Living with a cheap telescope
How cheap is cheap?
Cheap Astronomy’s own Sky Station 1, possibly the cheapest department store telescope in the southern hemisphere, is a fine example of the genre. Bought on special from a well known Australian electronics chain, it cost just under $130. The 115mm (or ‘4 inch’) main mirror is probably as low as you would want to go, but is totally adequate to visualise Saturn’s rings—and other astronomical marvels. Cheap Astronomy has had less experience with refractor telescopes. Anecdotally, these scopes are less likely to deliver good results at the cheap end of the market as their functionality relies much more on consistent lens quality.
Upgrading your scope – myth and reality
If you decide you want to spend any extra cash, this is the area of wisest investment. Standard ‘Plossl’ lenses used in reflector scopes are affordable and interchangeable, meaning one good purchase could upgrade generations of cheap telescopes.
After an intensive period of consultation and evaluation, Sky Station 1 was upgraded in 2008 by purchase of an 8-24mm zoom lens, at a cost of approximately $80. At more than half the original value of the base telescope, this upgrade replaced an original set of adequate lenses with a single eyepiece of somewhat better quality. More importantly, a zoom lens has the benefit of being able to enhance magnification without the tiresome swapping of lenses. On a cheap telescope, swapping from a low to high magnification lens often results in the scope being nudged out of position due to failure of the cheap equatorial mount. Cursing and wailing ensues. With a zoom lens, you are able to continue visualising the object of interest throughout the course of magnification. Such zoom lenses are not easily obtained in department stores, but may be found, for example, on popular on-line auction sites. If contemplating this approach, you should first check your scope’s lens adaptor size (1.25 inch is generally standard—or there are 2 inch sizes around also).