Adventures in Ethics and Science

Seeking advice from stargazers.

Reader hp asks:

Do you (or your commenters) know what to look out for in a small-child-friendly telescope? My daughter (now aged 4.5) has been space-obsessed for over a year now, and I’d like to encourage her but am nervous of spending a lot of money on the wrong thing.

For those of you who look at the night sky with kids (or who once looked at the night sky while kids), what are your suggestions? What are the crucial features of a decent ‘scope, and which of the bells and whistles are things you can live without (and without paying for)? How important do you think it is for a kid to be able to mess with the adjustments herself (and what kind of ‘scopes would make it easier for a kid to make the adjustments herself)?

(It’s worth noting that, in a post on measuring devices for kids, Natalie mentioned she had heard an astronomer recommend binoculars as a good place for kids to start in terms of star-gazing instrumentation. So if you have good binocular recommendations for 4- to 6-year-olds, lay those on us, too. )

Thanks in advance for your input!


  1. #1 Funkopolis
    September 12, 2008

    Universe today does a good telescope review:

    If only I didn’t live Right.Downtown. Sigh.

  2. #2 Peggy
    September 12, 2008

    In my own attempts at stargazing with binoculars I’ve had a hard time holding them still for anything other than very short observations. And it can be difficult to re-find objects in the sky when your hand moves or you put your arm down for a rest. Maybe kids have short enough attention spans (or steadier hands and arms) so those aren’t significant issues.

    Or perhaps there is an easy way of mounting the binoculars?

  3. #3 Kevin
    September 12, 2008

    NOT even binocs for a little kid. They are hard to hold.

    get a spotting scope, like the ones they use for birds.

    or get a small portable, like this one

    I had my mom buy that as a present for a friend to look at the skyline.

  4. #4 6EQUJ5
    September 12, 2008

    You might also consider initially borrowing or renting a spotting scope (the kind used by hunters and people studying wildlife behavior), say a 20x on a tripod mount. When the kid starts to fret that some things are too small to see clearly, the interest is now there, and you need a telescope.

  5. #5 uqbar
    September 12, 2008

    Three thoughts:

    1. Get a refracting, not reflecting, telescope

    A refracting (lens at the front) telescope is easier to set up and use. You can also use it for daytime terrestrial viewing (bird watching, etc.) which is also fun. Get a good sturdy tripod to go with it, or image shake will spoil the fun. The larger the objective (front) lens the better – you want light gathering power, not magnification. You don;t need a lot of magnifying power (8X – 50X; consider a zoom). I think Galileo’s telescope was about 30X.

    2. Astroscan

    I’ve never used one of these, but the ads make it look compelling. Supposedly it’s designed for easy beginner use.

    3. Computer guided telescope

    This is probably overkill for a kid, but it does have the advantage of making astronomical objects easier to find for beginners. This is going to cost more, of course.

    Some thoughts about binoculars: This is not a bad choice. look for moderate power (8X) – anything more will be difficult to keep “on target” when hand-held. Get the biggest objective (front) lens you can get (50 mm is good, so look for 8 X 50). Make sure you get true binoculars (not field glasses); you can usually tell the difference because binoculars use prisms which result in the front lens being offset from the rear eyepiece (caveat – some binoculars may use a straight-through prism design). Make sure one eyepiece can be separately focused to compensate for left-right eye differences.

  6. #6 Allen
    September 12, 2008

    Binoculars are the way to start. Magnification is not an issue, optical quality is. There are no good, cheap binoculars, but there are good, inexpensive binoculars. Budget $100 and get compact, weatherproof ones. Nikon 10×25 (or similar) will be just fine and you will be able to see the moons of Jupiter and still have a decent pair of general purpose binoculars.

  7. #7 tceisele
    September 12, 2008

    Most binoculars have a socket at the end of the post holding the tubes together where you can put on an “L” bracket to mount it to a tripod. They usually have a little disk that screws into the socket hole when it is not in use. This is critical if you are going to use binoculars with more than about 7x magnification, and more than 35 mm objectives.

    Whatever kind of telescope or binoculars is used, a good tripod mount that is easy to set up is a must. Most cheap camera tripods are too shaky, you want something really solid. At the same time, it needs to fold into a reasonably compact bundle for carrying, and be simple enough that you can set up in a few seconds in the dark.

    Another thing that is really helpful is a green laser pointer, they make a visible beam at night that is excellent for pointing out things of interest.

