Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's trashscope season again - don't be fooled

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Even if I don't pay attention to anything else, I'll always know that the holidays are around the corner when the trashscopes come out.
  • What's a trashscope? It's a mass market telescope that over promises and under delivers.
  • How to recognize one? If you walk into a store that normally doesn't sell telescopes and there's one on display it's probably junk. That includes big box stores, camera stores, educational stores, drug stores, and department stores.
But what can you get for that budding young stargazer? How will you know what to buy? Here's some guidance:
  • Consider a good pair of binoculars and a companion book on stargazing. Your first telescope provides some guidance here. The right kind of binoculars will have a lot to offer including portability, ease of use, wide field of view, and they can be used for far more than just stargazing.
  • If you have your heart set on seeing the rings of Saturn you'll need a telescope. But before you buy take some time to learn about telescopes. Read Avoiding the Christmas trash-Telescope Blues or check out this series of short videos over at the One Minute Astronomer on How to Choose a Telescope.

Why do people buy trashscopes? Basically it comes down to the fact that most people aren't familiar with telescopes. Things about telescopes that you might think are important aren't and get over sold. As a result people can be easily mislead. High magnification, large numbers of eyepieces, large and beautiful pictures of galaxies and planets on the box are the hallmarks of this deception.

When it comes to the familiar people are more apt to spot things that look too good to be true. Consider buying a car. If you were to walk into a store and saw a car that promised to carry 10 people, out accelerate a dragster, out maneuver a Ferrari, use less gas than a hybrid, and cost only a bit more than a bicycle - you wouldn't be fooled. So the way to get a scope that you will enjoy is to learn a few basics and to remember that a telescope is no different than any other hobby item. You get what you pay for.

Please take a few moments read the articles and check out the the videos above. And when you're done visit a telescope store or find a star party and talk to the people there.

If you are looking for an inexpensive starter scope, consider the modest Celestron First Scope. It costs less than a typical trashscope and will perform much better. And if you do get the astronomy bug, remember it's called the First Scope for a reason - there will be a second once you know what you want. And if you don't get the bug, it will provide hours of casual stargazing fun.

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