I’m not entirely sure why I find myself so incensed over this particular piece of trash journalism (and I use the word in the loosest possible sense). Perhaps because it aptly demonstrates the utter contempt for their readership endemic in the newspaper industry. Perhaps because if people are going to make the effort to spend time looking through a telescope I’d like them to get as much pleasure from it as I do. Or perhaps it’s just because on the basis of this rubbish, people might go out and spend their hard-earned on something totally unsuitable.
Yesterday the Independent newspaper published an article on the 10 Best Telescopes, clearly targeted towards astronomical use. If you read no further, take this one point away with you: ignore the article. It’s utter bottom-wash. If you are interested in buying a telescope for astronomy the best advice I can give is to decide on a budget and then either visit an observing session held by a local astronomy society, have a look at what they’re using and talk to other astronomers about what is available in your price range. If you can’t find a local society, join an on-line forum such as Stargazers Lounge where you’ll find more knowledgeable and friendly advice than you can shake a hairy stick at.
The Indie feature was cobbled together by Samuel Muston who claims on his twitter page that he “does something at the Independent”. Whatever that something is, it’s clearly not carefully-researched journalism. I don’t know how he managed to get the gig for writing this particular piece, but perhaps the only other person in the office at the time was the cleaner. The cleaner could not have turned in anything worse. Could it be that as a foodie, Mr. Muston spends much of his time staring at the world through glassware and was therefore considered experienced in judging the quality of a lens? When I used to visit Ludgate House, “home of the Daily Express”, many years ago it was clear that the hacks were more interested in an altogether different type of optic. Not that he should bear all the blame. Clearly the editor who allowed such drivel to be published was more interested in filling column inches than actually producing a useful article.
Before getting to the list of “best telescopes” itself, there are a couple of general points that should be made. To be a genuinely useful instrument for astronomical use a telescope must have good quality optics and they just don’t get produced on a budget for the limited size of the astronomy market. There are other components that need to work well too, otherwise you’ll end up wanting to throw the thing across the garden the first time you use it, but to some extent they can be improved with a little work. If you have a poor quality optical train then you might as well drop the telescope in the bin. Not everyone will share my opinion I’m sure, but I’d say that there are almost no telescopes costing less than £100 at the moment that are up to the job and a fair few more expensive ones that aren’t either. If you can’t afford £100 then a pair of binoculars somewhere around the 10×50 size is likely to give far more enjoyment. A cheap telescope may be ok for so-so views of the moon, but that’s about as far as you’ll get with it. The second point is that magnification claims made by manufacturers are irrelevant. What really influences the quality of the view achieved with a telescope is how much light it can capture and that is dependent on the aperture — the diameter or “width” of the telescope. The ability to have high magnification is useful (which is usually changed by swapping eyepieces), particularly for viewing objects in the solar system, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. There’s a general rule that a telescope will only be good for magnification up to twice its diameter in millimetres, but even then it’s rare for UK skies to be clear and still enough for greater than 250 times magnification.
And so to the “10 best telescopes”:
- Skyliner 250PX
Certainly a good telescope and by no means as expensive compared to others as Mr. Muston suggests, but it’s also big and heavy (between 30kg and 35kg, I believe). Telescopes of this size often come up second-hand because people find they’re too awkward to get out to use and to store and prices can be surprisingly low as a result. Not a good choice at all for a beginner.
- Olympus EXP SI Binoculars
Many astronomers have a pair of binoculars as well as a telescope and they’re great to have. If you can’t justify the cost of a telescope then a good pair of binoculars is an excellent alternative. They don’t have to be as expensive as this pair. If you’re interested in going down this route, talk to an astronomer or dealer who is knowledgeable about using binoculars for astronomy. What’s good for terrestrial use may not work well on the night sky.
- National Geographic Land & Sky
Fails the £100 test. A toy. And better as a rounders bat than a toy telescope at that. Avoid it.
Same again. Even Amazon have it in their “Toys & Games” section.
- EVOSTAR-102 (EQ3-2) Refractor.
A decent telescope on a fairly competent mount. It’s more biased towards viewing objects in the solar system rather than galaxies and nebulae. The mount will be awkward to get the hang of and perhaps even frustrating as a beginner. The advantage is that if it’s properly aligned it can easily track objects as they appear to move across the sky, and (at extra cost) it can be motorised.
- Vario-Finder 10×60 with Astro Lens
Baader make some good quality astronomy kit, but this really isn’t designed to be an astronomical telescope and for the money you could get something much more satisfying. Avoid it.
- Celestron Astromaster
There are a number of different models in the Astromaster range, but I’ll assume from the price that it’s the 130EQ that’s being discussed here. It’s nearer the budget end of the market to be honest, but it is still a perfectly acceptable beginner’s telescope and will give far better views of galaxies and nebulae than most of the telescopes Mr Muston recommends, although they’ll still mostly be fuzzy grey blobs. Not really ideal if your interest is with objects in the solar system however.
- Explorer-130p Supatrak Auto
Another perfectly acceptable telescope. Once you’ve found an object it will track it across the sky. The same comments apply as for the Astromaster.
- The Celestron Travel Scope
I assume from the brand that this will be optically ok. 70mm of aperture isn’t really going to satisfy anyone for very long though, and if the compelling reason to buy for Mr. Muston is that it comes with its own bag, well, I’m sure it’s not beyond the wit of most astronomers to find a suitable bag or case to transport a telescope in. Failing that, get some binoculars.
- Infinity 76P 3″ Reflector
Cute, but I think it’s really just Skywatcher’s Heritage 76 model wrapped up to look like a toy. It is a proper reflecting telescope however, with a parabolic mirror. I think Mr Muston made up “aspherical technology”. It is a very small aperture though and going to be limited as a result. Some of the brighter nebulae and galaxies would be visible, as would some of the planets, but you’d not see any real detail. I’d buy the Heritage 76 in preference, but a pair of binoculars might be better than either.
So ignoring the binoculars, of the list of “10 Best” we end up with perhaps three that are “ok” for beginners but far from “the best” and one that an experienced astronomer might choose if their interest lay in that direction.
Shame on you, Samuel Muston. You give your profession a bad name (as if it wasn’t already going to take a special dispensation to get it into the bottom-most pit of Hell) and do nothing but damage your limited credibility. Next time you get asked to write about something you have no experience of, have the balls to admit you can’t do it, or at least do some proper research rather than copying out a quick few hundred words from the brochures between courses of a boozy lunch.