The night sky is a wonderful thing and has been capturing people’s attention since the dawn of time. Every so often people get the urge to run out and buy a telescope to capture magnificent views of the solar system only to get confused and frustrated. Telescopes are complicated devices so before someone rushes into a pricey purchase they should do some research and make an informed decision that will benefit them in the long term.
This is a comprehensive guide to the ins and outs of getting a telescope for the first time. This article will go over important terms and vocabulary, telescope design basics before laying out four quality choices for a first telescope purchase for all situations Telescopes can seem intimidating and dense but they don’t have to be!
I. Getting Familiar With the Basics
The first thing people see when they start browsing telescope listings are terms like aperture diameter, magnification, focal length, Dobsonian and Maksutov-Cassegrain. It is enough to make anyone second guess their desire to buy one. Is this too technical for me? Can I really get into this?
The answer is a resounding yes. Like anything in life, knowledge breeds familiarity and familiarity breeds comfort. It is all about speaking the language and once a person knows the important words and phrases then it becomes much easier to navigate.
This is some of the most common language presented in the features section of any telescope ad or product page.
Reflector vs Refractor
There are two main types of telescopes that are for sale online. They are reflecting telescopes and refracting telescopes. Both are great and do a good job magnifying the night sky just in different ways.
Reflecting or reflector telescopes magnify distant objects by gathering light via their aperture and reflecting them off a large specially designed mirror that displays the image for the user. Reflecting telescopes are very light and generally low cost for their magnification level. They are perfect for looking for deep space objects such as galaxies and nebula.
Refracting or refractor telescopes magnify objects using curved lenses. Similar to eyeglasses, these lenses bend light as it comes in and focuses it to a single point as a larger, clearer object than is able to be seen with the naked eye.
Neither one of these methods is significantly superior to the other. Both designs have been around for hundreds of years and serve different purposes depending on how the viewer wants to use them. When researching telescopes just remember that these are both viable options.
To boil it down anyone can think of reflector vs refractor simply as mirror vs lens. It is as simple as thinking about a car’s mirror that magnifies objects or a pair of prescription glasses that see farther away.
Aperture and Objective Lens
Depending on which type of telescope is being considered will determine whether it has an aperture or an objective lens. Both of these are terms for the end of the telescope that will face skyward and collect. This means they have a direct bearing on how much magnification a telescope is capable of.
Reflecting telescopes have apertures. These are usually noted by their size in inches. A typical telescope spec sheet will list aperture sizes such as 4″, 6″ and 8″.
Aperture size has a direct bearing on magnification. The larger the aperture, the more light the telescope can gather for the mirror and therefore the better the magnification level. Usually reflecting telescopes will have a number in the name and this number can be used to easily reflect the aperture size.
For example, it can be assumed that the Orion SkyQuest XT8 has an eight-inch aperture and an Orion SkyQuest XT6 has a six-inch aperture. But the thing to remember is the bigger the aperture the farther a telescope is able to see without losing quality.
Refractor telescopes have objective lenses. Objective lenses are also the light-gathering apparatus of this kind of telescope. Similarly, the bigger the objective lens the better the magnification of the unit.
Unlike the reflecting telescope, a refracting telescope’s magnification is based on the focal length of the objective lens compared to the focal length of the eyepiece. Refracting telescopes requires two lenses, the objective lens, and the eyepiece lens to function properly. These two have a direct relationship and affect how the telescope performs.
This also makes refractor telescopes more customizable with the ability to change out the eyepiece for different sizes and types of lenses in order to tailor the performance of the telescope to more specialized needs. Some telescopes will come with multiple eyepieces which simply means they are coming equipped with different levels of customizable magnification out of the box. More eyepieces can be purchased.
In this case, remember aperture goes with reflector and the objective lens goes with the refractor. Both will show up in telescope research and they determine how much light a telescope can gather. The more light that is gathered the more effective the telescope can be.
The purpose of telescopes is to magnify the night sky and bring distant objects into focus. This means that magnification must be super important right? Well not really, at least not yet.
Most telescope specifications will not mention a specific magnification and usually opt for listing the size of the light-gathering potential. That’s that size in inches again of the aperture or objective lens.
For a beginner, it might be tempting to be drawn to telescopes boasting fancy magnification numbers or massive lenses but the truth of it is in the beginning magnification is not as important as things such as image quality and ease of use.
