The Best Telescopes for 2017: Full Telescope Buyer's Guide
Finding the best telescope can be done in one of a few different ways. A lot of people head over to the local toy store or department store and buy the cheapest refractor telescope they can find. Others gather up all the money they have available and buy the most expensive telescope they can buy, the one with the most features and the biggest aperture possible. Each of these methods has its own pitfalls.
I remember that when my dad bought me my first telescope, he definitely was a disciple of the first method. Let's just say Dad wouldn't have complained if you called him cheap.
One Christmas when I was very young, my parents bought me a telescope. I don't want to mention the brand, but it wasn't very good. I played with it for a bit. I looked at some random stars. I checked out the moon. But I quickly grew frustrated with it because I never knew what I was looking at, I had nobody to guide me or to talk with about what I was looking at, and I didn't know how to get a clear, steady image to view. Finally, so disgusted with the device that I couldn't take it anymore, I threw it into a closet and never took it out again. We eventually sold it at a garage sale for a couple of bucks.
I tell you this story not to discourage you, but to make a point. If you don't know what you're looking at, you've got the wrong telescope for what you want to view, and you don't know how to use that telescope, the backyard astronomy experience can be an exercise in sheer frustration.
If you're checking out this Telescope Buyers Guide, we recommend that you have some idea of what you're looking for. What is it you want to look at? Moon? Planets? Andromeda? Think a little bit about it. Will it just be you? Are you stargazing with the kids? All of these are questions that can help you refine what you're looking for.
You've spent some time familiarizing yourself with the sky. You've studied the charts. You've even spent a season or two checking out what you can see with a pair of binoculars. It's time to buy a telescope.
As we noted in our Beginner's Guide to Astronomy, buying a telescope is a step best left for after you have some knowledge of what you're going to be looking at.
What's the Right Telescope for Me?
A lot of people have asked us the question, "What is the right telescope for me?" The answer sounds glib, but it's true: the right telescope for you is the one that you're going to use, and that can do the things you want it to do.
Think of it this way: if you buy a state of the art telescope on Amazon that's too complicated to use, or that has extra features you don't want, you've wasted your money. We have friends who have bought way more telescope than they need, and unfortunately the telescopes sit in the back of a closet for several years before they get sold on ebay for pennies on the dollar. Don't let this happen to you.
I might add that the right telescope for you is also the telescope that does precisely as much as you need it to do without busting your budget. If you are using a telescope for viewing the moon, you don't need nearly as complex or powerful a telescope as if you're trying to capture more distant objects.
That knowledge of your intended application, along with a few other technical considerations, will guide you to making the best decision possible.
What Are You Using It For?
Hopefully you have some idea about what you're going to be using a telescope for. Like we've said before, a lot of people only need to use a pair of binoculars they have around the house to look at objects and get familiar with the layout of the sky at various times of night and at different seasons during the year. This allows them to develop a more accurate sense of the sorts of things they enjoy looking at. Often, that simple pair of binoculars will be all the magnification you'll need for quite some time.
Maybe there's a particular object you like viewing, but you want to get a closer look at some aspect of it.
Maybe there's a corner of the sky that's just beyond the reach of your current optics, and you need a new telescope to see it at all. Maybe you really like looking at the planets in our own solar system, and you want to get a fuller view of their surfaces and moons.
Having one of these goals can be critical in deciding which direction to go when you're buying.
As you'll see discussed below, the magnification of a telescope in relation to its size is important. If you're trying to look at the moon, you won't need anywhere near the magnification that you'll need if you're trying to see some other deeper space objects. Too great a magnification in too small an aperture can actually make seeing closer objects more difficult.
That's not to assume you want to look at the sky at all. A lot of people use their telescopes for terrestrial viewing. Whether, it's bird watching, checking out a favorite sporting event, or getting a close-up view of the scenery, there are telescopes that do a fine job of bringing those objects here on Earth closer to us. And because you have many options when it comes to telescopes that don't invert the image, you'll be able to view the object or event the way it was intended.
Types of Telescopes
Telescopes aren't all the same. They come in a dazzling variety of shapes, configurations, and sizes. There are telescopes that use only mirrors, there are telescopes that use only lenses, and there are telescopes that use some combination of the two.
What is a Refractor Telescope?
Simply put, a refractor telescope (also referred to as a refracting telescope) is nothing more than one that uses a lens or lenses to gather and focus light.
An example of a refractor telescope.
Refractor telescopes often have lenses that are in closed tubes with their lenses supported on their sides by the walls of the tube. This configuration results in several benefits and disadvantages you should keep in mind when you're buying a telescope.
Benefits of Refractor Telescopes:
Refractor telescopes are rugged. They are less prone to misalignment than other telescopes.
They rarely need to be cleaned because the lenses are kept in a closed tube. This prevents the intrusion of grit and dust that might compromise the effectiveness of the optics.
Refractor telescopes tend to have steadier, sharper images because the closed tube configuration keeps air currents and temperature variations from affecting the image as much as they can with other types of telescope.
However, some of the same things that make these telescopes desirable can also create some issues that you should be aware of.
Disadvantages of Refractor Telescopes:
Because of their reliance on lenses for the gathering and focusing of light, reflector telescopes can suffer from chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberration occurs because the light passes through the lenses, causing different wavelengths to bend differently. As a result of chromatic aberration, a sort of prism effect is created. Correcting this requires a longer focal length, which means a longer telescope, which results in a more cumbersome rig.
