Almost everyone who is into astronomy as an adult has either experienced themselves or heard the stories about kids getting gifts of department store-quality telescopes and being so frustrated with the scope, and their inability to find anything, they end up giving up on the hobby. Some find their way back as adults, some don’t.
The destruction of interest haunts all amateur astronomers, we want others to share our excitement, and it is the principal driver between so many amateurs setting up their scopes to share the experience with anyone and everyone. Star parties, Scouts and Girl Guides, classrooms, corners, parking lots…we’ll set up almost anywhere.
There are fewer department stores around these days, but that doesn’t mean the crappy scopes are gone. Some even have semi-trustworthy names. National Geographic has licensed their name to a number of low-end toys, not really functional scopes, and you can frequently find them being sold off on FB or Kijiji for $20 or less, evidence of abandoned dreams.
When I was a kid, I was interested in the stars, and my parents got me something even worse — a hand-held telescope for land viewing. Like most of the parents buying them, they didn’t know any better. Like binoculars, only just a single lens. It was almost impossible to hold it steady while looking through it at my young age, and I know I never even tried to look at the moon unless it was a full moon (I never saw terminator stuff). I vaguely remember using it and binoculars to look at stars, but one night with no luck was enough to abandon that. No tripod, no eyepieces, just a single telescope with adjustable length. A horrible design for anyone wanting to look at the stars. By contrast, the cheap ones like National Geographic are actually functional designs — basic reflectors on cheap alt-az tripods.
And it got me thinking. The crappy scopes are terrible for beginners because they are almost impossible to control and use well, and they jump around. But what if you tried one as an experienced astronomer? Would they still be completely useless? Someone had one on FB Marketplace nearby for $20 and I thought I would give it a try for the experience.
But you know what? It wasn’t completely terrible. I know, I’m surprised too. It worked 1000% better than I thought it would.
It was all plastic, a bad sign to start. Lots of little parts to screw in, and no instructions. I didn’t really need any, but there was one part I had to look at the box to see in the picture what it looked like officially (mostly to get the right angle). A spotter goes on top, and it was a bit tricky to get the knurled screws to line up, but not much different than a real scope. I was a bit surprised to see that it comes with three little eyepieces — 20mm, 12.5mm, and 7mm. Plus some form of a 3x barlow (multiplier/magnifier) but I’m not even sure how it fits into anything…the barlow is REALLY long.
My first target of the night was a very bright Jupiter. The focus knob is a wheel that moves the eyepiece closer and farther away in the tube (shortening and lengthening the tube) which is always a bad design — it means every little twitch shakes the scope. Nevertheless, I did get a white disc for Jupiter. No bands, no details, but a solid white disc.
Saturn was a pleasant surprise. I could see the rings. Sure, I couldn’t split them or anything, but it was clearly Saturn. With a $20 plastic scope, no less.
The moon came up and although it was full, the resolution was fine. A bit too bright, and no way to put in a filter for the odd-sized EPs, but if it hadn’t been full, I would have seen details on the terminator line.
I was thinking I would use it, maybe take it apart to see the guts, and then toss the parts. Yet it was usable, mildly so. Don’t get me wrong, it is absolute junk, and any beginner would be ready to pitch it in frustration. But as a near-free option to leave somewhere for easy moon viewings? I don’t know if I will take it apart after all. I’d like to try it on a properly stable tripod, maybe my camera one, and see if it would “hold still” to look at the moon.
As I said, I saw Jupiter (sort of), Saturn’s rings, and the full moon. It probably wasn’t as good as simple binoculars, but again, I was surprised it didn’t completely suck, at least not for someone who generally knew what they were doing before they started.