Until a person really knows their way around the sky or are targeting specific deep space objects, magnification will not become a factor in most early stargazing adventures. Many people are going to start off looking at the planets, the features in the solar system, nearby stars and moons and familiar constellations. Most, if not all, starter telescopes will have enough magnification to serve this purpose easily and those objects are enough to keep someone busy for quite a long time.
Larger apertures and better magnification will give better image quality but someone doesn’t need to go all out and get a huge expensive telescope to look at the rings of Saturn.
Bases and Mounts
At their core, telescopes are just the system of mirrors and lenses inside of their housing unit, usually, a tube and that is it. The first telescopes and spyglasses were held by hand up to the eye and pointed where one wanted to look. Nowadays, there are a ton of advanced bases and mounts that hold the telescope and make their use that much easier.
There are three main types of mounts commonly seen with telescopes. They are altazimuth, Dobsonian, and equatorial.
Altazimuth is a term used for any kind of mount that moves on two axes. This will allow your telescope to be adjusted on the vertical plane and the horizontal plane for easy calibration. This is a common mount in general and is used for everything from solar panels to cameras to gun turrets.
Dobsonian mounts are a modified version of a simple altazimuth mount system. Dobsonian mounts are built on a large platform designed to keep the telescope level and steady during viewing. Dobsonian mounts are usually used with large aperture telescopes to keep the unit stable for an enjoyable viewing experience.
If a large telescope is put onto a normal-sized base or a tripod base it could be unstable or easy to get out of alignment which will lead to frustration. When looking at objects extremely far away the tiniest adjustment on Earth will move the telescope to a completely different field of view and the object that was being viewed can be lost. The Dobsonian mount is built to prevent this by being a heavy sturdy base making it harder to bump out of alignment which means the user will spend less time adjusting the telescope and more time viewing what they want.
The last mount commonly used on telescopes is an equatorial mount. These mounts are designed to be aligned with the equator of the Earth and are used to track objects more easily through the sky. As the Earth spins on towards morning stars and objects move around in the sky so for people doing long-form viewing or astrophotography keeping certain objects in view over long periods of time is essential.
The equatorial mount makes it possible to track objects without the help of computers. By aligning with the equator it makes it very easy to see the paths that stars are taking, therefore, making it much easier to track their linear trajectories.
Now that the language has been digested, the next step is figuring out what you are going to be primarily using the telescope for.
II. Goals for Astronomy and Telescope Usage
If it has not become clear yet telescopes are extremely variable and come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. This is a lot of the fun of getting into telescopes is the amount of customization and technology that goes into making these devices. Not every telescope fits every situation and every situation cannot be solved with any generic telescope.
What will you primarily be using your telescope for? Well looking at the sky obviously! There is much more to it than that.
Most people assume they will simply use their telescope in their backyard but this isn’t viable for some people. Does your yard have a sufficiently dark sky? Are there trees or other obstructions in the vicinity? These are things that need to be considered before buying a telescope.
A dark sky is important for night viewing. If you live in a big city or near a large light source then viewing might be difficult on any given day. If this is the case then a telescope that can be packed up and moved easily might be the best option.
Many parks and green spaces allow for night sky viewing so most people are not too far from a dark sky, they might just have to go a little way outside of town. If travel is a consideration then certain telescopes, large reflectors, for example, might not be as good of an option. Don’t worry though, some people love traveling with their telescope and take them camping or hiking all the time so this is not a disqualifying factor.
If the viewing area is deemed sufficiently dark at your home and there are not a ton of trees or cloud cover constantly covering the yard then a home telescope is a good idea.
Typical Viewing Session
Next, the typical viewing session has to be considered. Will you be using your telescope as much as possible? Once a week? Whenever you feel like it?
If the telescope is only going to be used sparingly when neat celestial events are coming around or if there is frequent poor weather in the area then dropping a bunch of money on a first telescope might not be a good idea. It would be a waste to spend a bunch of money on a certain telescope only to use it a few times and lose interest. This happens all the time and we are trying to avoid that with this article!
More consistent viewing might call for a beefier telescope at the start but only if there is a strong commitment to using it regularly. If not, there is no shame in buying something a little cheaper and seeing how it plays out before moving onto a better model down the road.
The other thing that needs to be considered is what kinds of objects will be viewed on a regular basis. Do you want to see the planets, the rings of Saturn, the moon and other nearby objects or have nebulas, foreign galaxies, and exotic stars caught your attention? Astronomy journies usually begin in our solar system and it can hold a new stargazer’s attention for a very long time.
