Your First Telescope Should Be A Pair Of Binoculars

Very few things captivate the curiosity and imagination of children and adults like outer space. In awe we look up the sky searching for galaxies, planets, satellites, comets, shooting stars and many other space objects. So, when that insatiable curiosity reaches the limits of the human eye, many of us begin our search for tools to satiate that yearning. Telescopes have been the go-to solution for the aspiring astronomer and space enthusiast. However, here I will make the case that your first telescope should not be a telescope at all, but, rather, a good pair of binoculars.

  1. Price: to get a reasonably good telescope, eyepiece set and mount you are looking at $700-1000. You can get a very decent pair of binoculars for half as much.
  2. Utility: outside dark and clear nights, you scope will be safely stowed away. Binoculars can be used pretty much under any light condition and for a number of different useful, non-astronomy activities.
  3. Setup time: setting up your first telescope will take time, even if it comes partially assembled. Binoculars on the other hand, are pretty much ready to go out-of-the-box.
  4. Learning curve: I learned this one the hard way. You’ve no idea how hard it is to find a full moon with a telescope when you are first starting. You look up and it’s right there, huge. You go back to your telescope and can spend half an hour fiddling with the nobs until you finally zero in. And it doesn’t get any more obvious and easy than a full moon, let alone smaller, dimmer deep-space objects. With binoculars the learning curve is much gentler and you can rely on your directional intuition to find DSOs. If you can point your finger at it, you can find it with binoculars.
  5. Portability: most decent telescopes are hefty. The mount alone can weigh as much as 80lbs, so you have to think of telescopes as “semi permanent” furniture. If you plan to move it around (say, to a place with less light pollution), you are going to need special storage and transportation boxes adding to the overall cost and time to setup/tear down. Binoculars, as you might have guessed, you can just tote with you whereever you go with minimal overhead.

If the facts above have not changed your mind by now about buying a telescope instead of a good pair of binoculars, doubt anything will. If you really want to spend the money and your mind is set on a scope, then by all means go dive in the deep end and wish you Godspeed. However, if you feel somewhat (or completely) convinced to go with binoculars, here’s a few pointers:

  • Don’t buy anything shorter than 7x35 or larger than 10x50
  • Look for binoculars with multi-coated, low-dispersion, anti-glare glass (not necessarily all three, but at least two of them).
  • Weather-proofing should be a tertiary concern. If it’s raining, foggy or snowing I doubt you’ll get to see much open sky ;)
  • Avoid large, heavy, bulky-looking units. This makes it harder to keep steady
  • See if they have tripod mount adaptors (not necessary at all, but nice-to-have)

As a minor add-on, I cannot recommend enough you purchase the backyard astronomy classic The Stars by H. A. Rey (yup, same person who made Curious George). It’s invaluable for getting started in star gazing.

I hope this post is helpful and save people both money and frustration. If you want to learn more about backyard astrony and star gazing, ping me via twitter. Although I’m not an expert by any means, I can point you to other helpful and authoritative resources on the web.