As experienced amateur astronomers we are often asked, “What telescope should I buy?” However that question would be better phrased as follows, “What telescope should I buy that meets my needs and budget?” The key words are “Needs” and “Budget.”
You can certainly find a lot of information on the internet about buying a telescope, especially a beginner telescope. Not all of it is necessarily in your best interest, though. I started out in 2004 as a complete beginner and have slowly worked up to a level of experience and knowledge where I am able to teach others how to get started by running the Raleigh Astronomy Club’s ‘Telescope Tune Up Clinics’ for the past several years. Let me share my own experience with you in hopes of saving you a lot of time, money and frustration.
A FEW KEY POINTS:
I would be remiss if I did not at least try to convince to you start out in astronomy with just a good set of binoculars. This was the advice I was given and I promptly ignored; I just wanted a telescope! I find a lot of beginners also feel like I did, they really want a telescope and do not see any value in using binoculars to start. By the way, I eventually bought two pairs of binoculars and really enjoy sometimes just observing with them and not using a telescope.
If you follow in my foot steps and jump right into buying a telescope, be sure you understand aperture. Aperture is the size of the main mirror or lens, this is usually the diameter of the opening or clear part of the telescope. The larger the aperture the more light a telescope collects. Contrary to popular belief, an astronomical telescope’s main purpose is to gather light not magnify. So the more light your scope gathers, the dimmer the object you can see in your telescope. You will want to maximize the aperture for your given needs, budget and portability/storage requirements.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
Which is the best type of telescope to get? That is a lot like asking, “I want to buy a screwdriver, what is the best kind?” The correct answer is “that all depends on what screws you will be using, Phillips, Slottled, Allen, etc.” Below are some questions you need to ask yourself in order to guide you to the best telescope for your individual needs:
- How much should I spend? The sky can be the limit here so you need to set a realistic budget. There are good scopes available even for modest budgets. However you should devote at least 25% of your budget for accessories like eyepieces, reference material (charts, books, planispheres, etc.). You can always purchase additional accessories later but you will need a few eyepieces and other basics to start.
- What do I want to look at? Do I want to get into astrophotography? The rationale behind this question is that certain types of telescopes are better for viewing certain objects than others. Also, certain equipment is better suited for astrophotography.
- Where will I use my telescope? Will I use my telescope in overly light polluted skies, suburban skies or very dark skies? Even the biggest aperture telescope cannot compensate for light polluted skies. On the other hand even a small aperture telescope under really dark skies will amaze you.
- How portable does my telescope need to be? Do you live in an apartment on the 3rd floor or in a house with a good sized garage for storage? Carrying an 8” Dobsonian scope up and down several flights of stairs will get very tiring very quickly. Does your telescope (and gear) need to fit in your car for transportation to other sites?
- How much “help” do I want from my telescope? Some telescopes automatically calibrate themselves and with very little input from you and align themselves quite accurately. These fully automated scopes are almost fool proof and will find objects for you and track them as the Earth rotates. However this may not be the best way to learn the night sky. Other telescopes have motors that once you find the object through the telescope, the motors will keep up with the rotation of Earth. Still other scopes are completely manual and you must do all the finding and tracking. Naturally, the more automation, generally the more money you will spend.
The first question addresses how much you want to spend. If you set your budget too low, you get into a price point where the quality of telescopes is just plain poor. You’ll be hard pressed to find quality telescopes on the used marked for less than $150.00 and brand new under $250. Don’t be afraid to buy used, just make sure it’s coming from someone who knows about the telescope and astronomy, took care of the telescope and is reputable. Sites like www.cloudynights.com and www.astromart.com are great sites for buying used equipment. In a nutshell, be prepared to spend at least $200 for a used telescope and accessories and at least $300 if you by new.
On the otherhand, it is possible to over spend. The last thing you want to do is spend $2,400 on a full featured telescope only to realize astronomy is not your cup of tea.
Remember to earmark about 25% for accessories like eyepieces, barlows, charts/planispheres and dew prevention.
