Saturn 1994 white spot HST
The Hubble Space Telescope captured this sharp view of Saturn.
NASA / JPL / STScl

“What do you want for your next telescope?” I’m often asked. My answer is quick: “Hubble.”

And then everyone has a good laugh. Who doesn’t want to see everything? Once you’ve caught the stargazing bug, it can be a challenge to strike a balance between enjoying the night sky and coveting bigger lenses and mirrors.

The best instrument, of course, is the one you use. My favorite scope is a grab-and-go 114mm tabletop Dobsonian — something others might consider tiny and primarily for beginners. It’s easy for me to manage, and I’ve enjoyed many inspiring views across all four seasons.

But I always find myself wanting more.

In November 2020, the local astronomy club held a telescope library sale to make room for newer inventory. I’d hoped for a 6-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (SCT), but the librarian offered me an 8-inch instead. I worried it would be too big for me.

The optical tube assembly was about 20 years old. The optics were good, but the tube needed to be deforked if I wanted to upgrade the Go To mount. I took the plunge. About nine months and $1,000 later, I had a functional NexStar 8. I learned a lot about mounts, tripods, finders, and more while pulling that kit together. It’s my biggest scope by far, and it was a lot for me to wrangle. I started to think of it as “the monster.”

Then on a Zoom call with the club’s telescope workshop, another member pulled out a NexStar 8 and called it his “little scope.”

Well. Wrangling is in the eye — err, the hands of the stargazer, I guess.

I daydreamed of the celestial wonders I’d find with my SCT, and I did see some beautiful sights like the Christmas Tree Cluster and the Rosette Nebula. But every time it looked like the clear skies would hold, I wore myself out schlepping and setting up the monster and ended up in physical pain before it was dark enough to see anything. I tried carrying the scope outside as an assembled unit. I tried carrying it out in pieces. I tried setting it up hours ahead of time so I could rest. It didn’t seem to matter. By the time I completed the two-star alignment, I was running on fumes and ready to call it a night.

I verged on angry, disappointed tears every time. I gave the monster so many “one more try” chances before I concluded that it wasn’t the right scope for me. I reached again for my tabletop dob, and I listed the NexStar for sale. After putting so much of myself into its assembly, I was sad when I sold it at a significant loss to an eager young man on his way to dark skies in Nevada, but he emailed me the next day with a glowing report of his first night with it.

When the club’s telescope library reopened, naturally I borrowed an even bigger telescope. Am I a glutton for equipment-related punishment? My partner helped me pick up the club’s brand-new Sky-Watcher Flextube 250p, and I needed his help again to carry the pieces outside for observation. It’s a great and capable light bucket, but it’s too big for me. Maybe I needed to convince myself, again, that I can’t handle larger instruments. I did at least have the privilege of first light on familiar targets like the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades, but I was too depleted to hunt for anything else.

Aperture fever is real, and it’s easy to get so wrapped up in pursuing the next bigger and better instrument that I lose sight of what I’d like to do with it. I expended so much time and effort chasing equipment that the hobby I embraced as a source of joy was becoming a chore.

That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on anything bigger than my 114mm tabletop, but this yearning for more has to be tempered by real-world circumstances like budgets, physical limitations, and storage space. When I feel my stargazing ambition stretching beyond those limits, I remind myself of this wisdom from Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

There’s so much more that I want to see. I can ask the CloudyNights forums for advice on choosing my next scope. Maybe I’ll get around to constructing a lazy-susan style binocular chair mount. In the meantime, I get to rediscover the exquisite serenity of small astronomy. There’s a lot I can do and learn with the instruments I have, or even with none at all.


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Comments


Image of Rod

Rod

May 4, 2022 at 11:00 am

Amen! I enjoy using my 90-mm refractor telescope on a Vixen Porta II Altazimuth mount and tripod. Some great views and easy to use with the Telerad. I also use an Orion XT10i too. Hopefully some of us with small telescopes and others, will enjoy the upcoming 15-16th May, total lunar eclipse coming.