Some wavelengths don't make it through the lens at all, which can convey a image to the eye of the viewer that is not true to life.
It gets worse at higher magnification. Thicker lenses, which are usually needed to achieve greater magnification, can create even greater distortion.
The cost of avoiding and correcting for chromatic aberration can be a high one. If you're looking for glass lenses that don't produce distortions or imperfections, they are quite a bit more expensive.
What Is a Reflector Telescope?
This type of telescope uses a mirror to gather and focus light for the viewer. The mirror is in the shape of a parabola, which causes the light rays to converge in one point. That light then continues on to the eye of the viewer.
For more information, check out our article on reflector telescopes.
Benefits of Reflector Telescopes
Reflector telescopes have less need for perfection in optics because only one side of mirror gets used, as opposed to a lens, which must be perfect throughout.
One of the big benefits of reflector telescopes is that they present no problem of chromatic aberration because all wavelengths interact with a mirror in the same way: they reflect off of it rather than passing through it.
It also means a shorter telescope because longer tube length is unnecessary to correct for chromatic aberration. This also means greater portability.
Because the mirror can be fully supported on its back (only one side interacts with the light), a much larger mirror can be used that can a lens, which can only be supported on its edge.
Again, the reduced need for optical perfection means that mirrors are much cheaper to produce than lenses. This means that reflector telescopes are much cheaper to manufacture than refractor telescopes.
Disadvantages of Reflector Telescopes
Nothing's perfect, so there are some downsides to reflector telescopes.
Reflector telescopes often have open tubes, which result in greater interaction with the air. This can make their mirrors more susceptible to getting dirty or dusty. Thus, reflector telescopes need cleaning more often. If you really hate the idea of having another thing around the house to clean, that's something to consider when you're making your decision.
In order to make viewing more convenient, a lot of reflector telescopes add another mirror. The addition of another mirror can increase the possibility of diffraction effects.
The significant advantages, and relative lack of disadvantages, of reflector telescopes have resulted in their constituting a majority of amateur telescopes. There are some problems, but there's a lot to like here.
What is a Catadioptric Telescope?
Catadioptric telescopes are hybrid between refractors and reflectors, and use a combination of mirrors and lenses to gather and focus light for the viewer. For more on catadioptric telescopes, check out our article here.
An example of one type of catadioptric telescope, a "spot cassegrain"
Advantages of Catadioptric Telescopes
Catadioptric telescopes are highly portable. In many cases, the combinations of lenses and mirrors is used to "fold" the beams of light within the tube of telescope. As a result, they often can be transported easily because they tend to have shorter tubes.
Because they utilize a combination of both mirrors and lenses, they tend to combine the benefits of reflector and refractor telescopes, while at the same time avoiding many of the disadvantages of each of those types.
Disadvantages of Catadioptric Telescopes
Focusing moves mirror, which can result in unexpected image shiftLoss of light resulting from placement of secondary mirror in the middle of the primary light-gathering mirror.
Other Things to Think About
Consider Your Budget: How Much Does a Telescope Cost?
The question of telescope cost is one that's very much on the mind of the beginning astronomer. Sorting through the noise to find good information can take some time.
In absolute terms, how much a telescope costs is an extremely difficult question to ask because it assumes that all telescopes are alike.
Good news. Depending on what you want to view, you absolutely don't have to go out and buy the most expensive telescope on the market to be a successful backyard astronomer. There are a lot of really good telescopes out there that can do a lot of things that the more expensive types do, but without breaking the bank. For some suggestions, you can check out our article on some great telescopes under 200 dollars.
Are You Sure You're Looking for a Telescope?: Alternatives to Telescopes for Astronomy
Binoculars vs Telescopes
Even though binoculars are just pairs of telescopes stuck together to interface with the way our brains normally process visual information, we often don't think of them as being equal.
A lot of people hear the idea of binoculars for stargazing and immediately think it's a bad idea. Telescopes are undoubtedly the winners in terms of pure viewing capacity, but binoculars can actually have advantages under certain circumstances and for certain applications.
Binoculars can increase contrast and give a better view because they take advantage of our own binocular vision.
Depending on the size of the binoculars, they can also be easier to carry and hold. Unlike a lot of telescopes, they can fit comfortably in your hand.
Unlike a lot of telescopes, binoculars also give a right-side-up view, so they can be helpful for comparing star charts with what you're actually seeing.
Finally, binoculars require almost no set-up or take-down time, so you spend more of your time viewing.
If you have binoculars with a power greater than 10, you might see more shaking with binoculars because of the movement of your hands, but if you don't try to go too high on the magnification, you can avoid this problem.
Of course, the flip side of this is that telescopes might do a better job than binoculars at higher magnification because they are mounted.
Telescopes also tend to have larger apertures and higher magnification, so when you're trying to see the really far stuff, you can't beat a really big telescope.
Spotting Scopes vs Telescopes
A lot of people want to get a closer look at the stars, the Moon, or the planets, but they just can't muster the money to buy a new telescope. What to do? Well, if you've got a spotting scope sitting around the house, or know a birder friend who has a spotting scope, in a pinch it can serve the same purpose as a telescope.
There are some differences between spotting scopes and telescopes that can change how you need to approach stargazing. First, spotting scopes present images right-side up. This, in combination with their built-in zoom lenses are designed to find and track terrestrial objects. This can actually be a plus when viewing near objects, but it's not helpful as magnification increases, which typically is what you'll need when the objects you're viewing are more distant.
