How to Use a Telescope

Right around age 12 is when most kids become interested in the vast reaches of space and the universe. This is a great age to introduce a telescope to a kid, although taking him or her to a planetarium and checking out “star shows” can be done when they are a little bit younger. If you have decided to purchase a telescope to share with your children, but you are not quite sure how to use it, this guide will help you and your children learn how a telescope works, how to use it to track and spot things, and why you may be having trouble seeing stars.

First Thing’s First: Tripod or No Tripod?

Some telescopes come with a tripod. Others do not. You may be wondering if the added expense of a tripod is worth it and you should know that it absolutely is. A tripod protects the telescope from being damaged and isolates it so that you can focus on one area of the sky at a time. It does not matter if you buy the least expensive or most expensive telescope; they can all break when dropped. Place them on a tripod for greater stability and less incidents of dropping damage.

Once you have a telescope mounted and secured to a tripod, you can adjust the tripod up and down and even adjust the legs for a comfortable height for every viewer. This is important in that it will not cause anyone any pain or cramping leaning too far over to look into the eyepiece. You should be able to bend down just slightly over the telescope and look into it without cranking your head, neck and shoulders into an awkward position. If the tripod doesn’t adjust up to a comfortable level for everyone, consider buying a second tripod that will elevate the telescope a little higher.

Selecting a Type of Telescope

Most people assume that a telescope is a telescope is a telescope. Not so; in fact, there are three main types of telescopes. These three types are compound, refractor and reflector. Before you buy a telescope, you should know exactly which type you want to buy and why.


A refractor telescope refracts light as it enters the aperture, or opening, of the front end of the telescope. These are the most common telescopes, but unfortunately you will not see much unless you buy one that has a very large aperture and an apochromat lens. An apochromat lens adjusts for quality and light waves in a way that is far superior to an achromat lens. Adjustability in the viewing is managed through a single twist of the ocular end of the scope.


A reflector telescope works more like the human eye. It has one or more lenses inside that capture images, flip them, flip them again, and then bounce them onto a mirror under the eye piece. The images you see in the sky are reflected one or more times through lenses inside the scope.

The internal mirror is also essential to viewing because it is responsible for collecting enough light to see the reflected images. If the mirror is ever damaged, not enough light can enter the scope to see. Many of these telescopes look impressive, but they are often more complicated to use with a lower quality of image to accompany the lower price. Unless you are somewhere with a perfectly clear night sky and a full moon, you may not be able to see a lot unless you purchase a high end reflector telescope.


A compound telescope combines the best features of the refractor and reflector versions, making it the best option to see the most, regardless of the amount of light available or the dimness of the night sky. These scopes are also pricier, but if you have a child that really begins enjoying astronomy, you might consider purchasing a compound telescope to support his/her love of the stars.

As far as types of telescopes go, that is it. Knowing how does a telescope work simple explanation, it goes hand in hand with how to use a telescope. Whether it’s by reflecting or refracting light, or both (as is the case in the compound type) you can begin to understand how images are captured and magnified so that the human eye can see things so far away.

The Power of a Telescope

In astronomy terms, the power of a telescope’s magnification is the focal length divided by the eyepiece’s focal length. If that’s too much math to comprehend, just understand this; the power is fifty times the telescope’s aperture in inches. The larger the aperture, the greater the power. Finding a telescope with a large number for the aperture helps you see the night sky a lot better than some other lesser-powered scopes.

How to Use A Telescope

Find a place that is high up. If you have a second story balcony, a rooftop, or a hill near you, these are all good places to set up a telescope. However, you will also need less city light and more country darkness if you expect to see anything. Lots of city lights tend to block out the stars, which is why it is so difficult to see stars at night in the city. Set up your scope where city lights are dim and the location is up high. This will give you the clearest and best viewings of the night sky.

Next, set up your scope on stable ground. Make sure the scope itself is level, even if it means that one or more of the legs of the tripod are slightly shorter or taller than the last leg or other two legs. The telescope should not wobble once it is on the tripod.

Point the scope up towards something of interest in the night sky. A good starting point is with Polaris, the evening star at the end of the little dipper constellation. It is one of the brightest stars in the night sky, and the one by which all Northern Hemisphere sailors learn to navigate.

Once you have found that, you can begin looking at the constellation itself, and then at the neighboring constellations. Adjust the lens on the eyepiece so that each of your children can see these things clearly. Everything has to be brought into focus before you can make the telescope magnify what you see and draw the images closer to you. Based on the power of your chosen telescope, you may see better or best with a higher power lens in the scope, another one of those “how does a telescope work simple explanation” sort of things.

Eventually, if you and your child(ren) really want to delve into this hobby, learn how to navigate using coordinates. It is a useful survival skill, even if you and your child(ren) never go on to use astronomy for anything other than a hobby. Coordinates map out the night sky in degrees, and some of the most expensive telescopes allow you to set degrees above the horizon and degrees west or east. Purchasing a dial chart for sky viewing helps you learn more about these navigation skills and sky mapping, which can also turn into a separate hobby on its own.