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Not Recommended: Parents Please Do a Little Homework
on March 18, 2014
Two Quick Points:
First, the best advice for first time telescope buyers is to attend a "star party" given by an astronomy club in your location and speak with some of the more experienced amateur astronomers there. You'll be invited to look through members' telescopes and you'll come away with a first-hand appreciation of what to expect in the areas of capability, price and availability. You'll also get an idea of what quality and durability looks like in ANY TELESCOPE. And you'll also get an feel for what your child might be able to handle.
Second, even a bare-as-bone telescope designed for a beginner can be expensive. For example, what might be called the standard telescope for a moderately interested amateur astronomer, a six-inch Dobsonian reflector, will cost over $200. And for what some people might call high-end or professional telescopes the prices begin in the thousands.
This may be why the time-honored advice given by experienced amateur astronomers to the parental question what should I get for a child just taking an interest in the sky has been a pair of binoculars and a good star map or beginner's book, such as "Turn Left at Orion". Most binoculars have acceptable optical performance, are relatively inexpensive and will still be of some use if the astronomy interest doesn't pan out.
But practically all beginners want a bona fide telescope, an instrument that will "really show something". So there is a market for small telescopes aimed at beginners and children and these can vary in quality. Some are just a waste of money. Frankly, almost all of them will show lunar craters, Jupiter's four Galilean moons and Jupiter's two prominent cloud bands on a good night. While all of these telescopes - good and bad - make compromises to be affordable, they should also meet some basic requirements.
I can't recommend Educational Insights Nancy B'S Science Club Moonscope because there are a number of beginner telescopes roughly in the same price range, for example Celestron's 70mm Travel Scope or their Cometron FirstScope that are better constructed and will perform better. Further, the Moonscope has a number of basic failings which make it unsuitable, especially for a child with little or no experience using a telescope.
The Moonscope has a clear aperture of 45mm (the diameter of its lens). Both of the Celestron units are larger in aperture which means they will resolve details more clearly and capture more light giving a brighter image. They are both sturdier and should be easier to use. Both will accept some standard accessories if a child's astronomy interest grows.
Here are some basic requirements that ANY telescope should meet:
1. A TELESCOPE SHOULD BE RIGIDLY MOUNTED. The legs of the Moonscope are plastic and will easily transfer vibrations should they or the surface on which the scope is set up be bumped. Also because the Moonscope and its tripod are extremely light a good breeze will give it the shakes. Few things are more aggravating than trying to observe something through a vibrating telescope. Having to "fight the telescope" could really deaden a child's interest. All beginners telescopes have this problem, but it's especially obvious with the Moonscope due to its light weight plastic construction.
2. A FINDER SCOPE SHOULD CLEARLY SHOW AND HELP PINPOINT A TARGET. Like the cross hairs on a rifle, a telescope finder helps you point the more powerful main scope at a target which would be difficult or impossible to center using the main scope alone. Usually, they are adjustable, but the finder on the Moonscope is not. It's a pre-aligned plastic tube that's partially closed at one end. Unfortunately, it's next to useless. It totally distorts the image of the Moon and using it to point the Moonscope at Jupiter, a really bright star-like object, was just about impossible. I gave up and pointed the telescope by sighting up the main tube - a skill picked up over the years. Most beginner scopes include a small telescopic finder. An adequate finder should be considered a necessity if a child is to use the telescope.
3. A TELESCOPE SHOULD HAVE GOOD OPTICS. The optics in the Moonscope are plastic. Telescope optics are almost universally ground glass. That, in itself, should be an indication that this is a full step below what is normal, even in some pretty bad telescopes. The Moonscope comes with two eyepieces, a 20mm and a 4mm. The view through the 20mm is acceptable, but the image produced by a binocular of comparable magnification is significantly brighter and sharper. And when compared to the image produced by a slightly larger, more expensive telescope with better eyepieces, the Moonscope image is clearly inferior.
The 4mm eyepiece indicated as giving a magnification of 90 is a bit of a disaster. First that power is at the upper limit for a scope of this small size. Even with an expensive telescope of this size with perfect optics and great seeing conditions, the views you'll normally get using this power will be disappointing - a bit dark and "mushy". But the Moonscope 4mm eyepiece is far from optically perfect. Move the object you're viewing to the edge of the field of view and it turns into a "blob". After using the 4mm a few times, I just stopped using it.
Also eyepieces for modern astronomical telescopes come in two standard diameters, 1.25 and 2 inches. The Moonscope eyepieces are smaller and non-standard. You have only the two eyepieces that come with the Moonscope. Starter scopes, such as those mentioned above, use standard eyepieces so other eyepieces with different magnifications or fields of view (and things like filters which go with them) can be added later.
A NITPICK. The Moonscope comes with a permanently attached star diagonal (the device that bends the light path 90 degrees and accepts the eyepieces). A diagonal presents a "mirror" image of what you're viewing. North is north, south is south, but east and west are reversed. This is mentioned in the activity journal that comes with the Moonscope. However, the lunar chart in the activity journal shows the Moon in its normal orientation. This could be confusing for a youngster trying to navigate the lunar surface and identify its features.
FINALLY. Sparking a child's interest in astronomy is a laudable goal. It can lead to a lifetime of interest, activity or in some cases, even a profession. Taking a bit of care with regard to the tools a child will use to explore the sky for the first time can make all the difference. You can easily do better than this.
By the way, this review - and I assume some others you can read here - was done after receiving a complimentary Moonscope for review.