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FirstScope – Review August 28, 2009

Posted by Treehopper in astronomy, review.
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The Celestron FirstScope proves that cheap doesn’t necessarily mean “cheap.”

With 2009 being the International Astronomical Union’s “International Year of the Telescope” (commemorating the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s first attempts at turning the newly discovered telescope toward the heavens), the astronomy community has been all abuzz over various products and projects that bear the official “stamp” of the event.  One of these products is the FirstScope, produced and distributed by Celestron.   When it originally rolled out, it was priced at a modest $50 or thereabouts.  Not horrible as telescopes go, but enough to keep budget-minded fence-sitters like me at bay.

Then, the e-mail arrived.

Amazon issued a $15 off promotional on the scope that had already been knocked down to below the $45 price tag.  With this incentive, it brought the price down to below $30.  You can’t dangle a carrot in front of a guy like me and not expect me to take a bite out of it!  It probably took all of five minutes from the time the e-mail hit my inbox to the time I pressed the “Order Now” button and sealed my (very affordable) fate.  To sweeten the deal, Amazon even ate the shipping charges, so it was a win-win situation!

The following Wednesday, the UPS courier dropped off the smallish box at my door.  The box containing the scope itself was well-packed, colorful and emblazoned with the IYA 2009 logo, as well as various space-related photos.  It came with a couple of glossy fact sheets about the telescope and Galileo, and is clearly intended to be an educational instrument.  I lifted the pre-assembled scope from the box and set it on my table.  The FirstScope is a Newtonian design reflector with a 76mm (around 3″) mirror.  The focal length is 300mm, giving an super-fast f/3.95 (okay, call it an f/4) ratio.

The base and mount is constructed from 1/2″ laminated pressboard, covered in a white veneer. The mount “floats” on three Teflon pads between it and the base, and provides a smooth turn in the azimuth plane. The scope is attached to the upright portion of the mount by a rather substantial knurled hand-bolt which can be tightened/loosened to adjust the altitude.

The OTA itself appears to be similar in weight and consistency to sonotube, and is colored black with imprinted silver-white names of famous astronomers down through the ages. The focuser was a pleasant surprise: I was expecting a drawtube or inexpensive helical twist focus, but the FirstScope actually sports a fairly smooth rack-and-pinion 1.25″ focuser. It didn’t have that “gummy” feel that many cheap focusers have, and I didn’t notice much in terms of backlash or shifting.  It seemed to have plenty of travel and back-focus, and would likely play nice with a quality Barlow.  Both the focuser and OTA have thick plastic covers to keep the dust and bugs out of the tube when it’s not being used.

The two included eye-pieces are so-so quality. The 20mm Huygens actually isn’t bad; center was right on target and only slight “fuzzy” focus toward the extreme edge of the FOV. I can’t be as optimistic about the 4mm “SR” (probably means “Stubby Ramsden”) EP. You’d almost be better off staring through a pinhole. It might be okay for observing the moon, but it’s going to have such short eye relief, it’ll probably get all gummed up with oil from eyelashes in short order, so this will likely see the bottom of my parts box or as a “plug” for 1.25″ gadgets. I’ve got a nice Teleview 6mm Plossl that will work much better in it.

While I didn’t run the mirror through a rigorous collimation, it seemed close enough out of the box, and even a rudimentary “star test” indicated it was in the ballpark.  The real proof of the scope is in the seeing, so I turned it toward Jupiter, which has been holding court to the South at this time of year.  The provided 20mm actually resolved it nicely at 15x, although it was quite small as was expected.  Not wanting to push my luck, I dropped a Meade 9.7mm Plossl in and took another peek.  While it didn’t provide a Hubble-like experience, it did improve the image considerably, and at roughly 31x, was enough to see two pinkish-red bands in the northern hemisphere, along with its pinpoint major satellites.  Where the little scope really shined was with a 26mm Plossl dropped into place.  The magnification was slightly less than 12x (around the same as a decent pair of binoculars), but it gave a gorgeous 4.33° field of view!  It easily framed the Perseus Double-Cluster, and provided a quality view that easily surpassed the $30 price tag of this scope!

As an educational tool and first instrument for young enthusiasts, it’d be hard to go wrong with this one. It’s rugged enough to withstand reasonable wear and tear while providing a decent view of the brighter night-time objects for those just learning their way around the cosmos. As a spare or as a possible gift for a curious new astronomer, this is a nice little introductory instrument.

Even if it is a Celestron.*

* My two Meades made me say that!



1. Roberto - October 14, 2009

Do you know if Amazon is still running the $15 off promotional? If they are would you mind forwarding me the email with the link or code? I am a medical student at Stanford (i.e. any little discount helps when you don’t have much spare cash) and would love to get my hands on this scope for casual viewing with my wife. Thanks!

Treehopper - October 14, 2009

Hi and thanks for stopping by, Roberto.

