The Case for the Refractor as First Telescope

Charlie Fredrickson - October 23, 1998

It's getting close to Christmas, and many times at this time of year we hear the question, "What kind of telescope should I get for my (child, husband, whatever). I just wanted to pass along my own recommendation, although others may have their own preferences.

My first telescope was a refractor. I made that decision after going to a number of ASPB observing sessions. I really enjoyed views of planets and double stars that I felt other telescopes simply couldn't match. Refractors are renowned for their exquisite image quality. Views of the Moon and planets are crisp, and stars appear pinpoint sharp, especially at the higher powers required to split close double stars.

Refractors have a long, narrow tube containing an objective (front) lens. The lens focuses the incoming light and directs it out the back of the telescope. Refractors are compact and lightweight in smaller apertures, and thus are highly portable. The closed-tube design is rugged and practically maintenance-free. The optics rarely, if ever, require realignment, unlike those of a Newtonian reflector. Their lower light-gathering capability makes them best suited for viewing bright objects, such as the planets, the Moon, double stars, and the more luminous deep-sky objects. While they offer superb performance compared to other types of telescopes, refractors are also the most expensive per inch of aperture. So affordable refractors tend to be small, with apertures in the 2" to 4" range. Some people may call them "peashooters" due to their appearance, but they sure can deliver great performance!

I found my first telescope, a used 3" f/15 equatorial refractor, in the "Starry Messenger", a classified publication devoted to Astronomy. The seller was right down the road in Fort Lauderdale, so I didn't even have to have it shipped! I also went for an "Equatorial Mount", which enables following an object just by tweaking in ONE axis, using "slow motion controls". I highly recommend that mount type as well, compared to the Altazimuth mount. Whichever mount you select, be sure it is STURDY, and will not vibrate excessively when you make adjustments. More people lose interest in Astronomy due to inferior mounts, compared to poor optics!

You can get an idea of cost of typical refractors (and other scopes) by looking at Orion Telescope Company's on-line site; Also, check ASTROMART, for used scopes; many in our club have purchased scopes there.

A word of caution: Don't be fooled by claims of excessive power, as are commonly made for telescopes you see in department and retail stores. That's a sure sign of an inferior product! A telescope should NOT refer to magnification in its specifications! A telescope advertised as 500X or more IS TO BE AVOIDED!! You'll only be disappointed later on. The practical limit for any telescope is about 40x-50x per inch of aperture, or only about 120x for a 60mm (2.4") scope. Going any higher will produce only dim, fuzzy images. Magnification is NOT RELATED to quality or performance. The magnification is a function of the EYEPIECE used, and the focal length of the scope. Speaking of eyepieces, insist on the 1.25" eyepiece type, not the 0.965" setup; the image quality is MUCH MORE APPEALING!

In short, if what you want for your first telescope is a portable, low maintenance, superb optical instrument for observing mostly the brighter objects, the REFRACTOR is the way to go!