive computerized navigation systems to inexpensive binoculars and basic star maps, with everything in between. If you're a beginning hobby astronomer, where should you start? Are refracting telescopes best, or are reflecting telescopes? Should you buy the most expensive telescope you can or start small? You can ask hundreds of different questions about buying a first telescope, but a good way to begin your research is to clear up a few common myths about telescopes.

Myths and Facts about Telescopes:

  1. Myth: Telescope magnification is everything. Many telescopes list incredible magnification specs. However, while specifications like these are technically true, many of these telescopes will not produce visible images at these magnifications. It's kind of like blowing up a blurry photo. You might be able to blow a blurry image up 600x, but that doesn't mean it will look good.

  2. Fact: Telescope aperture is nearly everything. Telescope aperture -- or the diameter of the mirror or lens a telescope uses -- makes a big difference in the kinds of objects you can see. Telescope aperture determines how much light your telescope can focus, and the more light your telescope focuses, the brighter and more detailed the images you will see. However, the caveat here is that the image any telescope produces will be only as good as the quality of the telescope's optics. If you have a choice between a big telescope of questionable quality and a small telescope of high quality, choose the small one.

  3. Myth: You can expect to see Hubble quality images with a good telescope. Many of the incredible images of nebulae and star clusters that you have seen online or in books came from telescopes that are the size of your house or the Hubble telescope, which is the size of a house, has a mirror that's seven feet across and takes pictures from space. Hobby telescopes simply can't compete with these massive telescopes.

  4. Fact: You can still see incredible things with a telescope. Detailed images of Pluto are beyond the abilities of hobby telescopes; nevertheless, there are still thousands of beautiful objects that you can see with a moderately priced refracting telescope or reflecting telescope. You can spot star clusters and nebulae and Saturn's rings. They will not be as large as the space images that make headlines, but they can still be breathtaking, and they give you a chance to learn about different celestial objects.

  5. Myth: You should always pay a lot of money for a telescope. If you spend as much on a telescope as you would on a car, you'll probably get a nice telescope; yet, shelling out that much money is no guarantee that you will see incredible things. In fact, if you're a beginning astronomer, a high-end telescope may be too complicated for you to use properly, resulting in poor images and a less than satisfactory astronomy experience.

  6. Fact: Inexpensive telescopes make great beginner telescopes. With dark skies, an inexpensive, quality telescope can allow you to see a number of exciting objects in nice detail, and a beginning scope is a good way to learn to locate objects in the sky. In fact, many experienced home astronomers recommend beginning an astronomy hobby with a decent pair of binoculars. However you choose to start, you don't have a spend an arm and a leg to begin enjoying astronomy.

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