The Best Telescope Under 500 Dollars: Big Value, Reasonable Prices
What's So Great about These Sub-$500 Telescopes?
We've talked a lot on this site about the right telescope to buy on a variety of budgets. Whether it's the super-budget telescopes under one hundred dollars, the slightly higher-rent telescopes at the sub-200 dollar price point, or the more ritzy sub-1000 dollar telescopes, there is something for anyone and any budget.
Today we wanted to take a look at those telescopes that fall somewhere in the middle between 100 and 1000 dollars. Specifically, we're talking about our picks for the best telescope under 500 dollars.
Things to Look for
To a certain extent the things to consider when you're buying a telescope for $500 is the same as what you'll want to think about when you're buying a telescope for $300, but certain price points do lend themselves to certain considerations.
Optics will, of course, be the primary factor to consider when you're buying a telescope at any price. If a telescope's optics are of low quality, all the other features in the world won't make a difference.
Fortunately, telescopes at this price tend to have good quality optics. Mirrors and lenses tend to be well manufactured and usually made of better materials. You move well past the problems often associated with toy-store plastic lenses and high-magnification telescopes with really small apertures.
Aperture is another important factor to consider because it affects both the amount of light the telescope transmits to your eye, as well as how much of the sky you can see at one time. In telescopes with smaller apertures, too high a magnification can actually be a problem. As aperture size increases, a whole host of issues tend to resolve, leaving brighter, clearer images. This lets you view more distant objects that reach us with less light intensity, thus expanding the reach of your telescope.
Aperture also affects focusing and optical distortion, since focal length to aperture ratios that are outside certain ranges can also create images that are hard to see clearly, regardless off how bright the image is.
Finally, aperture size has a significant effect on the overall size of the telescope, which directly affects portability.
The aperture sizes you get in telescopes for less than 500 dollars tend to allow for greater image brightness, so you can hope to see not only the Moon, planets and brighter deep-sky objects, but you can also start to look for some of the more distant and less bright objects that tend to be beyond the reach of smaller rigs.
You also tend to get better f/ratios at this price point (for example, the NexStar 4se has an f/ratio of 13), which means image clarity, focus, and magnification capabilities are better than those found in telescopes at lower prices with smaller apertures.
If you're still in the dark about f/ratio, here's a video that explains the concept really well:
The mount is the physical foundation of the telescope, and thus bears directly on image stability. A good mount can also facilitate tracking, which improves the viewing experience and makes astrophotography more possible.
A mount that is stable and easy to operate is a joy to use, and can save you a lot of time in set up and take down, which means you get to spend more of your time looking at the stars. That's worth a lot.
Not only do the telescopes themselves start to show a bit more quality and size, but mounts and tripods also tend to be a bit more robust. In some cases, near the 500 dollar mark you can even hope to find options like computerized tracking.
Telescope manufacturers often throw in gobs of accessories to mask problems with other aspects of a telescope. A million eyepieces, plastic trays, and software are nice, but if you've got a telescope that's hard to use and can't focus well, you're going to regret your purchase. So be cautious about accessories on less expensive telescopes. Make sure the accessories aren't a distraction from poor optical quality.
Fortunately, at this level, because telescopes tend to have better optical quality, you can rest assured that those accessories aren't just a distraction. Eyepieces can increase the flexibility and applicable uses of a telescope, which means you can really find some versatility when you're shopping for a telescope around the $500 mark.
That's just a brief rundown of some of the things to think about when you're buying. Now let's take a look at our selections for the best telescopes you can get for less than five hundred dollars.
Best Under $500: The Celestron NexStar 4se
For more in-depth information, check out our full NexStar 4se review.
First up is one of our favorite telescopes overall, the Celestron NexStar 4se, a computerized Mak-Cass telescope.
The NexStar 4se is the smallest in Celestron's line of computerized Mak-Cass telescopes, but it's no slouch. Despite its small size in comparison to the other scopes in the NexStar line, it provides a lot of value. Because of its computerized location and tracking, the NexStar 4se makes it easy to find desired objects in the night sky.
The computerized tracking makes for smooth tracking of objects as they move across the sky because of the Earth's rotation.
The NexStar's relatively small size means it's a lot easier to take with you into the field, which makes it a good grab-and-go scope that you can easily take on trips with you.
While it's small, the steady mount makes this a good option for those looking for a telescope to photograph the stars.
This is a really good overall scope for a very reasonable price, but it's fair to mention a couple of small issues.
First, its corrector plate is exposed to the elements, which means you might want to get a lens shade to protect from glare, dust, and moisture. Second, while the aperture is ample, it's not enormous, which could limit to a certain extent the brightness of some dimmer deep-sky objects.
But really, this is nitpicking. This is a really fun scope that can do a lot and is really easy to use.
Because it's loaded with features and easy to set up and take down, the NexStar is a good telescope for beginners or experienced amateur astronomers.
In addition to the NexStar, here are some other great options to consider under five hundred dollars.
Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian
Lots of amateur astronomers are in love with Dobsonian telescopes because of their tremendous light-gathering abilities and ease of use. The Orion SkyQuest XT8 is a great example of why people love Dobsonians so much.
The SkyQuest XT8 features an 8-inch primary mirror, a size that will give the viewer a significant amount of light. As a result, the SkyQuest XT8 has really nice image brightness, which will allow you to see not only the Moon and the other planets in our solar system, but will allow you to see them with good clarity. That brightness also expands the number of deep-sky objects you will be able to see, thus allowing the user to move beyond star clusters and the other brighter objects to the harder to see objects.
The Dobsonian mount provides great stability and balance, so the SkyQuest XT8 is really easy to use. Just point it where you want to look with the EZ Finder and go.
The SkyQuest XT8 is a powerful option if you're looking to spend under three hundred dollars on a telescope. Because it's a bit smaller than some of the other telescopes in the same line, it's easier to take with you when you want to travel, a bit of convenience that really contributes to its value.
Because of its size, mount, and great optics, the SkyQuest XT8 is a great value that will provide fantastic views at a great price. It avoids some of the problems often associated with Dobsonian telescopes because of its improved portability and manageable size.
Celestron NexStar 90SLT Mak Computerized Telescope
The NexStar 90SLT is Celestron's low-cost entry to the mid-level computerized GoTo telescopes category. Like the other telescopes in this line, the NexStar 90SLT comes fully assembled and ready to go out of the box without the need for tools or complicated setup. That means that, even if you're relatively new to astronomy, you won't face a steep learning curve when it comes to set up and takedown. Which also means you'll spend more time looking at your favorite object in the sky, and maybe even discovering a few new ones.
Because it's a Mak, you'll get a smaller central obstruction, which improves contrast and brightness overall, and makes for clearer, crisper images.
Its 90mm aperture provides good image brightness in a highly portable package. If you're looking for a computerized scope that you can pack up quickly and take with you, the NexStar could be a great option. Of course, that portability comes at the cost of the greater brightness that a larger aperture (and therefore a larger telescope) might provide
The NexStar's StarPointer finderscope makes it easy to manually locate objects quickly and accurately.
But what makes the NexStar 90SLT really great is Celestron's SkyAlign system. SkyAlign allows the user to input the current date, time, and location into a hand control and then align the NexStar with three bright objects in the sky. The telescope will then point itself at the object you choose. This makes finding any one of the 4,000 objects in its catalog a snap.
Orion AstroView 90mm Equatorial Reflector Telescope
The Orion AstroView 90mm is a solid starter scope that won't disappoint. One of its attractions is its price, as it will only set you back a few hundred dollars for a bona fide telescope that will do a lot more than some of the toys you're used to. Because the AstroView 90mm is a classic Achromatic refractor, it provides crisp, high contrast images of the Moon and planets.
Under normal circumstances, the Astroview 90mm will work at around 130-140X, which will work especially well for lunar and planetary observation.
The Astroview 90mm can be used for some deep-sky observation, especially for globular clusters, open clusters, binary stars, and even brighter galaxies and nebulae.
Some users have observed that because of its f/10 focal ratio it may exhibit some false color, and as a result some people will recommend the use of a minus violet filter.
Orion packages the AstrView 90mm with its EQ-2 adjustable tripod and equatorial mount that do a good job of manual slow-motion tracking.
Orion also offers an optional motor for the mount, but you might want to get a more robust tripod if you're going to start adding additional weight to the telescope.
The AV 90 also comes with a variety of eyepieces and other optical accessories to help extend its flexibility.
The Orion SpaceProbe 130ST Equatorial Reflector
The Orion SpaceProbe 130ST Equatorial Reflector is the short tube (hence the "ST" label) version of the SpaceProbe.
It features a 130mm apeture with diffraction-limited parabolic mirror. The benefit of this primary mirror is that it's the quality of mirror you tend to find on larger, more expensive telescopes.
Unlike a lot of the other telescopes in this price range and size, the SpaceProbe 130 has a little more than the standard red-dot finder. In this case, it's the 6x30 achromatic finder scope. Just align the finderscope, line up the crosshairs on the object you want to observe, and voila!
The big draw of the SpaceProbe 130ST is its size. Whereas the usual tube length for a similar reflector is thirty-three inches, in the case of the SpaceProbe 130ST, the tube length is a mere twenty-four inches.
The shortened tube length creates a couple of benefits for the user. The first is that the SpaceProbe 130ST has a nice wide field of view and bright images for its f/5 focal length.
The second benefit is portability. Because you get the same amount of telescope in a shorter tube, the SpaceProbe 130ST is a great scope to take with you wherever you might want to go.
With its shorter focal length and lower f-number, the SpaceProbe 130ST is a good option for observing smaller, brighter objects at higher magnification.
If you've got five hundred dollars or less to spend on a telescope, you can't go wrong with any of these options.
Still need more information about how to choose a telescope? Check out our full telescope guide here.