Technology: Scoping Out The Stars

Astronomers and astrologers don't have much in common, but there's a good chance August will send both groups into a frenzy: on the 27th, Mars will loom large on the horizon, coming closer to Earth than it has in 73,000 years. Alas, we can't say what that means for your love life, but we do have one prediction: a lot of folks will buy flashy new telescopes for the event, only to be disappointed. Telescopes are hardly simple tube-and-mirror devices anymore. That's great news for serious hobbyists, but first-timers baffled by tech talk may be best off with basic models. So Tip Sheet, er, looked into it. Here's our guide to buying a telescope.

If the closest thing you already have to a scope is a pair of opera glasses, go for a simple classic: a Dobsonian, one you have to point yourself. Make sure it has at least a six-inch mirror. "First-timers make the mistake of buying small computerized telescopes with a lot of doodads and knobs," says Tom Burns, director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware, Ohio. But they won't be impressed with a smaller mirror's blurry views. Burns also says to stay away from department-store scopes and those that boast about magnification--it's a function of the eyepiece, which you can always buy separately. Make sure the mount is steady. And remember, you're not buying the Hubble. The stars are still going to look like dots (albeit bigger ones). Finally, if you pick up and drop new hobbies like J. Lo does new hubbies, just buy a pair of binoculars. No, we mean that. Several new models take digital photos, and any 50mm set with glass lenses and separate-focus eyepieces will give you a nice introduction to stargazing.

The newest telescopes on the market come in a wide variety of sizes and prices; most are heavily computerized. Meade Instruments' latest, the LX200, is a $4,295, 14-inch wonder that uses GPS to align itself with the stars; Celestron's NexStar 130GT, available at the end of the summer, is considerably cheaper ($500) and finds objects automatically, but with telescopes you do generally get what you pay for, and it may be a bit blurry. (The NexStar 114GT, its predecessor, will be sold at a discount at Costco in August, but it's far too small for general use--if you're going to have only one telescope, this isn't it.) Meade's well-priced new NGC60 ($200) finds stars automatically but won't track them as they move, and Burns says its light-gathering power is "far too small for anything but the moon and a few bright planets." There are also impressive new Dobsonians, like Orion's ShortTube 4.5 EQ Reflector ($149), which is portable and has an optional drive for tracking heavenly bodies. Though, like the NGC60, it's best for very bright objects (like Mars in August), the 4.5-inch mirror is larger. Burns thinks the best is Obsession's $4,895 18-incher, a Dobsonian with a tracking drive included. "I would kill for it," he says. This from a guy with an observatory at his command.

None of this is to say that you have to buy a new telescope to enjoy the night sky. Many Web sites now function as virtual scopes (try Also fun is in --your longitude and latitude, and it will tell you which satellites are passing overhead at the moment. You can do some decent astronomy with just your eyes, too. Check eye.htm for tips--or go somewhere dark on Aug. 12 or 13 and look up around 4 a.m. for the Perseid meteor shower. It isn't Mars, but it's quite a show--no scope needed.