If you have a stargazing fan on your holiday gift-giving list and you're considering a telescope for that special someone, even if that someone is you, I want you to buy right and buy smart. Get the most astronomical bang for your buck. I really believe it’s best to purchase a telescope online from a company or dealership that deals with telescopes rather than a department store, unless the telescope is for a really young astronomer.
My favorite kind of telescope is a Newtonian Reflector, invented by none other than Isaac Newton in the 17th century. The easiest reflector scopes to use are the ones with Dobsonian mounts. They're often referred to as "Dobsonians." The minimum size reflector you should get, in my opinion, is one with an 8-inch-diameter mirror, otherwise known as an 8-inch reflector or Dobsonian scope. You can get a decent one anywhere for $400-$500.
Several good companies produce Newtonian-Dobsonian reflector telescopes, but my absolute favorite for well over 30 years is Orion Telescopes. You can order from their website at www.telescope.com. They have a fantastic buying guide and excellent service before and after the sale.
If you're looking to get a first telescope for a young child from about 6 to 10 years old, Orion Telescopes has a wonderful mini-Dobsonian telescope that I've recommended again and again to folks. It's the Orion FunScope 76mm TableTop Reflector Telescope with a 76-millimeter diameter mirror. It's easy to use and, as it says in its name, it can sit on a tabletop. You can get lovely views of the moon, planets and more. The last I looked, it was about $70.
Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes are another kind of telescope They're generally more expensive, but are more portable and do a great job. They pretty much all have the capability to physically direct the scope to any astronomical object you can dream of in the night sky and keep it in view with motors that compensate for Earth’s rotation.
An important rule to remember with any telescope, and one that you'll want to pass on to whoever you're buying the telescope for, is to let the scope sit outside a good half-hour before you use it. That lets all the lenses and mirrors stabilize so you get a clearer image.
As far as astrophotography with a telescope, it's not an easy process, and certainly not cheap. At least for bright objects, especially the moon and the planets, it's incredible what you can do with a cellphone camera. There are even mounting devices that will latch your phone onto the eyepiece of your scope, but just holding the phone over the eyepiece can produce some fantastic images.
There are several good brick-and-mortar astronomy/telescope retailers across the U.S., but I'm a huge fan of Starizona in Tucson, Ariz. They specialize in Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes. The one I really recommend if you're just getting into this is the Celestron NexStar Evolution 6 that sells for $1,299. You can order any of their scopes online, and they will help you like crazy before and after the sale, even over the phone.
If you want to advance into serious astrophotography, they are the people to work with. About 12 years ago, they developed what they call Hyperstar, which has literally transformed amateur astrophotography.
Dean and his staff at Starizona are simply wonderful. If you ever get a chance to see their store in Tucson, do it!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to email@example.com.
The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is rochesterskies.org.