If the goal is to see the wonders of our solar system and learn how the most common features of the sky work then pretty much any telescope will do the job. An aperture size of 4″ with a standard mount will be plenty to meet your goals. It is not necessary to go all out on a complicated expensive telescope to view nearby celestial objects, at least not at the start.
But some people may want long term value or the desire to skip a few thousand lightyears right from the start. In that case, a larger telescope might suit your needs from the get-go. Any telescope can view the solar system fairly well but if the plan is to move deeper into the galaxy as time goes on a telescope that can grow with you might be prudent.
Okay, we have the basic vocabulary, we know what we are going to be using the telescope for. The sky is calling and we are ready to buy! Right?
Yes. But a quick Google search uncovers dozens if not hundreds of results for telescopes being sold from all over the internet and all over the world. Do not worry, we have compiled a list of our four favorite telescopes for beginners to buy based on all of the factors discussed here so far.
III. Telescope Recommendations
Best Budget Telescope: Orion Starblast II 4.5 Equatorial Reflector Telescope
The Orion Starblast II is a reflecting telescope with a 4″ aperture. This telescope is the most versatile on this list. It does everything well can easily fit all needs for a beginner stargazer.
It is very light and portable so it can be featured in the backyard role or it can be packed up and taken to ideal stargazing locations. The basic reflector telescope can easily view the solar system with good quality or it can be used to view distant deep space objects as well.
Primary Aperture: 100-150mm
Dimensions: 18x10x55 inches
This is an all around good telescope that can be used for just about any purpose. It is versatile enough to be easy to use for complete beginners as well as good enough to satisfy an intermediate stargazer. This telescope could comfortably be used for years by a new stargazer without any upgrades.
In addition to the telescope and mount it also comes with two additional eyepieces to get started, it comes assembled and gives the buyer a laser finder and Moon Map 260. It is a complete package straight out of the box. The best part is that this telescope will not break the bank. It has a very competitive price for the amount of features that come with it.
The only downside with this telescope is that with its manual equatorial mount, it might be hard for brand new users to locate and track objects that they want to see. The mount will make it easy to do if set up properly but it could frustrate new users if they can’t find what they are looking for right off the bat.
Other than that this is an extremely capable all around good telescope for any kind of user. It comes highly recommended for a budget buy where you can spend a little bit of money but just want to get your feet wet in the telescope space. It is fully capable of filling your night sky needs for years if needed.
Best Big Aperture Telescope: Orion SkyQuest XT8
The Orion SkyQuest XT8 is a Newtonian reflective telescope with an 8″ aperture. This large aperture makes this telescope perfect for deep-sky viewing. The large telescope comes with a very capable Dobsonian mount which will keep it stable and easy to use.
The light-gathering capability of this telescope is unmatched at its current price point. The large aperture means more light which means cleaner images from near and far objects alike. This would be perfect for viewing distant galaxies, star clusters and nebula in addition to the solar system.
Primary Aperture: 200mm
The magnification power of this telescope combined with the user friendly Dobsonian mount makes this telescope perfect for someone who wants the same telescope for years and years. The dollar to magnification ratio on this telescope is unmatched. It is a little more than some of the telescopes on this list but if light gathering power is what you crave then you cannot go wrong with the Orion SkyQuest XT8.
Out of the box, this unit comes with an eyepiece, a focuser, a laser sight as well as Starry Night. Starry Night is useful computer software that will teach the basics of the night sky and dish out handy information about the objects being viewed through the telescope.
This is a complete setup that comes with an amazing mount, great eyepieces, and accessories that will make this telescope easy to use no matter what the object being viewed is. Once it is up and running it has a set it and forget it ease of use. It can be placed in your favorite stargazing spot and left ready for use at any time.
The only downside to this telescope is the base must be assembled, it does not come put together out of the box. The other downside is the size and weight make it less portable than other units. It can still be moved but it is a little harder to do with this setup.
If you are willing to drop a little more money and are enticed by the power of this telescope then this will be a fantastic buy. The sturdy set up and out of the box accessories will keep you busy for a lifetime.
Best Cheap Telescope: Celestron AstroMaster 70AZ
If dropping a ton of money on a telescope to start off is a little off-putting don’t worry. There is no shame in spending a little to get a start in something before upgrading. Luckily, this telescope is a great deal in addition to being a good beginner’s scope.