Spotting scopes tend to be more portable and less susceptible to harm because of more rugged exteriors than those found on telescopes.
Bottom line, you can use a spotting scope for astronomy, but it's not ideal. If, however, you want to spy on your neighbors (just kidding, don't spy on your neighbors) or want to view terrestrial objects, a spotting scope might be just what you're looking for.
Technical Aspects of Telescopes
Again, it's fine to just look for a well-reviewed telescope that will get the job done for a reasonable amount of money. However, if there is something in particular that you're looking at, there are many technical considerations you might want to keep in mind when you're buying.
Aperture is perhaps the most important aspect to consider when you're looking at telescopes. Telescope aperture is the measure of the diameter of the telescope's primary light-gathering mirror or lens.
The larger the a telescope's aperture is, the sharper and brighter the image will be.
Aperture becomes particularly important in relation to telescope magnification power. A larger aperture is what allows a telescope to have greater magnification without sacrificing the clarity and brightness of the image.
Even if you have a truly powerful telescope with powerful magnification, it will be no use to you if the telescope doesn't have a sufficiently large aperture. An inadequate aperture will make the image blurry and hard to see.
As a rough rule of thumb, you can expect 20x to 50x of effective magnification power per inch of aperture, depending on the quality of the telescope's optics and the viewing conditions.
Because aperture is directly related to the light-gathering capacity of a telescope, the size of the telescope's aperture can also improve your ability to see fainter objects.
F/ratio is a number that corresponds to the focal length of the telescope divided by the size of the aperture, or by the size of the telescope's main lens or mirror. The number can tell you a lot about a telescope, but principally it gives you information about a few important aspects.
First the f/ ratio can be a clear indicator of the telescope's size and portability. In most cases, a larger f/ratio will correspond to a larger telescope tube, which can reduce the portability and ease of use of the telescope.
On the other hand, f/ratio can give you a good idea of the telescope's clear magnification range. While this can vary, generally telescopes with smaller f/ratios are best used with lower magnification and wide-field viewing. Telescopes with larger f/ratio telescopes are able to handle higher magnification and high-powered observation.
The last thing you can generally tell from the f/ratio is the optical distortion a telescope will suffer from. Shorter f/ratio telescopes tend to suffer from greater aberration than do telescopes with larger f/ratios.
The issue of distortion can also carry over to eyepieces, as some eyepieces should not be used with telescopes with short f/ratios, and in fact can add their own distortion.
Power and Magnification
Buying the most powerful telescope available can actually be detrimental to your ability to successfully observe objects in the night sky. Many telescopes can give you more than 500x power. Often that is beyond the practical magnification capacity of less expensive telescopes.
The result is that you get a highly-magnified, blurry image that isn't clear enough to enjoy or analyze. The most enjoyable views for many telescopes will be found using half of the practical maximum magnification.
A rule of thumb that many, more experienced backyard astronomers observe is no greater than 50 power per inch of aperture.
Mounting is an important element to consider, because mounting plays a significant role in stabilizing the image and preventing the telescope from shaking.
Many lesser telescopes with flimsy and unstable mounts can be difficult to use because the image shakes so much as to make the experience unenjoyable.
Take care when you're selecting a telescope that you find one with a mount that is sufficiently robust as to allow a steady image. Because the mount and the tripod work in tandem to such a large extent, it's also important to consider what type of tripod you want to use as well.
But first let's talk about mounts.
Types of Telescope Mounts
You've got a lot of options when it comes to the type of mount on your telescope. To a certain extent, the decision about what mount you choose will be similar to the decision about which telescope to buy. Different mounts have different features and prices, and what features you choose depends to a large extent on what kind of telescope you intend to use, as well as the purpose for which you intend to use it.
Altazimuth mounts are two-axis mounts. With an altazimuth mount, the telescope is able to move up and down (altitude) and swivel (rotate) about the vertical axis (azimuth).
The biggest advantage of an altazimuth mount is its simplicity. Its mechanical design is intuitive and doesn't require any learning curve whatsoever. Want to find something that's higher in the sky? Move the opening of the telescope up. Want to look at something over there? Swivel the telescope to place the object with in the field of view.
The weakness of the altazimuth mount is that we live on a big sphere that's spinning on its own axis and orbiting in an elliptical path. The result of all this rotational motion is that it's difficult to follow objects with an altazimuth mount.
Altazimuth mounts have to be rotated along both axes at differing rates to track objects, and this can create further limitations that may require corrections with a counter rotation system, or in some cases the addition of a polar axis to overcome the problems.
If you're just getting started, all of this may be beyond the scope of your viewing intent. Again, in a lot of cases, all you really need is: find object, move telescope up or down, and/or rotate telescope to get to the right point in the sky.
But if you need something a little more complex, there are other options.
Equatorial mounts work by compensating for the Earth's rotation through the use of a rotational axis parallel to the Earth's axis of rotation.
The equatorial axis is paired with a perpendicular axis of motion. This pairing does a fantastic job of offsetting the motion inherent in the Earth's rotation.
What does all that mean?
Well, to put it in terms of performance, the benefit of the equatorial mount is that it does a really good job of following and tracking objects in the sky. The equatorial mount need only be rotated about a single axis at a constant rate to follow the rotation of the night sky.
Equatorial mounts are also great for people interested in astrophotography because images don't rotate in the focal plane, which makes for better photos.
Equatorial mounts also allow for the use of setting circles, which facilitate the location of particular objects in the sky.
