The Sadness of the Hobby Telescope

The hobby telescope is one of the saddest purchases a person can make. It’s even more pathetic than the NordicTrack ski machine that no one ever uses. Telescopes look cool, and after you’ve seen a few Hubble Space Telescope pictures, you think to yourself: Oh man, I’d like to cook up a few shots like that.

The Hubble can do this. You will never ever do this.

But you’re dreaming. You don’t want to own a telescope. You want to be the kind of person who owns a telescope. You want to talk knowledgeably at parties about owning a telescope. Actually owning a telescope kind of sucks. Here’s the thing about a hobby telescope.

  1. If it’s cheap, it’s terrible. If it’s expensive, it’s… expensive.
  2. If it’s small, the image is terrible. If it’s big, it’s so heavy and awkward that you’ll never take it out. It will suck up half your garage and stare at you every day, mocking you.
  3. Getting good images means staying up late or waking up early, driving someplace inconvenient, and then standing around in frigid darkness for long stretches of time. If you don’t like doing any of these things, owning a telescope won’t change that.
  4. You will be amazed to learn that even finding the thing you want to take a picture of is hard.
  5. Even when everything’s in place and the view is lined up, it’s going to cramp your neck to get into the right position to view the object.
  6. And the ultimate insult: the image you see is likely to be a small smudge of light.

So there you have it. You stay up late. You drive to a dark location. You get the object in your scope. You look at it. And you think: all for this little smudge? More to the point, for every conceivable thing you can look at, somebody else has already taken a picture that is impossibly better than you will ever capture. Stars don’t change that much, it turns out. Somebody else already took a better picture of the Eiffel Tower than you, and they sure as hell took a better picture of the Triangulum Galaxy than you.

I am confident you’ll soon be taking quality pictures like this.

Here is the key point about stargazing of any kind: It’s not a visual activity. It’s a cerebral activity. If it genuinely makes your heart sing to look at a smudge of light and say “Wow! That’s it! That’s the lenticular galaxy M84!” then you may be the right person to buy a telescope after all. If it doesn’t, then hey, I know a quick way to save yourself $1600.

But for all my gloom, there are some exciting new developments in this market for us mere mortals. I was impressed with this review of the Unistellar eVscope (which was originally a Kickstarter project). I don’t own one, so don’t take this for a review. But the eVscope makes some smart choices for your typical lazy wannabe astrophotographer. First of all, this is not a telescope so much as a camera attachment for your phone. So it avoids the neck-cramping nonsense of wedging yourself behind an eyepiece. It’s not too big, so you might actually take it outside every now and again. It helps you find things automatically. And most of all, it’s got modern software that will assemble an image that’s much better than your eye can see. How? By taking many pictures in rapid succession and then combining them into one superior image. Finally, it can automatically participate in data-gathering campaigns for honest-to-goodness scientists. You get to feel useful instead of just cold and bored!

Like a lot of things these days, software is what’s making all the difference. The old hobby telescope market is trying to graft modern software onto an ancient chassis. It’s an uphill struggle. This new model starts with the software and builds up from there. As such, they’ve been able to banish the major headaches and user-experience flaws of hobby telescopes.

Hmm… maybe it’s time to sell my old NordicTrack and make room for something new.