Is an 8″ Dobsonian the Best Telescope for a Beginner?

A boy and his Dob viewing the Moon.

Follow any discussion of a beginner asking about a first telescope and it won’t be long before an 8″ Dobsonian is suggested. It might be the most recommended scope for beginners, and not without good reason, though there are several factors that should be seriously considered before buying one.

A Dobsonian is a Newtonian reflector on a simple alt-az mount. Before John Dobson popularized his simple, inexpensive mounting method, German equatorial mounts were commonly used, which were by necessity large and heavy, and thus expensive. By comparison an 8″ or greater Dobsonian becomes relatively affordable and portable.

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An 80mm Refractor under Dark(ish) Skies

I spent last week in North-Western Massachusetts, a relatively rural area that shows as dark-yellow on the light pollution charts, which is to say it is considerably darker than my red zone suburban backyard. I was understandably eager to observe under such conditions and so came the decision as to which telescope to bring along.

The AWB OneSky was an obvious choice but for whatever reasons (maybe just for the sake of variety) I decided to bring an 80mm refactor. While the 5″ aperture of the AWB would’ve been appreciated, under decent skies an 80mm can be a satisfying scope, and, being equipped with a 2″ focuser, the 80mm is capable of some breathtakingly wide fields of view.

It turned out that over the course of the week there was only one really clear night for observing but it certainly made bringing the scope worthwhile.

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40% Off at Sky & Telescope Store

Through Sunday, June 7th, you can use code FFSUMMER40 to get an unheard of 40% off at the Sky & Telescope Store.

Need a good star atlas? The Pocket Sky Atlas is $11.97 after the discount.

The PSA is my most used atlas due to its easy to use format but sometimes identifying an object would be easier if stars dimmer than 7th magnitude were charted. This is why I took advantage of the sale to add a copy of the Star Atlas 2000.0 to my library, which is $23.97 after the discount. I waffled a bit between the different versions offered but ultimately chose the unbound “desk” version as it will allow me to take just the pages I need with me to supplement the PSA. There is a good discussion about the various versions of Star Atlas 2000.0 over at the Cloudy Nights forum.

Another book that has been on my wish list for sometime is Sissy Haas’s Double Stars For Small Telescopes and I couldn’t pass it up for $13.79.

While 20-30% discounts come around a few times throughout the year, this the first time I’ve seen a 40% off promotion and is a fantastic opportunity to pick up any items that you may have had your eye on.


Original content copyright 2015 by David Philips. All Rights Reserved. This post may contain links to affiliate sites; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.

Saturn in Small Scopes

Enhanced image of Saturn eclipsing the Sun taken in 2006 by the robotic Cassini spacecraft. Courtesy NASA/JPL.

Enhanced image of Saturn eclipsing the Sun taken in 2006 by the robotic Cassini spacecraft. Courtesy NASA/JPL.

There’s something special about seeing Saturn in a telescope. Sure, viewing any of the planets is pretty great – the telescope reveals an object that to our eyes appears to be a star is actually a disc, a whole ‘nother world. It’s enough to get any observer’s heart pumping.

But then there’s Saturn – it’s not just a disc. Currently when viewed at very low powers the rings form much of the visual bulk of the planet, giving it an oval appearance with a hint of dark separation between the planet and its rings. What a surreal viewing experience to see this strange, wonderful object hanging in space.

With Saturn rising shortly after 7:00 PM and setting around 5:00 AM, now is a good time to view the planet, which is a showpiece in even small telescopes. For the best view, try to catch the planet as high in the sky as you can – currently it reaches maximum altitude around midnight. At my 40°N latitude the planet only gets up to ~30° so the atmosphere can make high power viewing difficult but still worthwhile. I was able to take advantage of a recent clear night to view Saturn with both a 60mm refractor and the Celestron FirstScope.

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A Night to Remember

I haven’t looked through a telescope in weeks. The second half of April seemed an endless string of cloudy nights and while I’m sure there were a few clear ones in there, one thing or another kept me from getting out under the stars with a telescope.

I am starting to miss observing and I can’t help but recall one of the last sessions of April, which happened to give the best views of Jupiter I’ve yet seen.

I was enjoying a pleasant evening out in the back yard with the kids when I first noticed Venus visible in the southwest and shortly after that was able to spot Jupiter, with some difficulty as the sky was still blue, near the zenith so I decided to bring out the 10″ Dob. Only a few weeks earlier I would’ve chosen a smaller scope but due to the mild weather that day I suspected the telescope would not need much, if any, cooling before being usable at high powers.