The downside of the equatorial mount is that they are more complicated. Because of their increased mechanical complexity, there is a slightly steeper learning curve, although the same caveat we mentioned with the altazimuth mounts applies here: those stargazers who are just getting started should still be able to easily move the telescope to look at objects in the sky.
While there are a number of configurations that have been developed over time, we should take this opportunity to mention one of the most common types of equatorial mounts you'll encounter: the German equatorial mount.
German equatorial mounts (sometimes referred to as "GEM" for short) use a t-shaped primary structure, in which the lower bar is the right ascension axis, and the upper bar is the declination axis. The telescope is attached on one end of the declination axis, and a counterweight is attached to the other end of the same bar.
This sort of equatorial mount is really popular because of its effectiveness and stability. While the effectiveness can be limited by the weight of the telescope and the sturdiness of the tripod, this is a really great mount to get started with because of its versatility, robustness, and ease of use.
Computerized Telescope Mounts
Computerized telescope mounts and computerized telescopes (often called "GoTo telescopes") take a lot of the guesswork and effort out of finding and tracking objects in the sky. GoTo telescopes use computerized machinery to move the telescope on the mount. In most cases, the user finds reference points that the computer then uses to find desired objects in the sky.
Some GoTo telescopes are equipped with GPS. These GPS telescopes are able to take advantage of the same Global Positioning System that runs your phone's navigation system to locate objects in the sky.
The benefit of computerized scopes and computerized mounts is obvious: with a GoTo telescope, you can quickly find and track objects that might otherwise require a great deal of effort and searching. This saves you time and allows you to extend the most enjoyable part of any astronomy session.
The downside is that these can get pretty pricey pretty fast. Because the movement machinery also contributes additional weight, a computerized mount will normally require a more solid base or tripod.
Certain types of telescopes that use mirrors may need to be adjusted from time to time. This alignment to make sure that the mirrors are centered is called collimation.
The process of collimating a telescope can be intimidating, and very early beginners may not want the hassle of having to collimate. However, knowing how to collimate a telescope can make you a much more flexible buyer, and can open up a lot more telescopes to you.
One easy way to collimate with with a home-made collimator cap. Check out our article on how to make a collimation cap here.
[Check out our article on how to collimate a telescope]
As is true with many other hobbies, astronomy has available an endless number of additional items you can buy. Some of them can make a real difference in the experience of using a telescope.
As part of our buyer's guide, here are a few of the more important accessories that you could consider.
Telescope eyepieces are additional lenses that can be added to a telescope to change its magnification or to change some other visual aspect of the image conveyed to the viewer.
Eyepieces are of utmost importance to telescope performance. No matter how great your object lens is, not matter how fine the optics inside the telescope might be, if you have a cheap eyepiece, the image will not be faithfully conveyed to the eye of the viewer.
The examples are legion of astronomers who replace their cheap eyepieces with quality ones, and are suddenly astonished at what they can see. Eyepieces can really change things.
There are a few things to think about when you're considering an eyepiece for your telescope.
All telescopes have a focal length, which is the distance from the primary mirror or lens to the point at which an image of a distant object is created. Eyepieces likewise have focal lengths.
The interaction of telescope focal length and eyepiece focal length results in the odd phenomenon that the same eyepiece used with different focal-length scopes will give different powers.
Field of View
Every eyepiece has an apparent field of view measured in degrees. This tells you how much of the sky (expressed as an angle) your eye can see when you look through the eyepiece.
Field of view is important because it bears on how much you can see at once. If you get an eyepiece with too small a field of view, it can feel like you're trying to look at the heavens through a drinking straw. Not fun.
Make sure you're using an eyepiece that allows you to see enough of the sky to make the experience enjoyable and functional.
Barlow lenses are not, strictly speaking, eyepiece, but they work in tandem with eyepieces, so they're worth mentioning here.
A Barlow lens is inserted into the focuser before the eyepiece. The Barlow multiplies the magnification.
While they do result in a marginal loss of light, Barlow lenses immediately increase the effectiveness of your eyepiece and, by extension, your whole telescope.
A finder is just a small apparatus on the side of the barrel of the telescope that is used to position the objective lens on that part of the sky where the desired object is located. Finders are often helpful because they lack the huge magnification of a telescope. It is thus easier to find parts of the sky without having to use such precise movements.
Finders vary widely in their complexity, ranging from a lens-less cylinder with crosshairs to little mini-telescopes that can cost a good deal of money.
Astronomers have at their disposal a number of filters that can be added to telescopes or eyepieces. Each of these filters has a specific application, allowing increased capabilities. While a filter can't make bad telescopes good, it can enhance the telescope's vision.
Solar filters come in a couple varieties, but both of them use a special coating to cut down on the destructive intensity of the Sun's rays, which will allow you to observe the surface of the Sun.
One word of caution, though: don't buy solar filters that fit onto the telescope's eyepiece. Because of the focused intensity of the solar rays, they can easily crack and cause damage to your eyes. Don't use them.
The soft, romantic light of the Moon as seen by your naked eye can become a real problem when you're viewing the Moon with a telescope. Because it's still reflected solar light, it's still helpful to view the moon with a moon filter.
Moon filters cut down on the glare you see when you're viewing the Moon, and keep you from getting those pesky dark spots you get in your vision when you look at excessively bright objects.
There are also variable-polarizing eyepiece moon filters you can use to calibrate the amount of light allowed through.
