Astronomy in a pandemic: choosing your first telescope

Are you a newcomer to astronomy following months stuck at home during lockdown? You'll need help selecting your first telescope.

Have you come to astronomy new during lockdown? You'll need help choosing your first telescope. Credit: Mark Garlick / Science Photo Library

It has become a cliché, but it has to be said, we are living in strange times indeed. With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting almost every aspect of our lives, one thing I’ve noticed is how many have turned to astronomy and ‘looking up’ as a way of spending time while many normal activities are suspended.

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Beginners’ telescopes have been very much in demand in 2020 as a result of lockdown and the country’s response to coronavirus. I suspect this, along with a similar rise in binocular sales, has at least helped some astronomy equipment suppliers through this difficult time.

One of the regular questions I’ve been asked lately is what sort of telescopes are best for beginners, and this is always a conundrum.

Sky-Watcher Heritage 100P Tabletop Dobsonian
The Sky-Watcher Heritage 100P Tabletop Dobsonian. These models can be a great option for newcomers to astronomy.

We’ve plenty of info on our website, such as our guides on how to choose your first telescope, how to spend your first night with a telescope, or our list of best telescopes for astronomy beginners.

But I find the term ‘beginner’ in astronomy is a little misleading as I’ve known some who only have a budget of £50, whereas I had one newcomer tell me they wanted to spend over £4,000!

So the question has many aspects to it and is not as straightforward as you might think.

It also depends on what you want to do with the telescope. Again, I’ve had requests about all manner of telescopes, from those used for simple observing to an all singing, all dancing imaging set-up!

Sky-Watcher Heritage 150P Flextube Dobsonian review
The Sky-Watcher Heritage 150P Flextube Dobsonian.

For a basic, simple telescope, our review of the Sky-Watcher Heritage 150P Flextube Dobsonian may help. This is currently the largest of what are termed ‘table top’ dobsonians.

These are very simple to use, with no complicated mounts, handsets or polar aligning, but on the other hand you do need a good book (or indeed the latest issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine) to help you look for suitable targets manually.

Then of course you could go all out on an advanced  system. As long as you enjoy learning how to put it all together and how to operate it, this option may also be up your street.

Or you could even go for any of the robotic telescopes that are now available. It’s still astronomy, just ask the professionals!

Stellina Observation Station
The Stellina Observation Station is pricey for some, but great for those with a penchant for nifty technology.

On the other hand, our recent reviews of the Stellina Observation Station and Unistellar eVscope show that it’s possible to ‘observe’ the night sky with little knowledge of how it all operates, and instead enjoy the views on a smartphone or tablet.

Despite the advances in technology I do still think the really basic table top telescopes / Dobsonians will be around for a long time, as a lot of people enjoy looking through an eyepiece and having the satisfaction of finding an object in the night sky for themselves.

Whatever path you choose, there is an option for everyone in how they access and enjoy the night sky.

For more options, visit our telescope reviews page.

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Paul Money is BBC Sky at Night Magazine’s reviews editor.