Types of Telescopes:
The second question is targeting what type of telescope will best fit your needs. There are 3 main types of telescopes: Refractor, Reflector and Compound or Catadioptric. Rather than go into the differences here, here is great 4 minute video from YouTube posted by Orion that best explains the differences between the types:
Each type of telescope has its’ pros and cons. Some telescopes excel at planetary observation while others are more suited to deep sky work. However since many beginners will not know what objects they will prefer to view, it’s hard to try and make the decision to by which telescope. Therefore I recommend not even worrying about that just yet. Instead, focus on the portability and ease of set up. Certain scopes are more portable than others and certain mounts are easier to set up than others. Dobsonian reflectors are the easiest to set up but tend to be the biggest of the scopes but also offer the most bang for your buck.. Catadioptrics are the most compact type of telescope and are considered the “jack of all trades” telescope but they are more expensive. Refractors offer some of the best contrasts and are great for imaging but are the most expensive per aperture. One recommendation I feel very strongly about is for beginners to stay away from equatorial mounts for your first scope. While there are great for tracking, they are complex and are not beginner friendly to set-up and use.
If astrophotography is something you want to pursue, I recommend that you study up and learn the basics first. Equipment specific to taking images can be very costly.
What size scope is best for you? If you plan to go observing from several different locations then you need a portable telescope but one that will offer at least a decent amount of aperture. A 6” telescope or 150mm is the minimum aperture I would recommend that you start with. Storage of your astronomy equipment is another consideration. If you can spare a corner in your garage or in a closet, a 6” to 8” dob will store nicely in a spot like that.
Beware of the idea that bigger is better. A wise man once told me that the best size telescope is the one you will use. If the scope is too much of a hassle to carry out and set up because it’s too bulky, it won’t get used. A 10” or 12” scope will provide some great views of dim objects but these size telescopes are heavier and take longer to set up and will also require more trips back and forth from where you store them to where you observe.
To GOTO or Not To GOTO:
The night sky is a vast and wondrous sight to behold, but how much do you want to know about it? Are you looking to only observe but not necessarily learn the night sky or understand celestial movements? It used to be the case that scopes with computers (GOTO or Push –to-go) were more complicated and required a fair amount of knowledge to calibrate. This is no longer the case. An board computer or locator aid can greatly improve the productivity of your observing sessions as well as remove a fair amount of frustration in locating objects. However, there is still something to be said about first learning the basics first (i.e. – learning the constellations, how to locate objects, how to star hop). In school, you don’t give children calculators and let them skip learning basic mathematical skills. Again, it just depends on your goals.
GOTO and Push-to-go features cost money. If you are on a modest budget, you’ll want more of your purchasing dollars to be invested in the optics of the telescope and less to the mount and gadgets. Stay away from low priced GOTO/Push-to-go scopes (under $300 for new); the quality is just not there. Consider Orion’s Intelliscope line of dobsonians with Push-to-go (aka – digital setting circles), they start at the 6” range and go to 12”. Another very good line of GOTO telescopes is Celestron’s NexStar telescopes.
SPECIFIC TELESCOPE RECOMMENDATIONS:
Higher End (Over $1,000) Options:
In this price point you find scopes that, when properly aligned, will track objects across the sky. I’ve made recommendations for portable options as well as large aperture (less portable). Please note that these scopes all require some sort of power to their electronics to work. You may need to consider a portable 12v battery to provide power to the scope (and dew heater, if you use one).
- Celestron NexStar 8SE 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain Go-To ($1,199)
- Celestron NexStar Evo 6 ($1,299)
- Celestron NexStar Evolution 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain Go-To ($1,699)
Larger Aperture Options:
- Orion SkyQuest XT8g Go-To Dobsonian ($1,099)
- Sky-Watcher Flextube Go-To Dobsonian 8” ($1,100)
- Orion SkyQuest XT12i IntelliScope Dobsonian Push-to-go ($1,350)
- Sky-Watcher Flextube Go-To Dobsonian 10” ($1,335)
- Orion SkyQuest XT10g Go-To Dobsonian ($1,600)
Mid Range ($500 to $1,000) Options:
With a few exceptions, below you’ll find a list of good GoTo tracking scopes. Celestron, Explore Scientific, Orion, SkyWatcher and Zhumell are all very good quality scopes in this price point. I’ve made recommendations for portable options as well as large aperture (less portable). For GoTo scopes, you may need to consider and portable power supply but the push-to-go scopes work fine with the small, onboard batteries in their respective hand controllers.