Planetary Filters (Color-Specific)
Because of the distortion that can occur because of the Earth's atmosphere, the individual planets in the solar system can be difficult to observe at times. One of the way to improve contrast when viewing the planets is to use colored filters that filter out the main colors of those planets. For example, when viewing Mars--the red planet--it's often helpful to use a green filter in the telescope's eyepiece.
These colored filters thread into the barrel of the telescope's eyepiece, and can be interchanged depending on which planet you're observing. It's just one more small way that you can enhance your experience when you're using a telescope.
Deep Sky Filters
Light Pollution Filters: The name says it all. We live in an age where more and more of live in the city. As those urban areas grow larger and larger, the amount of light pollution they produce increases.
Light pollution is a killer when you're trying to see faint light sources in the deep sky, and a light pollution filter can go a long way to counteracting the negative effects of light pollution.
These filters block the wavelengths of light that are produced by incandescent, sodium and mercury-vapor lights, which constitute the majority of lights produced by urban areas. At the same time, they allow through the wavelengths of light produced by galaxies, stars, nebulae, and other celestial objects astronomers actually want to see, producing the contrast you need for clear images.
These filters that block out broad swaths of wavelengths are referred to as broadband filters, and they are a great general-purpose tool if you live in a highly-populated area.
Narrowband Eyepiece Filters: Narrowband filters allow through even fewer wavelengths of light. They block all forms of light pollution, including the wavelengths produced by incandescent and fluorescent lights.
These are the filters that you might need if you live in a particularly large and light-polluted urban area. They can transform the milky bright sky of astronomic doom into something that you can actually work with when you're trying to observe the night sky.
Specialized Filters: There are other, more specialized telescope filters that allow through specific wavelengths of light for observing specific objects.
There are Oxygen III or O-III filters that are used for observing planetary nebulae, H-beta filters can be used for observing more faint emission nebulae, and comet filters that allow through the light wavelengths that are emitted by the cyanogen gas that surrounds comets.
Fairly specialized stuff, and of course you may be limited by your telescope's particular specifications, but if there's something in particular that you want to look at that can be brought closer by a filter, it's a great way to do what you want to do.
Some people get into astronomy because they just want to behold the magnificence of the cosmos for a fleeting moment and hold it forever in their hearts. But some people are looking to memorialize those images and take them with them forever in a photo.
Astrophotography is a popular sub-set of astronomy, and if you've seen some of the images people can produce, you know the results can be breathtaking.
Of course, introducing the additional level of image capture to your astronomy practice does increase the complexity.
To begin with, you'll need a camera. In addition to finding a camera, you'll need a mount that can effectively track objects across the sky to increase exposure times. To attach your camera you'll need a special adapter to be able to put your camera onto the end of the telescope.
In addition to a mount that can track, you'll also need one that can appropriately account for the rotation of the Earth so as to eliminate streaking in your photos. To top it off, you can't put all of this weight on top of any old tripod. You have to have a stable enough base that will allow you to avoid excessive vibration, which can be a huge problem when you're trying to take photos of the infinite on long exposures.
That's not to say that it can't be done. To get started, check out our article on the best telescopes for astrophotography.
Using a Telescope to View the Sun
One of the most fascinating bodies in the solar system is the huge ball of nuclear fusion at its center. A lot of people eventually get around to wanting to view it, but seriously, don't just aim an ordinary telescope at the Sun. Really. Bad. News.
Because telescopes intensify the light of the object on which they are focused, it's even more important to use the appropriate equipment when you're using a telescope to view the Sun.
But all hope isn't lost. The geniuses who design telescopes have figured out a number of ways to be able to view the Sun without getting your retinas burned out.
The very simplest method to protect your eyes (and your telescope) from the fury of the Sun's rays is to us a filter made of metal-coated glass or Mylar on the front end of your existing telescope. These "white light solar filters" block the vast majority of the sunlight, allowing you to observe the Sun's surface in surprising detail.
There are also more complex, dedicated telescopes that filter out all but specific wavelengths of light.
Hydrogen-Alpha solar telescopes allow you to view the Sun's chromosphere, flares and prominences by cutting out all but the Hydrogen-Alpha emissions.
Calcium-K solar telescopes are often used in solar astrophotography because the small bandwidth of light they allow in--the CaK emission portion-- is on the edge of the visual light spectrum. This allows for the creation of some really nice photos of the Sun.
If you do it wrong, it can be debilitating, but if you do it right and use the right equipment, looking at the Sun with telescope can be a fascinating experience.
Learn How to Use Your Telescope
Even after you've chosen a telescope and purchased it, there's still one more favor you need to do for yourself: learn how to use it. Well.
It's tempting to just run out and take your new telescope for a spin, and by all means you should enjoy stargazing to your heart's content.
But you'll get much more out of your telescope if you develop some expertise in its use. There are some places you can go to find more information about the most effective ways to use a telescope.
At the very least, you can go to a local bookstore or library to find magazines and books on astronomy. In the absence of a more in-depth study, these publications will give you invaluable background information.
Another place to learn about astronomy and the basics of how to use a telescope is a local planetarium. If you can wait long enough to check out a class or two before you buy a telescope, that's even better. In addition to classes on how to use a telescope, many will have classes on telescope buying.
You can also get in contact with some of your local astronomical societies. As a preliminary matter, these organizations often have resources for learning more about astronomy. Ask if they have classes on how to use a telescope.
But even if there's no specific class or formal training, the greatest value of these organizations is the ability to interact with other people with similar interests. Sure, there's nothing like stargazing with your family. But another rewarding experience is the joy of taking in the beauty of the heavens with friends.
