Adventures in Buying a Telescope

I wasn’t sure what I wanted for my birthday. My wishlist had myriad small items, but nothing was a stand-out for me[^1].

A few days after my birthday my eight year old son was sharing a bunch of things he’d learned recently about the Solar System: the mass and orbits of the planets, the size of distant stars, and the influence of black holes. That got me to thinking: surely at this point we must be able to get a decent telescope without breaking the bank. I’d never used a good telescope of any kind in my life even though I’ve been a space-nut for decades. So, I went to the first place I always go when I want to buy something: Amazon[^2].

After some searching and sorting for a good combination of price and customer review I settled on a Celestron 127EQ PowerSeeker (spoiler: please do not buy that telescope). Buy now with 1-Click.

2 days later our packages arrived via UPS. Assembly was fairly simple. Now we just had to wait for sunset.

Sunset arrived and Jupiter was already high enough in the sky to have a good look. I spun the scope around, pointed it at Jupiter, and had a look.

I was stunned. Awestruck. Speechless. Ecstatic.

I have never seen anything so instantly moving and amazing as seeing Jupiter hanging there against the emptiness of space, her four Galilean moons sparkling at her sides like a diamond necklace. I leapt, shouted, and gestured to my wife that she had to look. Wow! Then we had the kids look, I can see it! Wow!

We spent some more time observing the moon, tweaking the mount a bit, and looking at a few of the brighter stars in the sky. We tried all the eyepieces. We tried (not very successfully) to take pictures through the scope with our phones. Now it was getting late for the kids, so we packed it up and took everything inside.

The next night we packed everyone up and went out about a half hour from home to a dark site in the desert. The light pollution is still very noticeable, but improved enough that it’s well worth the drive.

We didn’t have a lot of time, and the kids were getting bored rather quickly, so we didn’t get to stay very long. But, we managed more great views of Jupiter and the Moon.

Two viewing sessions, two victories. That’s when things took a wrong turn.

I thought I might be able to adjust the collimation of the telescope to get a sharper image. Nothing we saw was awful, mind you, but I figured we should see if we could dial it in a bit more to get even better results.

I followed the directions I read online and started adjusting the primary and secondary mirrors. It was really hard to know if I was making the right adjustments during the day because 1) the primary mirror doesn’t come with a center mark and 2) I didn’t have a laser collimator or a collimation eyepiece. But, I went slowly, followed the directions, and got things as accurate as I could with the tools I had.

That night I eagerly took it outside after dark and pointed the telescope at a bright star to do a star test.

Utter. Disaster. Everything was out of focus.

I spent hours that night trying to make small adjustments to fix things, but nothing worked. For three nights I fought and fought with the telescope. I bought a laser collimator, tried to mark the center of the primary lens, and even bought a collimation eyepiece. Nothing worked.

Disheartened, I scoured the internet in search of a solution when I found the r/telescopes subreddit. I posted about my problem and a number of people were kind enough to respond with advice. There was one main theme: if you can return this telescope, do it.

It turns out that the Powerseeker 127eq is a Bird-Jones reflector. This is a type of Newtonian reflector design, but it has an extra lens at the base of the focus tube to allow for a much smaller telescope. It allows wide aperture reflectors to be made at much lower cost. The tradeoff is generally image quality (but not so much that it’s a big deal to those who are in this budget range), and difficulty of maintenance (a big deal).

The bottom line was that even if I was able to fix my focus issues I was always going to have to deal with this frustration when the scope became out of focus (which is inevitable because of temperature changes and the occasional bump).

There’s a great buying guide available on reddit that I highly recommend anyone go through before buying a telescope. I wish I had found it before I made my purchase.

After reading the guide and doing some more research I settled on an Orion XT6. It’s a dobsonian with a 150mm (6”) aperture. Then, I packed up the telescope and nearly all the accessories and sent it all back to Amazon[^3].

The XT6 arrived sooner than I expected. Setup as again easy, but the build quality between the two products was instantly noticeable. The XT6 feels much more solid all around. The mount is extremely stable, solid, with great friction coefficients. After the new scope was all put together we took it outside to have a look.

Gorgeous, crisp, clear views of Jupiter, double stars, the whole works.

Sadly, clouds were moving in, and the weather started to get windy, so our evening was cut short. In spite of that, we managed to get a fuzzy picture of Jupiter out of the phone.

I went out again the next night and got my first look at a galaxy: M81 & M82. They were just two dim smudges on this windy and light-polluted night, but it’s thrilling to know that smudge is actually billions of stars.

Those two nights of seeing revealed several other things that I really like about the XT6 vs the Powerseeker:

  1. More light (i.e. bigger aperture) is better, of course. The first night's conditions were pretty awful (partly cloudy, windy), but viewing was still better than the 127 on a good night.
  2. The red dot finder is so much better than the piece of junk that comes with the 127. The 127 finder was always so frustrating. This is easy to see and stays put.
  3. The alt-az mount is exactly what I didn't know I wanted before.

So far I could hardly be happier. I’ve seen my first Deep Sky Objects, I’ve had super-clear viewing of Jupiter, and I have a scope that will be easy to maintain for decades.

It was a long road to find the right scope, but I’m glad I put up with the hassles. The results are absolutely worth it. If you’re considering the Powerseeker 127eq, let me implore you: buy a dobsonian. You won’t regret it.

[^1]: That’s not to say that I actually need anything. Things often end up owning us, rather than the other way round. In any case, gifts for birthdays seems to be the way of things, and I wasn’t going to avoid it altogether.

[^2]: Turns out this was my first mistake.

[^3]: I dropped my boxed off at the UPS store, then went to lunch. Amazon had refunded my money before I got home. That’s pretty great.