I’m uncertain if Amazon is still running the promotional. I had heard that some folks were still getting e-mails from Amazon several weeks after I received mine in mid-August. I don’t believe the codes are transferable (I could be wrong, but I was always under the impression Amazon generated a unique code for your account.)

What I can and often do recommend to folks who are just starting to feed a budding astronomy habit is to invest in an inexpensive set of binoculars. These are excellent introductory instruments for a number of reasons. For the same price range you’d be willing to spend on the FirstScope, you can go to a “big box” store like Wal-Mart or Target and get a very respectable instrument. Binoculars in this range are light-weight and portable, they provide an “image corrected” view (that is, everything is right-side up as opposed to upside-down and/or mirror reversed like astronomical telescopes), and provide just the right amount of magnification and light-gathering power to make them a very worthwhile investment. Additionally, they can be used for terrestrial viewing during the day, so they serve a double purpose. Many folks (like me) never are too far from a handy pair of binoculars to augment their star-gazing hobby, even after making much larger investments in more expensive gear. Binoculars just excel at certain types of observing, and offer the biggest bang for your buck as a cash-starved beginner.

Best of luck to you in your medical studies, and kindest regards to both you and your wife should you embark on a new and exciting shared interest in astronomy. Thanks again for your support of the Faint Fuzzy blog. 🙂

2. Roberto - October 15, 2009

Thank you for your reply. I was on Amazon taking a look at the Nikon 7218 Action 10 X 50mm Binoculars for $86 and the Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15×70 Binoculars with Tripod Adapter for $64. Do you have any experience or suggestions on either one? I have a camera mount for my dSLR but it has a ball head (Manfrotto 7302YB M-Y tripod). Would I be able to get the correct mount of binoculars inexpensively? Thank you for your help, advice, and recommendations as I really appreciate it and will start frequenting your blog to learn more. I grew up a Cub Scout fascinated by the night skies on camping trips, really enjoyed learning about Galileo in undergraduate science courses, and am hopefully going to embark on a journey as an astronomy enthusiast with my wife.

3. Roberto - October 15, 2009

correction…meant tripod for my dSLR with a ball head mount…and correct mount for binoculars inexpensively…late night studying:)

Treehopper - October 15, 2009

Hello again Roberto,

I’ve heard a lot of good reports about the Celestron 15×70 binocs, although most suggest beefing up the mount area, which appears a bit flimsy for supporting the weight of the scopes. Most folks I’ve encountered have said simply filling in the voids with epoxy makes the whole thing much more sturdy. You are right in assuming you’ll need a tripod for any extended viewing. With regard to any special adapters for attaching to a photo tripod, I’m going to give you the best advice I can give. Look over to the right under “Astronomy”, and click on the Cloudy Nights Forums. This is, hands-down, THE best resource for astronomers, from rank amateur to seasoned pro. They have something there for everyone, and everyone is absolutely dedicated to helping answer any and all of your questions. I can’t recommend them highly enough. Tell ’em “Treehopper” from Faint Fuzzy sent ya! 😉

Don’t believe everything you hear about the Galileo case… about 85% of the info presented as history turns out to be myth. Galileo was never excommunicated, was never declared a heretic, and remained a faithful (if not fallible) Catholic before, during and after his “trial.” Much of what happened to him was more the result of European politics during his lifetime, as well as his fellow scholars attempting to one-up him. Once you get past the hype, his contributions, both as a scientist and a man of faith, shine all the brighter.

Thank you again for making Faint Fuzzy part of your regular stops. I’ve got some more articles in the queue, just been particularly busy this past month with “real life” stuff. Stay tuned! 🙂

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6. Lauren Daniels - December 11, 2010

Hi. I’m just looking into getting this for my four kids for Christmas. I’ve read several reviews and they all say the eye piece isn’t great. Is there a replacement you would recommend for novice/recreational users?

Your suggestion is greatly appreciated.

Treehopper - December 11, 2010

Hi Lauren,

The two eyepieces included aren’t altogether horrible for starting out, but the scope will definitely take advantage of even some modest upgrades. I can NOT recommend the “upgrade kit” that is advertised for this scope, as the eyepieces and finder scope are truly sub-par and will only frustrate anyone who attempts to make use of them.

For decent “starter” EP’s at modest prices, it’s hard to beat the OWL Black Knight Super Plossl line. These are all priced at well under $30 each, and you can put together your own set of four for about $70. I would recommend steering clear of the extremes on either end; avoid the 40mm and the 4mm, as the optics of both the scope and the oculars will more than likely not provide the best images. The bonus to getting these inexpensive yet rugged little EP’s is that they can always be used in future instruments should any (or all) of your family decide to eventually upgrade to a bigger and better telescope. And if it turns out that the scope winds up on a shelf in the playroom, you will not have sunk a small fortune in any of the accessories.

Warmest regards to you and your family. Enjoy the new scope, and all of you have a wonderful and blessed Christmas!

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