Lots of organizations even have viewing parties. At these events, several people will bring their telescopes and set them up. This allows attendees to view objects through several different types of telescopes. Imagine what a great way this would be to test a variety of the telescopes you've been thinking about buying.
Some Telescope Recommendations: The Best Telescopes for You
As you can tell from the discussion above, telescopes come in a dizzying array of configurations and sizes, with an endless number of features, gadgets, and doodads. To get you started down the right path, here are some of our recommendations for the best telescopes at a number of different price points. For more in-depth information for each category, be sure to check out our individual guides.
Telescopes Under $100
For more information on telescopes at this price point, check out our article on the best telescopes under 100 dollars here.
Buying a telescope for under $100 can be risky business. A lot of the telescopes at this price point lack the features that make higher-end telescopes effective and pleasant to use.
But there's hope. As long as you have realistic expectations about what you're getting when you pay less than $100 for a telescope, you can get some solid performers that will allow you to see quite a bit.
Here are some things to think about when you're buying a telescope for less than $100:
- The quality of optics at this price point can be pretty poor, so the most important thing to look for is quality optics. If you can find telescope with real glass lenses, you're at least avoiding the bottom of the barrel.
- Back away from the high-magnification telescopes with the tiny apertures. These won't be fun to use, and you shouldn't be tempted by them. Find a telescope that has an aperture large enough to handle its own magnification. You'll thank yourself later.
- Telescope mounts on telescopes under one hundred dollars are pretty simple. The most important thing is to find the greatest stability you can. One good option you can find on a number of models is a tabletop mount that will give you stability and portability in the same package.
Best Telescope Under One Hundred Dollars:Celestron FirstScope
Check out our full review of the Celestron FirstScope 76mm.
The FirstScope is a really great first-time telescope option. Designed by Celestron to bring the joys of astronomy to a wider audience, the FirstScope pays tribute to astronomy's past.
With an eye toward putting the most telescope into the most economical package, the FirstScope is a minimalist scope that's super easy to set up. It's basically ready to go right out of the box.
Because it has a tabletop mount, it's really easy to take with you anywhere, and it won't take up any space at all in your home.
The minimalism extends to the absence of a finder, but that's not a bad thing, because Celestron put all their eggs in the optics basket.
The FirstScope's price is exactly what you would expect of a telescope designed to appeal to a large audience of beginner astronomers. It can be had for less than you would spend on the dreaded toy store telescope, and its quality far outweighs its cost.
Telescopes Under $200
If you're looking for more information on telescopes under $200, check out our article on the best telescopes under 200 dollars.
Telescopes in the under-$200 range offer some more features than you're apt to find in telescopes under one hundred dollars, but they still will show a lot of the limitations you would expect in an economical telescope.
You probably still shouldn't be looking for the top-end bells and whistles on a sub-200 dollar telescope. Instead, you should focus on finding one that's easy to use, versatile, and that has the best optics available.
Better-quality optics are a little easier to come by among these telescopes.
Here are some things to think about when you're buying a telescope for less than $200:
- You're still not dealing with very big apertures. You should fight the urge to go crazy with the magnification. You still have to face the likelihood that you won't be able to look into the depths of the universe. That's okay. There are still plenty of amazing things to see.
- Tripods at this price level aren't usually great, but some are better than others. Stick to a solid mount that gives you stability and that will minimize vibration when you're tracking. You'll notice that many of the telescopes we recommend at this level have tabletop mounts, which offer the most in terms of stability, portability, and flexibility.
- Stay focused when it comes to features. You're better off spending your money on optical quality than you are on some of the more frivolous doodads you might come across.
Given that it will set you back less than two hundred dollars, the GoScope has a lot of nice features, along with some of the deficiencies you would expect.
Orion has packed a lot into the GoScope, starting with good quality optics. The GoScope provides crisp images of both terrestrial and celestial objects, especially brighter objects.
If you get this in the table-mounted version, you'll get good stability in a simple mount that's really easy to set up, but you might notice the lack of space for observing. Orion also makes this in a version with a larger tripod, which could be a nice addition, and still won't set you back too much.
The overall portability of the GoScope (hence the name) makes it a great option for people who like to travel into the field to observe, as well as for people who are looking for a second scope to take with them.
Telescopes Under $500
If you're looking to increase your budget to get the best telescope for less than five hundred dollars, you'll start to be able to find telescopes that have nice suites of features.
You'll also start to notice an uptick in the quality of the optics at this level. You're still not into the highest-quality optics, but with the larger apertures you're likely to see here, the variety of things you can see in the sky is greatly expanded. Beyond just brighter objects, you'll start to be able to see some of the dimmer deep-sky objects.
Here are some of the things to look for in the under-500-dollar telescopes:
- Optical quality: now we're talking. You can get some really nice image clarity in these telescopes. And with the ever-increasing aperture sizes, image brightness also increases, bringing with it the ability to peer further into the deep sky.
- You're still going to have to make trade-offs at this level, so having a clear set of priorities is key. We still recommend finding the best image clarity and optical quality you can, because even a very simple telescope with good optics will give you greater satisfaction than a telescope with lots of gadgets that doesn't provide clear images.
- Overall size will also tend to increase at this price point, so you'll have to decide how portable you need your telescope to be.
Orion SkyQuest XT8 PLUS Dobsonian Reflector Telescope
A lot of high-end users are in love with Dobsonian telescopes, and it's easy to see why. Even if you're not willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money, Dobsonians can offer good quality optics with surprisingly large apertures, which means you have an increased capacity to successfully target objects that are farther away.