    And as far as the optics, remember: aperture is more important than magnification. A large objective lens or mirror means both (a) you can collect more light, so faint nebulas and comets are more visible, and (b) you have more resolution, so that high magnification of, say, the moon means that you actually see more detail, not just an enlarged blur. I personally like using 7×50 binoculars for stargazing, they have good brightness without being unreasonably heavy, and are more widely available than the “giant” binoculars. Binoculars are particularly good for nebulas and the like, because you can make out objects with poor contrast better with two eyes than with just one.

  8. #8 scattered scientist
    September 12, 2008

    Depending on where you live, she might enjoy a field trip to an observatory — something like this:

  9. #9 Matt Springer
    September 12, 2008

    Refractors are easy to use, but I have to recommend against them. Quality refractors in any decent size are blisteringly expensive, and cheap refractors are generally so badly made as to be unusable.

    I’d suggest a Dobsonian – maybe something like this. They’re almost as easy to point and shoot as a refractor, and give you vastly more bang for the buck. It’s big enough to see some deep-sky objects pretty well, and the planets will be awesome. Adding a reflex sight for about $20 will make it even easier to point.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    September 12, 2008

    A four year old? Simple:

    1) do NOT look at the sun

    2) DO look at the moon. The earth’s moon.

    start simple

  11. #11 Art
    September 12, 2008

    I would seriously consider something like one of these:

    There was an earlier version sold a few decades back but I can’t seem to find it.

    This style has a lot going for it:
    It is compact enough to be stored on a bookshelf. With its base it fits in a case that will ride over a shoulder and a kid can manage on their own. It is compact, rugged and light enough to take out on a hike, trip to the beach or late night picnic.

    With larger telescopes storage and transport is more of an issue. No house has enough closet or shelf space and having to assist with the hauling out and setting up every time the kids wants to sit in the back yard and look at the moon gets old.

    It is rugged and can take a certain level of abuse and mishandling common with children. Many of the tripod mounted ones will suffer if they get tipped over. This one has a good chance of surviving a significant drop without needing to be adjusted or replaced.

    It doesn’t require complicated setups. A child can use it without much supervision. Setup is not much more complicated than: 1)Place base on picnic table. 2)Place telescope in base. 3) Have fun. It is so quick and easy to set up and use the family can pull it out on a whim to check out animals in the distance, a full moon or a unique positioning of the planets. This means it is more likely to get used and not just end up in the corner as a white elephant.

    It is a real telescope capable of real work. It is simple as a preschool toy but the optics are good and it is large enough to gather enough light to make useful observations both of the skies and on earth.

    It is inexpensive for what your getting.

    There are other similar designs and many share these strong points. Look around the web to get the one you like the most for the best price. Just my two cents worth.

  12. #12 Art
    September 12, 2008

    Looking to find the telescope type I had in mind I settled for the one I pointed out in the previous post. Closing windows I found the one I really had in mind:

    It is a similar basic design but a little higher quality, a little steeper price but it will accept industry standard attachments. The company also sells various accessories for it.

    The Infinity isn’t bad, they have a lot in common, but the Astroscan is a step up and possibly the best of this style.

  13. #13 GrayGaffer
    September 13, 2008

    To reiterate earlier warnings:


    and, in case you missed it,


    Blindness for life is instantaneous. It burns out the fovea in far less than human reaction time. Think ants under a magnifying glass but 1000x more intense.


    DO POINT AT JUPITER (out now, high in sky at 10pm)
    Get a urban back-yard astronomy book and use the goto to find the Messier Objects.

    That said, here’s my 5c worth:

    Conclusion first: Meade ETX 80, $299. Goto scope. Table top or tripod mount. 1-1/4″ eyepieces. Planetarium software which can control the scope.

    Find a local astronomy club that gives public star parties, and has one of these in their stable. Try first.

    Now here’s why:

    The most frustrating thing for me as a beginner was finding things in the sky. Even if I could see them with the naked eye, actually getting them in the viewfinder was a task. This in the days before goto, and with a cheap refractor with cheapo huygens 0.925″ eyepieces. The experience led to a 20 year hiatus. Even then, when I could afford better optics, goto was still a dream for amateurs, and even with an 8″ instrument it still took years of patience to learn my way around the sky, to be able to get the fuzzies into view to entertain the star party visitors. Today you also get Dobsonians; quick setup, very economical for large apertures, even come with digital setting circles these days, but goto technology for Dobs is still an enthusiast thing, not for beginners.

