Telescopes: Getting Started with Your New Telescope

Learn About Your Instrument

Read the information provided with your scope, and make sure you understand what size your scope is, what its focal length is, and what type of scope it is.  This data will be important as you start using your scope. If you have questions, see the contact information below. 

Put your scope together following the directions provided.  Make sure all connections are tight.  You can’t eliminate all vibrations, but an overly wobbly scope will make observing difficult.  For instance, tighten any loose joints on a tripod by adding washers if necessary.
Once your scope is together, practice moving it until you are familiar with how it moves.  Don’t force it!  If it doesn’t move easily, try to figure out why, and if you can’t figure it out, see the contact info below.

Contact Other Astronomers  

Where can you get more help? Try the Rose City Astronomers (RCA), the Portland area amateur astronomy club. Our web siteprovides a wealth of information about astronomy.
We also hold many activities, including public star parties, where you can get help with your new instrument. RCA meets every third Monday of the month in the OMSI auditorium from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM. The public is always welcome.
We also have a monthly telescope workshop. These guys are experts on all aspects of telescope construction and operation and are always willing to help newcomers.

Learn the Constellations

Why?  It’s how you’re going to find the objects you want to observe. The constellations are your map.

How? Get a good introductory book like “The Stars – A New Way to See Them” by H.A. Rey, or “The Golden Sky Guide.”  Don’t try to learn the all of the constellations all at once.  Pick a couple that will be up each night and go outside and try to find them. Don’t try to see the Greek Gods in the sky. Make shapes that you recognize out of the constellations.  For example: Hercules reminds many people of a bow tie, and Sagittarius looks like a teapot. You’ll be surprised at how much easier this is.

Read About Astronomy


There is a tremendous amount of published information available about amateur astronomy, and we recommend that you avail yourself of this resource.  Specifically, we recommend you look at the following:

  • Nightwatch by Terrence Dickinson:  A great book for getting started.  It has simple sky charts that will guide the beginner to the most popular items in the sky while teaching you how to navigate through the constellations.  It has a very good introductory section.  Be sure to get the most updated version.  
  • Turn Left at Orion: A Hundred Night Sky Objects to See in a Small Telescope and How to Find Them  by Guy Consolmagno.  An excellent teaching tool for the beginner.  It's the book that I wish I had had when I started out.  It would have saved me a lot of trouble in the first three years of my astronomical life.  What's best about this book is that you see the items on the page the way you will see them in your small scope - - and not the way Hubble Telescope sees them.  Get the most recent edition.
  • The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide by Harvard Pennington.   Also known as the Red Book, this book will get you through the observer's Basic Training: the Messier objects.  It has very good charts for star-hopping, the images are similar to what the observer sees in the eyepiece, and it saves you from wasting time trying to do the objects in numerical order.  Instead, the objects are arranged seasonally.  Very useful.
  • Magazines:  Astronomy, Sky and Telescope – keep up with the latest in the hobby of astronomy.

Web Sites

Star Charts

The charts in Nightwatch are excellent for beginners as well as a set of charts called The Bright Star Atlas by Wil Tirion.  A planisphere will tell you what is visible in the sky at any given date and hour.  There are also one-page cards with all the Messier Objects and Caldwell Objects indicated.  

Getting Ready to Observe  

  1. Your Scope: Remember that scopes aren’t magnification devices.  A telescope is designed to make faint objects bright, not small objects big – and you can easily use too much magnification.  Most new scopes come with an eyepiece in the 25-mm range.  This is a good eyepiece to use for general observing.  If your scope comes with a Barlow or eyepieces in the 7-mm to 18-mm range, stay away from them for now.  They are high magnification eyepieces for specialized uses. 
  2. Accessories: You want to avoid white light while you are out observing – white light will destroy the dark adaptation of your eyes and make it very difficult to see faint objects in your scope. Red light is necessary to preserve night vision, so you are going to need a red flashlight. A telrad type finder scope is always a useful accessory for your scope.  This is a device that paints a red, laser bull's-eye on the sky and helps you find objects. Appropriate star charts will also help you find what you are looking for. Bring a surface to hold your star charts, flashlight, and any other accessories you may have. Bring a chair to sit down in every once in a while; it gets tiring standing at the eyepiece!
  3. A plan: Figure out what you want to look at before you get out there, and bring the appropriate charts and books.  Attached is a list of public star party objects the RCA uses to introduce the night sky.  You could try finding some of these objects.
  4. Clothing: Bring warm clothes, more than you think you’ll need.  Even in the dead of summer it gets very cold out at night. Your outfit should include a hat as you lose most of your body heat out the top of your head!  Dress in layers.
  5. Snacks: Bring something to munch on and drink. Warm cocoa, or coffee, or hot soup is a good idea as well as nuts, granola, cookies, or brownies.  Stay completely away from alcohol – it destroys your night vision. Even one glass of wine will make it impossible for you to focus your eyes satisfactorily.  

Basic Tips  

  1. Never look directly at the sun with the naked eye, binoculars or telescope! Permanent blindness can result!  Special filters are available from astronomical sources and are required for solar viewing
  2. Prepare for an evening of viewing by making a list of objects you want to see and becoming familiar with their locations in the sky.
  3. Abstain from smoking or using alcoholic beverages. These substances destroy your night vision and ability to focus on faint objects.
  4. Be well rested. Fatigue decreases accuracy and enjoyment.
  5. Plan to remain in the dark for at least 30 minutes before observing really dim objects.