The XT8 is no exception. This classic Dobsonian reflector will set you back less than you thought, but gives you an 8" diameter reflector telescope that will allow you to see even faint, distant objects like nebulas, galaxies and star clusters.
Because it's a Dobsonian, the SkyQuest pulls in tons of light to improve image quality and clarity, and provides excellent contrast, even on fairly faint, distant celestial objects like nebulae and globular clusters.
The 2" Crayford focuser has smooth roller bearings that prevent image shift through the entire focusing range, and when you combine that with the stable Dobsonian mount, you know you're dealing with a stable rig that will stay focused on what you want it to.
The XT8 comes with a standard-issue altazimuth mount that simply but effectively balances the optical tube. The mount is super easy to use, and can quickly be mastered by even the most novice of amateur astronomers.
A great value just for the quality of the telescope itself, the SkyQuest also comes with a number of eyepieces and Barlow lenses to increase the flexibility and the array of tasks it can do well.
NexStar 4se Mak-Cass Telescope
The NexStar is the mighty mite from Celestron's popular line of computerized Mak-Cass telescopes. While there are other, larger models in that line, the 4se gives a good combination of power, portability, and price that's hard to beat.
Just as with all the other telescopes in the NexStar line, the 4se is mounted on an arm attached to a motorized tracking system with computerized capabilities. The apparatus is controlled by a hand-held controller programmed with the location of thousands of objects in the sky.
To get started, you just have to orient the scope and program in a few reference points, and the NexStar will be able to locate and track the objects you're looking for in the sky.
The whole thing works remarkably well. While the 4se's aperture isn't as ample as the 6se or the 8se, in comparison to some of the other telescopes at the sub-500 level, it's more than adequate.
The arm-mounted scope is solid, which provides good stability and does a good job of reducing vibration, all of which will especially come in handy if you plan on using it for astrophotography.
Telescopes Under $1000
There's lots more on this topic in our article on the best telescopes under one thousand dollars.
If you can manage to save up this amount of money, the options available to you are vastly increased.
Like we've said, there are some really great deals on telescopes at some of the lower prices, and many of those scopes will serve you well for years, but when it comes to comfortably viewing, tracking, and photographing some of the more distant deep-sky objects, it's hard to beat those telescopes around the thousand-dollar mark.
As you might imagine, these telescopes are more likely to have significantly better-quality optics, and that quality is often coupled with some really ample-sized apertures, which mean image brightness tends to be much greater than at the sub-200 or sub-500 dollar telescopes.
These telescopes also tend to come equipped with better mounts and tripods, so you can bet on greater vibration control and stability. Add that to the frequent inclusion of computerized tracking, and you get a group of telescopes that could do a fantastic job of photographing the stars.
Things to watch out for in telescopes under one thousand dollars:
- It's counter-intuitive, but some of these higher-end telescopes can be more difficult to set up. The reason is that they are often designed for greater customization, which is nice if you have the skill and/or experience to take advantage of it. Reflecting telescopes or catadioptric telescopes may need collimation, so make sure you know how to do this, or at least make sure you're prepared to learn how to collimate your telescope.
- Portability can become a concern once you begin dealing with telescopes with larger apertures and computerized machinery. If you need a telescope that you can carry around with you from one place to another, you'll be prioritizing that, whereas if you intend to be a bit more stationary, you can focus on piling on those features.
- Size is also an issue in terms of storage and use in relation to your home. If you have a small house or apartment, some of these larger, longer telescopes could really begin to be cumbersome. Remember also that you don't want to constantly have to be stowing and taking out your telescope because you don't have room to leave it set up, and if you will have to do this, be sure to buy a telescope that won't take forever to set up every time.
Meade Instruments LightBridge 12-inch Truss Tube Dobsonian Telescope
The LightBridge 12-inch is a classic Dobsonian telescope with a twist. That means it's an altazimuth-mounted Newtonian telescope with a simplified mechanical design that does a really good job of observing faint, deep-sky objects like nebulae and galaxies. The twist is the truss tube that minimizes the overall weight of the scope and lets in the maximum amount of light possible.
The LightBridge lives up to the "light bucket" sobriquet that Dobsonians often receive, because it does a fantastic job of collecting the large amounts of light needed for observing fainter deep-sky objects. It has a 12-inch aperture with the famous Meade optics that you know mean quality and the clearest images possible.
The somewhat surprising thing is that, despite its massive aperture size, the LightBridge is quite portable. It's a bit heavy at around 80 lbs. (36 kg), but it fits nicely in the trunk or back seat of even small cars. You don't have to have a truck or van to transport it.
The large aperture, coupled with simple controls and easy set-up and take-down, makes the LightBridge an attractive option for even the most amateur astronomers, even at this price. The one caveat to watch out for is that, as a reflector scope, it will require some collimation. If you don't feel comfortable making those sorts of adjustments, you may think twice. But if you feel competent collimating, you'll get a lot for your money here.
The other thing to be aware of is that the truss tube, because it doesn't keep out light, can result in reduced contrast in certain situations where there is a lot of ambient light. This is a problem that's easily remedied with a light shield that fits around the tube.
All in all, a great option if it fits your budget.
Celestron NexStar 6se
The NexStar 6se is the middle child in Celestron's NexStar line of telescopes that pay homage to some of the most famous and beloved telescopes of the last fifty years, the Celestron orange tube telescopes. Check out our full NexStar 6se review and our NexStar 4se review for more information.