    So: qualities needed are quick setup, highly portable, implicitly computer driven goto, and optics that actually match human eyes with 1 1/4″ eyepiece holder, and a kid-friendly price.

    The only scopes that qualify are the Meade ETX-80 series ( for $299, or others in the family. Has all the advantages of: plonk on table, no tripod needed (although legs are supplied), small, reasonably rugged, reasonably priced, and the huge plus of goto drive and decent optics. You can get image inverters for terrestrial use in the day time too.

    Celestron have some that are close, so do Orion; Meade has refractors in the price bracket too, but with most of them the mount is wobbly, which makes for a very unsatisfying experience; simply adjusting the focus can mean losing the target.

    I had an Astroscan. Good optics, but almost impossible to aim. Same goes for any similar such as the one mentioned by Art. Rugged, yes, no tripod needed, yes, but impossible to point it at the interesting stuff. I do have binoculars, indispensable for narrowing down the field of view when finding signposts in the sky, but they absolutely need a stand, and then you are getting into > $700 territory, for binos, sky view or parallelogram mount, and tripod. The wide field of view makes pointing much easier, but also makes the interesting bits much smaller relatively and harder to see. So again not really good for beginners on a small budget. But a basic pair is still fun to point up on a dark sky night. Lots of stars. But that will not keep attention for long on its own at that age.

    Also bear in mind this: aperture is everything. The maximum useful magnification is about 50x per inch of aperture. Go any more and all you get are bigger fuzzy blobs. So do _not_ believe the claims on the Tasco boxes of 650x. Yes, if you stack their little eyepieces and Barlow you get that mathematically, but physics limit those 2″ (50mm) scopes to a max of 100x. They also supply 0.925″ eyepieces which are almost impossible to use. Plus, the higher the magnification, the smaller the field of view, the harder it is to aim. The ETX is not much larger at 80mm, close to 3″, but you can easily see the surface bands on Jupiter and the rings of Saturn at 75x, which the ETX can do handily (except that Saturn’s Rings are about to go edge on and nobody will be able to see them for a while. Sorry). You should also be able to see many of the more obvious Messier objects. Especially look for the Great nebula in Orion’s belt this winter, or the jewel that is M13 in Hercules now before it is gone till next spring. The larger aperture eyepieces help a lot with this. Even only 15x (binoculars for example) gets you the Galilean Moons of Jupiter and basic ring structure. You will also be able to see the phases of Venus. But the other planets will really be out of reach until you grow into a bigger scope, learn to point a big Dob for instance.

    Lastly, if the past-time sticks, be aware that Astronomy is one of those black hole for pocket books hobbies. So take your offspring to a local Astronomy club’s monthly star party and try out the scopes the members will bring with them before you really place down any money. For an example, check out my local club; may not be your area, but we talk about all these issues, also describe how to get the most out of a star party.

  14. #14 hp
    September 13, 2008

    Many thanks to Janet for this thread, and to all the commenters for so much helpful information. We’ve tried with binoculars before, but had little success because of the arm-wobble problem; in the very short term we’ll try to borrow some kind of support and have another go.

    In the slightly longer term, we’ll definitely go for one drivable by computer (which I didn’t know was possible) with the largest possible aperture, and look at the easy stuff first. She’s also been promised a trip to the local university’s student club (at the observatory) to look through the Big Telescope there – I’m not sure if they bring their own as well, but if they do we could try out Dobsonian vs Astroscan vs reflector there. If not, our optics shop may be persuaded to lend us a couple of options briefly – they were very helpful over microscopes.

  15. #15 hp
    September 13, 2008

    I forgot extra thanks to GrayGaffer – the club itself is a little out of the way for us as we’re in the UK, but the links from the kids’ page will keep her happy for some time.

  16. #16 Jesse
    September 14, 2008
  17. #17 peter zimmerman
    September 14, 2008

    I vote for binoculars. They give you erect images, correct right to left. You would be amazed at how hard it is to follow “signposts” in the sky when the image is reversed and all your pointing instincts are wrong. Cheap spotting scopes (refractors) are not worth anything at all. You can’t find anything except maybe the moon and Jupiter, the mounts are wobbly, and the objective lens poor quality or worse. Don’t.

