The Best Telescopes for Kids

Discovering astronomy with your first look through your first telescope at one of our major planets such as Saturn or Jupiter and even our very familiar moon is the beginning of a lifetime of pleasure, in discovering the wonders of the night sky. However if the first telescope you get is a standard tripod mounted refracting telescope (one using lenses not mirrors) as found in most department stores, the experience is usually one of frustration and disappointment instead.

It is very tempting I know, when you see the telescope for maybe $90 to $150 with claims of “Magnifies 600 times” or “See galaxies and nebulas” to think that this will delight your children. The reality is one of these telescopes will have a wobbly tripod that will not allow you to see anything at 60 times, much less 600. The aperture (that’s the diameter) of the lens will typically be 70 to 90 mm and this will never gather enough light to see faint and distant galaxies, most of which are millions of light years away.

So what can you do? Well, in my experience of almost 10 years of showing 1000’s of children and my own 3 kids around the night sky, the best way to start is in fact with a Star Disc, a red light and a pair of low powered binoculars. The reason is that for starters you will need to find something worthwhile to look at. A Star Disc will show you a few bright deep sky objects that are easily seem with binoculars on any given night. The red light will allow you to see the Star Disc without ruining you night vision. Your night vision takes at least 20 minutes away from white light to adapt to the darkness. A low powered pair of binoculars (EG: 8×50 – 8 times magnification and a 50mm lens) will show you many faint galaxies, nebulas and star clusters. A picnic blanket is a good idea to lay on as well. What a great way to get the family together!

Perhaps you have already done this and are ready to make the next step, and really want to get that telescope. What should you do? My experience and that of my astronomy peers from around Australia and across the world have shown me that the telescope that is (a) Quick to set up and pack up (b) Easy to use and (c) has preferably at least 200mm (8″) of aperture will get the most use and provide many years of observing pleasure. Not just for the kids but the whole family and many friends.

What does one of these telescopes look like? Well, it is not a refractor and it is not on a tripod. It is a Dobsonian mounted reflector. A reflector is much like the telescopes used in professional observatories (only much smaller!) Put in simple terms the telescope is mounted on a horizontal (azimuth) turntable close to ground level allowing you to move the telescope to all points of the compass and a vertical pivot point allowing you to move the telescope from the horizon to directly overhead (the zenith) through 90 degrees. The eyepiece (this does the magnifying) is in the side of the telescope tube at about 1.3 meters above the ground, an ideal height for kids. A 200mm (8″) Dobsonian is lightweight enough that a child of perhaps 10 years old can easily move and set it up in the park or backyard. Confused about what it looks like? Just imagine a cannon that spins around and can point straight up.

How much is one of these going to cost you? You may be thinking thousands of dollars. In fact, a 200mm Dobsonian can cost as little as $550 in Australia and a similar amount in the USA. So start into astronomy the fun and easy way and your Christmas present will live on for many years to come.

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