The 6se is a Schmidt-Cassegrain scope with high-quality optics coated with StarBright XLT high-transmission coatings to improve image quality and clarity through better light gathering. The optics are really nice, and because of the 6-inch aperture, there's a lot of light that leads to nice images of even distant and faint celestial objects.
The best feature here, aside from the fantastic optics and the good-sized aperture that lets in a ton of light, is the computerized mount and remote control that make finding and viewing whatever object you're looking for a blast. The NexStar comes mounted on a quick-release fork-arm mount connected to a computerized base programmed with the locations of close to 40,000 objects. If there's something you want to find that's not in that database, the NexStar also has the capacity for 200 user-definable objects.
Getting ready to view with the computerized mount is a snap. Just align the 6se with three bright celestial objects and watch it go. The mount can locate the object and track it for you. Even new astronomers will be able to get started viewing in no time.
This telescope is an absolute gem, and so much fun to use.
The Best Telescope for Kids
We've got tons of information on this topic. Check out our article on the best telescopes for kids.
A wise woman once said that kids aren't just little adults, and that's certainly true when it comes to the right telescope. Little eyes, little hands, and still-developing brains won't always have the same needs or preferences in an astronomical telescope.
Just a few things to think about when you're buying a telescope for kids or teens:
- A lot of kids are really hard on things, so for younger kids you need a telescope that can stand up to a beating. In a lot of cases, you're going to be talking about very simple instruments that don't have a bunch of extra bits to break.
- We all want our toddler to be a scientific genius, but for the really little kids the best telescope may be one that just gets them ready to use a real telescope later on.
- Once kids get older (like middle or high school), the training wheels can come off to a large extent. Older kids are basically ready to use the same telescopes that adults can use. Knowing what telescope is right for your own child's stage of development is entirely up to you. You know 'em best.
The Orion FunScope 76mm TableTop Reflector Telescope
Check out our full FunScope review for more information.
As its name indicates, the FunScope is a basic reflector telescope mounted on a tabletop mount. It's a simple rig to get young astronomers started with a minimum investment of time and money. The learning curve is easily surmounted, and the setup is a breeze.
The FunScope has a 76mm aperture at an appropriate level of magnification for the way it should be used, namely to look at terrestial objects, the Moon, planets, and brighter deep-sky objects. This isn't a big-magnification telescope that kids are going to use to view dim, distant deep-sky objects. In fact, some users report a loss of clarity when they used the FunScope at the top end of its magnification.
But what it lacks in power, it more than makes up for in ease of use and effective viewing.
Because it's on a tabletop mount, you can take it anywhere without any fuss. It easily fits into your baggage, and you don't have to work hard to find a spot to accommodate it once you get it home. The tabletop mount works on any flat surface, which means it's ready to go after virtually no setup, and you know you can rely on it to be stable.
Orion has augmented the flexibility and usability of the FunScope by packaging it with three eyepieces that are fully coated to improve visibility.
The Orion name means you can rest assured this isn't some toy-store piece of junk that will end up in the back of the closet. Kids will get hours of viewing enjoyment from this snappy little kids' telescope.
Telescopes for Beginners
Check out our article on the best telescopes for beginners.
The issues to keep in mind when it comes to buying beginner telescopes are actually similar to some of the concerns when you're buying a kid's telescope.
Simplicity matters. Beginners often aren't experienced enough to take advantage of a lot of the features on higher-end telescopes, and many beginners would benefit from a period of time in which they just get familiar with the sky and enjoying looking at the myriad object that are very easy to locate with even the most basic telescope.
Beginners also are likely to still be figuring out whether they even want to put a lot of money into their astronomy hobby, so in many cases a good beginner telescope is one that doesn't represent too much of a financial commitment.
Simple telescopes can also be an asset to beginning astronomers because they're easier to set up and take down. Being able to comfortably integrate your astronomy habit in those spare moments when it's convenient to you can be a boon. If the telescope is too complicated, the beginner might become frustrated or discouraged at the time it takes just to get set up. Simple telescopes that don't require lots of set-up time are also nice because they're easier to take with you. That flexibility is really nice.
The Best Beginner Telescope: Orion GoScope 80mm TableTop
The GoScope 80mm TableTop checks the boxes a lot of beginners are looking for in a telescope. It's reasonably priced, so you don't have to mortgage your financial future just to start an astronomy hobby. It's simple, featuring good-quality optics without a lot of fluff. The learning curve for use is easy to manage, and it won't take you an eon to set up and take down.
Because the GoScope is on a tabletop mount, it's easy to take with you wherever you want to take it. That also means it won't take up a lot of space in your house, which is a key concern for those of us who live in small spaces.
But a tabletop mount isn't just an asset because it's small. Its main advantage is that it's exceeding stable. Provided you're able to put it on a fairly flat surface--or at least one that isn't going to wobble--the tabletop mount is about as stable as they come.
Another beautiful thing about the Orion GoScope's mount is that it's fitted with an adapter that allows you to attach it to a standard tripod, which means if you really want to add that level of complexity to your astronomy routine, that's something that's available to you.
Whatever your goal, there's a telescope for everybody. Whether it's checking out something here on Earth with us or looking at the most distant objects imaginable, with a little research, time, and money, you can find a telescope that can view it.
Take your time to get to know the options, and you'll enjoy hours of fun that will give you memories to last a lifetime.