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60mm Sessions: Nova Sagittarii

If Nova Sagitarii 2015 No. 2. was charted in the Pocket Sky Atlas it would appear under the letter "U" in "Sagittarius".

If the dim star from which Nova Sagitarii 2015 No. 2 originated was charted in the Pocket Sky Atlas, it would be hidden under the “U” in “Sagittarius”.

By the end of March I had pretty much written off seeing Nova Sagittarii 2015 No. 2.

In Sky & Telescope’s oft updated article on the nova, Alan MacRobert refers to those unwilling to get out in the cold, pre-dawn hours as “slug-a-bed”s. Yeah, that’s me. My interested peaked about the same time as the Nova’s brightness in late March, then faded as the next day it dropped below magnitiude 5 and appeared to be on its way out completely.

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Explore Scientific “Countdown” Sale

Explore Scientific AR152 6" Achromatic Refractor

Explore Scientific AR152 6″ Refractor

Explore Scientific’s “Countdown to Astronomy Day” sale is on and almost everything* they offer is 20% off including telescopes and mounts.

Some of the more noteworthy deals:
Essential Series 80mm f/6 Triplet Refractor – $583.99
AR152 152mm Achromatic Refractor – $599.99
2x and 3x Focal Extenders – $79.99 each
2″ Dielectric Star Diagonal – $95.99
Twilight I Alt-Az mount – $159.99
Twilight II Alt-Az mount – $399.99

Sale prices are good until April 25th. I’ve come to own quite a few Explore Scientific products, including a couple of refractors and many eyepieces, and generally find them to be an outstanding value.

*Unfortunately their excellent eyepeices are excluded from the sale pricing.


Original content copyright 2015 by David Philips. All Rights Reserved. This post may contain links to affiliate sites; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.

The Leo Triplet

Annotated finder chart for the Leo Triplet. Original chart from the TUBA Atlas.

Annotated finder chart for the Leo Triplet. Original chart from TUBA.

During the month of April the constellation Leo is high in the sky shortly after dark, making it a good time to view the many galaxies residing there. As seasoned observers know, viewing galaxies at higher altitudes puts less air between you and the subject giving a clearer view. I’ve spent the past few weeks eagerly awaiting a clear, moonless night so I could revisit M65, M66, and NGC 3628 – collectively known as the Leo Triplet.

After a long stretch of cloudy or moonlit nights, last night’s skies were clear and reasonably dark from my red zone backyard so I brought out my 10″ Dobsonian along with a 5″ refractor to view this trio of Galaxies.

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Easter Weekend Lunar Eclipse

I missed Saturday morning’s lunar eclipse due to being clouded out in Massachusetts, though had it been clear very little of the Moon would’ve been covered as most of the eclipse occurred after moonset on the East coast.

I’ve only observed one total eclipse; it was November 8, 2003. I remember it because I spent about 2 hours standing out in the cold night with my camera. Here’s a composite of my attempts to photograph it:

Total lunar eclipse on November 8, 2013.

Total lunar eclipse on November 8, 2003.

Matt Wedel was able to observe this weekend’s eclipse from California and has posted some nice photos over at 10 Minute Astronomy.*

*Taken with a 60mm refractor, no less.


Original content copyright 2015 by David Philips. All Rights Reserved. This post may contain links to affiliate sites; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.

Orion StarMax 90mm Maksutov-Cassegrain Review


During the Summer of 2013 I started learning the constellations and viewing the night sky from my back yard with a pair of 8×40 binoculars. While these show many more stars than can be seen by eye and are great for viewing wide fields, I quickly became interested in closer views of the Moon, planets, and brighter deep sky objects, and began looking for a small telescope.

I wasn’t sure how much use a telescope would see and I didn’t want to dedicate space to a large one so I was drawn to Maksutov-Cassegrain telescopes, which are among the most compact designs, have a reputation for excellent optical performance, and are well suited to viewing the kinds of subjects I was interested in observing.

I found that the Orion StarMax 90mm (that’s the Orion link, here it is at Amazon) and Celestron C90 (B&H, Amazon) both had many good reviews and seemed to offer great value. They are both made by Synta Optical and use a very similar Optical Tube Assembly (OTA). The main reason I preferred the StarMax was that the included accessories seemed more useful for looking at the sky than those that come with the C90, which is configured as a terrestrial spotting scope.

So in late September of 2013, I purchased the Orion StarMax 90mm Mak as my first telescope. What follows are my impressions from using the telescope over the past year and a half.

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