Celestron is a highly respected brand and they make telescopes from bargain level to extremely pricey but put their signature quality into everything they make. The AstroMaster 70AZ is a classic refractor telescope with more than enough power to view all of the classic sights in the night sky.
It is very light and portable. The refractor design makes it easy to break down and take with you wherever you want to view the night sky. It comes with a travel tripod for backpacking or hiking and can also be mounted on a more permanent mount.
Objective Lens: 70mm
Focal Length: 900mm
Mount: Manual altazimuth
This telescope will not break the bank and is a fantastic way to get a good telescope to play around with without spending too much.
This model also comes with coated lenses which helps cut down on chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberration is a kind of light distortion that occurs with refractor telescopes but the specially coated lenses cut down on this for crisp viewing.
The refractor design means you can customize it with a variety of mounted accessories and eyepieces. In fact, it comes with two eyepieces right off the bat and is able to accommodate a vast array of other Celestron refractor eyepieces. This setup also comes with Starry Night software to help the aspiring stargazer find their way around the cosmos.
The main drawback of this telescope is the lack of power compared to some of the other reflectors. It still has plenty of power to keep the user busy for a long time but it will not be able to see some of the very distant objects that a reflector could see.
There is no better cheap telescope to break into the stargazing hobby with. A small investment can give you a great experience and open the door to the wide world of backyard astronomy for years to come. This telescope is worth every penny in that respect.
All of these telescopes so far come with extremely good user reviews and are made by highly reputable manufacturers. They are all great in their own right and can fit every aspiring astronomer depending on their preferences. However, there is always one regarded as the best and that would be this telescope…
Best of the Best Beginner Telescope: Celestron NexStar 4SE Computerized Telescope
For a beginner who just wants to jump in and start looking at amazing sights, there is no better telescope than the Celestron NexStar 4SE. This is a telescope made for the modern age and will amaze people with its technological ability as well as its stargazing ability.
This telescope is a Maksutov-Cassegrain design which is a combination of both reflective and refractive telescopes. It uses a combination of mirrors and lenses to give the user the best of both varieties of telescope.
The main draw of the Celestron NexStar 4SE is the absolutely massive database of celestial objects it comes with. Out of the box, it comes programmed with over 40,000 objects. These are objects that the telescope knows the location of and is able to track for you.
This means, all you have to do is put in what you want to see and the NexStar will adjust itself, locate the object in the sky and track it for you. No one has to worry about getting distracted from looking at an amazing view to adjust the telescope or track it across the sky. This telescope does all of that for you.
It has a computer powered motorized mount that is able to track objects across the sky all on its own. All the user has to do is look. This really is an amazing feature for anyone who wants a hassle-free viewing experience.
In addition, the magnification power and design of this telescope are also great. Able to track and view the 40,000 objects stored in its database with clear and functional imagery. There are literally endless possibilities with this telescope and years and years of fun and amazement.
Primary Aperture: 102mm
Focal Length: 1325mm
Mount: Motorized altazimuth
This telescope is extremely small and compact and is perfect for setting up in a single location to track the sky from or to travel with you. It’s high tech alignment system, Sky Align, makes it so it can easily be configured from anywhere and begin tracking objects almost immediately. It is also able to be upgraded with a GPS tracking feature that will use satellites instead of stars to pinpoint your exact location anywhere on the globe.
All of these features must cost a ton of money though. That is not the case. This telescope, for the features provided, actually is a great deal. It won’t break the bank and with all of the amazing technology packed into this unit, it is actually a great deal.
The only downside is the automatic tracking might take some of the fun of learning to navigate the night sky and doing manual adjustments. Some people are into that aspect of telescope stargazing but the automatic tracking can also be turned off if a manual experience is more your taste.
Overall, the value, the features, the amazing automatic tracking capabilities and the magnification of this telescope make it the hands-down best telescope for any beginner astronomer. All of the telescopes on this list are amazing but this one is just a little better due to the out of the box database it comes with.
Now anyone should be comfortable reading about telescopes, perusing their features and making an informed decision. If you keep all of these factors in mind and consider each individual circumstance then making a smart and long lasting decision about a telescope will be easy. Done right, this purchase will have the potential to keep anyone entertained for years and years while ushering them into the wonderful world of backyard astronomy that so many people know and love.