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Slashdot Asks: Cheap But Reasonable Telescopes for Kids? 187

Posted by timothy
from the will-take-credit-for-the-nobel-prize dept.
I am interested in a telescope for the use of some elementary and middle school aged relatives. Older and younger siblings, and parents, would no doubt get some scope time, too. Telescopes certainly come in a range of prices, from cheap to out of this world, and I am purely a duffer myself. But I enjoy looking at the moon and stars with magnification, and think they would, too. What I'm trying to find might be phrased like this: "the lowest priced scope that's reasonably robust, reasonably accurate, and reasonably usable for kids" -- meaning absolute precision is less important than a focus that is easy to set and doesn't drift. Simplicity in design beats tiny, ill-labeled parts or an incomprehensible manual, even if the complicated one might be slightly better when perfectly tuned. I'd be pleased if some of these kids decide to take up astronomy as a hobby, but don't have any strong expectation that will happen -- besides, if they really get into it, the research for a better one would be another fun project. That said, while I'm price sensitive, I'm not looking *only* at the price tag so much as seeking insight about the cluster of perceived sweet spots when it come to price / performance / personality. By "personality" I mean whether it's friendly, well documented, whether it comes intelligently packaged, whether it's a crapshoot as to whether a scope with the same model name will arrive in good shape, etc -- looking at online reviews, it seems many low-end scopes have a huge variance in reviews. What scopes would you would consider giving to an intelligent 3rd or 4th grader? As a starting point, Google has helped me find some interesting guides that list some scopes that sound reasonable, including a few under or near $100. (Here's one such set of suggestions.) What would you advise buying, from that list or otherwise? (There are some ideas that sound pretty good in this similar question from 2000, but I figure the state of the art has moved on.) I'm more interested in avoiding awful junk than I am expecting treasure: getting reasonable views of the moon is a good start, and getting at least some blurry rings around Saturn would be nice, too. Simply because they are so cheap, I'd like to know if anyone has impressions (worth it? pure junk?) of the Celestron FirstScope models, which are awfully tempting for under $50.
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Slashdot Asks: Cheap But Reasonable Telescopes for Kids?

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  • Thrift Store (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 23, 2014 @07:34PM (#47739147)

    I would say to check out thrift stores and yard/garage sales to see what you can find. It's amazing what gems you might discover for $10!

  • Binoculars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AbandonAllHope (211475) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @07:37PM (#47739165)

    My college astronomy teacher told us, on our last day of class, you're always better off with an expensive pair of binoculars verses a cheap telescope. This was several years ago but he seemed to be of the opinion that if your budget was less than $200, you were better off with binoculars. He also pointed out that if your child loses interest in astronomy, binoculars have a wide variety of other uses.

  • Binoculars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dlleigh (313922) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @07:40PM (#47739175)

    Don't buy a telescope. Instead, get a good pair of 10x50 binoculars and an intro astronomy book with pictures.

    A telescope will always take some setup and you'll be less likely to go to the effort as time goes on. With binoculars, you just grab them and go. That's a much better way to keep beginners interested.

  • Re:Dobsonian (Score:3, Interesting)

    by EmagGeek (574360) <gterich@@@aol...com> on Saturday August 23, 2014 @07:42PM (#47739197) Journal

    No. Absolutely not. Alt-az mounts are horrible, especially for beginning astronomers as there is a complete disconnect between the telescope axis and reality. An alt-az mount almost has to be motorized to be useful, and it drives up cost. People hocking dobs love to talk about how cheap the "dollars per inch" of the optics are, but the fail to mention you can look at something under high magnification for a few seconds before it disappears, and then you have to figure out how to track RA with an alt-az mount under high power and find the object again.

    There's no better way to get an astronomy newbie to QUIT the hobby than to set them up with a dob.

  • by mark_reh (2015546) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @07:49PM (#47739235) Journal

    I found one for $80 with computer go-to controller. Optics seem very good. Check Craig's List for stuff for sale in your area.

  • Re:Dobsonian (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 23, 2014 @07:51PM (#47739259)

    No. Absolutely not. Alt-az mounts are horrible, especially for beginning astronomers as there is a complete disconnect between the telescope axis and reality. An alt-az mount almost has to be motorized to be useful, and it drives up cost. People hocking dobs love to talk about how cheap the "dollars per inch" of the optics are, but the fail to mention you can look at something under high magnification for a few seconds before it disappears, and then you have to figure out how to track RA with an alt-az mount under high power and find the object again.

    There's no better way to get an astronomy newbie to QUIT the hobby than to set them up with a dob.

    Exactly the opposite ... You're going to expect an 11y to polar align?

  • by mbone (558574) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @07:55PM (#47739287)

    Get the best (Ha-Dec) mount you can. (I would not get an Alt-Az mount for a beginner on a budget.) Most department store type scopes have adequate optics, but very crappy mounts, and that makes for a miserable viewing experience. Get a very sturdy mount with a cheap scope,and then if the kid wants to move up, they have the mount for it.

  • Re:Binoculars (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rockoon (1252108) on Saturday August 23, 2014 @09:05PM (#47739679)

    Binoculars won't cut it if you want to see Jupiter's moons or Saturn's rings.

    The problem with this argument is that you've just listed the only things he will be missing with a budget purchase. Ideal viewing times for these come rarely, and at the magnifications required he would also need a very expensive tracking mount in order to really enjoy them.

    Astronomy binoculars have many benefits in the budget arena. They are rugged, low maintenance, both eyes is nice, and most importantly portable.

    The other reply had mentioned that a downside is that they are hard to hold steady. Thats what a tripod is for.

  • Re:Binoculars (Score:4, Interesting)

    by petes_PoV (912422) on Sunday August 24, 2014 @02:34AM (#47740677)
    This advice about binoculars had been obsoleted by cheap, good, chinese telescopes. (Ans pretty much every commercial telescope is chinese-made, these days)

    The advice came about after WW2 when there was a good supply of army surplus gear at very attractive prices. At the same time any amateur telescope was both expensive (being essentially hand made) and with poor quality optics and even worse mechanicals. The eyepieces sucked and the mountings available were completely rubbish.

    In those days, an "expensive" pair of binoculars would cost about £30 (UK currency - I don't know what that translates to in other currencies at the time). However that was roughly 2 - 3 weeks pay (before deductions) for a shop worker or junior office employee. Obviously at the the time, astronomy was a rich mans' game - and it was almost all men.

    With binoculars you are paying twice for the optics (one for each eye). Unless you go for top-end gear, you have fixed eyepieces that will only give a wide field of view - and them, you have to buy additional eyepeices in pairs. You also don't get any sort of mount - and a standard photographic tripod is unsuitable as you need to have the binoculars at eye height, or higher, in order to look upwards - a configuration that tripods are not designed for since you'd be standing too close. Without a mount, small arms will soon get tired of holding them at raised heights and you can't easily "star hop" to targets when you are a complete newbie. So using them is both frustrating and tiring.

    By all means buy a pair of binoculars (I have 3), but you'll also need a parallelogram mount - another 200 USD or more. You will also have to set their focus for each user, which means they will be nudged off target. Also you will only be able to see big things like The Moon. Planets will be too small to please with binoculars' low magnification and most dim astronomical targets will still be too dim to appreciate - just on the verge of vision: more "detecting" them than "observing" them - a turn off to kids used to seeing Hubble-like images.

    So binoculars are a bad idea to start with. One that is handed down due to ignorance and repetition without any consideration for why the advice was once helpful. They are no longer any match for a small, cheap, telescope on a proper mount.

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