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Jim Tomney

May 4, 2022 at 8:15 pm

I can certainly relate, especially as I become a senior citizen. My strategy has been to make it as convenient as possible to observe from my driveway. Put the heavy Celestron mount on a "dolly" so I can roll it out & in the garage easily, and organized the OTAs and accessories for quick access. But, even so, there are still clear nights when I take a pass rather than setting everything up!

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Joe Stieber

May 4, 2022 at 9:52 pm

In my advancing years, especially the last few years, I've been observing a lot with my 88 mm and 115 mm apo spotting scopes. I use a photo tripod with a nice gimbal mount (which tilts back 45° so I can point near the zenith). I don't use a finder, I just point-and-shoot and it hasn't limited me from observing a multitude of various objects (planets, double stars, deep sky objects, comets, asteroids). Of course, a light bucket still has advantages, and recent circumstances have allowed me to get out my 16-inch dob more often. As reported elsewhere at S&T, SN 2022hrs was an easy target for it, along with the parent galaxy NGC 4647 and nearby M60. I do use a reflex finder with the 16-inch and its button cell is the only electricity on the scope. I use binoculars a lot too.

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OwlEye

May 5, 2022 at 9:09 am

I've been in pain for the past 20 years (I'm 65), and have put both my 6-inch f/8 and 12.5-inch f/10 on dollies. It's been a game-changer. DZ

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shortstop

May 5, 2022 at 9:40 am

Fantastic article! I have been an amature astronomer most of my life. 30 years ago I built a permanent observatory housing a C14 and 6 in. refractor with all the goodies including a warm room in the cold Colorado winters. I was fortunate to see many amazing sights. I discovered I enjoyed live viewing more than long exposures but did both.

The observatory was quite a distance away from the house and when I shut down to go to bed I was always struck with the night sky without the scope. Many times I sat there and discoved that was as satisfying as using the scope.

I am now 70 and have since moved the the high mountain desert of SW Colorado where the night sky is vey dark and spectacular. I don't plan to build an observatory, but will use my 80mm or naked eye to enjoy the beauty of the universe. Thanks again for the article.

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Kevan Hubbard

May 5, 2022 at 2:29 pm

I often use a 25mm Pocket Borg refractor which gives good views of the Moon and Sun (with solar filter).You can just get the cloud bands on Jupiter too and rings of Saturn .Mind that's by no means the smallest as I have a 5x10 Zeiss Mini Quick monocular and a 4x12 Viking monocular.I was on a camping trip about 2 weeks back and I only had the 5x10 on me and I was able to pick up M13 with it.I haven't tried the 4x12 as I've only just got it on much yet just Capella and the Kids a few nights ago.

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Tom Reinert

May 5, 2022 at 6:43 pm

Among sailors there is an expression: "The smaller the boat, the more it is sailed." Same for telescopes.

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Mark Mills

May 6, 2022 at 1:26 pm

Thank you for this. I am new to astronomy with a 130mm Orion EQ and I am bound to get everything I can out of this. It's large enough to see many things from my backyard in Tucson. Plus, it can be transported with a minimum of fuss.

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TomR

May 7, 2022 at 2:35 pm

Thank you for this article!

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Anthony Barreiro

May 7, 2022 at 6:58 pm

Thanks very much Jennifer. The best telescope is the one you use the most!

I live in an apartment in the city and I don't have a car, so a small telescope is essential. I have a Stellarvue 60 mm f/5.5 apochromatic refractor and an old Celestron altazimuth mount with fine-motion controls. This scope, along with Televue delos eyepieces, shows beautiful wide-field images of the Moon, star clusters, and brighter galaxies and nebulae, and decent higher magnification views of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. The OTA, diagonal, eyepieces, and filters all fit in one case the size of a briefcase, and the mount is small and light enough to carry in a shoulder bag. When I set up my little refractor at star parties my fellow club members sometimes laugh -- until they look through it, then they stop laughing.

Smaller aperture telescopes have another advantage over bigger apertures, especially when the atmosphere is unsteady: the smaller aperture looks through a narrower cylinder of atmosphere, so the image in the smaller telescope, especially at higher magnifications, will be a little steadier. When the seeing is poor, a planet will jump all around in the field of view of a big light bucket. And if it is windy at your observing site, a big dobsonian telescope will be blown around like a weather vane, while my little refractor stays pointed where I point it.

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