    There are many binoculars on the market for under $200 that will fill the bill. Aperture as much as power will determine what you will see, so I would look for objectives that are at least 40 – 50 mm in diameter, and try to get something approaching a 10x magnification. That will let you see Jupiter as a disk (but probably w/o details) and see the four Galilean moons. Might give you a hint of rings on Saturn. And will reveal a lot of the moon.

    If more power is desired initially, the Astroscan is your beast. Get it with a heavy duty tripod. And if “Edmund” is still selling an erecting prism to fit it, be sure to buy that despite the loss of light and possible loss of sharpness, so finding and tracking neat stuff is easier.

    If the urge to star gaze sticks for a couple of years, then and only then consider a computer controlled telescope in the 4-6″ aperture range. Bigger is better, but dearer. I’m no fan of Dobsonians because they can’t track, are awkward, and because they can’t track, you can’t hitch a camera to them — and that’s one of the activities that keep interest levels high.

  18. #18 hp
    September 14, 2008

    Peter zimmerman – sorry, but could you unpack the comment that went “you can’t hitch a camera to them — and that’s one of the activities that keep interest levels high” a little more? I’m not clear on what you do with the camera, or why it would be interesting for children. (I’ve stargazed exactly twice before this, both times at Uni, and through observatory telescopes driven by others – so I really am clueless on the practicalities.)

  19. #19 Gray Gaffer
    September 14, 2008

    hp: you’re welcome.

    re Astroscan: it costs about the same as the goto ETX-80. it has two advantages: much more kid-safe rugged, and at 4.4″ aperture nearly 4x the light gathering capacity. But it has disadvantages that far outweigh these, most especially in how hard it is to point, and how hard to maintain aim, especially at the higher magnifications you would want for Messier objects (~75x – 100x).

    To wit:

    1: the finder is a piece of bent metal. You have to get your eye down by the base looking up to even get the front and rear ends of the sight in line. Almost impossible on a table. Also the sight is not fixed in place nor can it be aligned and then locked down. And either your eye is focused on the sight a few inches away and the stars you are looking for are blurred to invisibility, or you are seeing the stars but the sight is blurred to invisibility.

    2: the spherical back end of the scope rests on three felt pads. The idea is you just move it by hand around the sky. BUT it does not track, and the friction becomes jerky as condensation creeps in. Plus the length is not quite enough for the leverage to overcome this problem.

    3: the image erector does not really help as you are looking into the eyepiece laterally to the direction of gaze of the telescope itself. An erector prism makes a difference for Cassegrain, Maksutov, refractors, and binoculars, where you look through the eyepiece in the same direction as if you are looking directly at the target, but the Astroscan is a pure Newtonian design with the eyepiece at the front looking at 90 degrees to the aim direction in to a 45 degree mirror inside the tube.

    I used my Astroscan for precisely one trip after buying it as a travel scope. After that I would set it up at star parties to let the kids loose on (not worried about them damaging it), but observed that any given kid would fool with it for about ten minutes or less and never touch it again. So I donated it to the club, and even so it languishes there pretty much untouched.

  20. #20 Doug Blank
    September 15, 2008

    I remember some articles about 10 years ago on building your own CCD Telescope—basically using a computer to create images from a CCD (chip that is light sensitive). Then you can view the images on a large monitor, and use the computer to position the camera. I can’t find this info now, but maybe someone can comment on it. Sounds great for kids, and would make a good built-it-yourself project.

  21. #21 William the Coroner
    September 15, 2008

    I have an old pair I got at Sears on sale for 19.95 thirty years ago. The house brand of 7 x 35s. Not too heavy, and worked like a charm. For a smaller kid, perhaps a lighter pair, a 10 x 25. The good ones have a screw mount you can put them on a tripod and that solves the stability issue.

  22. #22 hp
    September 18, 2008

    A brief update with more thanks – we are going to visit my parents later this month, and borrow assorted binoculars, spotting scope and tripods for looking at the moon with. This prospect alone is so exciting that the poppet may explode before we get to it. We also have a star-party date for October/November with a small friend whose father owns a telescope similar to the one Gray Gaffer recommended (I am to bring mulled wine, hot chocolate and buns). The observatory trip is proving trickier, and I think we may have to go to old contacts elsewhere to arrange it.

  23. #23 GrayGaffer
    September 18, 2008

    Have fun, please blog about it.

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