- Explore FirstLight 102mm Doublet Refractor with Twilight I Mount ($550)
- Celestron NexStar 5SE 5” Schmidt-Cassegrain Go-To ($699)
- Celestron NexStar 6SE 6” Schmidt-Cassegrain Go-To ($799)
- Explore Scientific AR127mm Doublet Refractor with Twilight I Mount ($780)
Larger Aperture Options:
- Sky-Watcher Flextube Dobsonian 8” ($505)
- Sky-Watcher Classic Dobsonian 10” ($545)
- Orion SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope Dobsonian Push-to-go ($650)
- Sky-Watcher Flextube Dobsonian 10” ($695)
- Zhumell Z10 Deluxe Dobsonian 10” ($700)
- Zhumell Z12 Deluxe Dobsonian 12” ($880)
- Orion SkyQuest XT10i IntelliScope Dobsonian Push-to-go ($900)
Modest Range ($300 to $500) Options:
XT8 is part of its ‘Classic’ dob line. This is a pretty basic dob but it does everything it’s supposed to do, it does it well, it’s fairly affordable and it is built quite well. The 8” dob is a bit bulkier than a 6” but the tube will still fit across the back seats of your car or even your trunk. If your trunk is big enough, it might also fit the base. However if portability and a small storage foot print are critical for you, an 8” dob might not be the ideal choice for you and one of the compact options may be a better options.
- Orion StarBlast Dobsonian 4.5” ($200)
- Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian 4.5” (XT4.5 $230)
- Orion StarBlast 102mm Altazimuth Travel Refractor ($300)
- Orion StarBlast Dobsonian 6”($350)
- Celestron NexStar 4SE 4” Maksutov-Cassegrain Go-To ($400)
- Orion StarBlast 6i IntelliScope Reflector Push-to-go ($480)
Larger Aperture Options:
- Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian 6” (XT6 $270)
- Sky-Watcher Classic Dobsonian 6” ($315)
- Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian 8” (XT8 $380)
- Sky-Watcher Classic Dobsonian 8” ($410)
- Zhumell Z8 Deluxe Dobsonian 8” ($450)
SOME CLOSING POINTS:
One thing you might note in my recommendations above is the lack of any equatorially mounted scopes. An equatorial scope (German equatorial or an wedge mount) are great for astrophotography but represent a large learning curve and something I highly discourage beginners from starting with. Many beginners state they want something that is easy to start with but they eventually use for more advanced pursuits like astrophotography. The reality is mounts for astrophotography are expensive and require a high level of precision to calibrate. Most beginners do not wish to pay that much money for a mount nor do they wish to spend the extra time setting up and tearing down each time. And of course there is the complexity factor with much more to go wrong and troubleshoot.
I highly recommend you start simple and reduce the opportunities for things to go wrong thus frustrating you. I’ve heard this analogy several times that astronomy is like learning to play an instrument. It takes practice and you need to start out with the basics, learning/improving step by step.
If you really want to do more research, check out this Report from CloudyNights:
- Starting Off Right in Astronomy Pt. 1 –http://www.cloudynights.com/item.php?item_id=1873
- Starting Off Right in Astronomy Pt. 2 –http://www.cloudynights.com/item.php?item_id=1877
- Starting Off Right in Astronomy Pt. 3 –http://www.cloudynights.com/item.php?item_id=1887
One last piece of advice, join a local astronomy club! The amateur astronomy community as a whole wants to share their knowledge and experience with the public. You’ll see evidence of this on just about any astronomy club’s website in their outreach section. This outreach not only extends to the general public but more so to new members. You’ll find experienced members are more than happy to answer questions and offer advice; all you have to do is ask. Remember, they were once beginners too