CHAPTER 3: Choosing a Telescope — What’s New?Chapter_3__Choosing_a_Telescope.htmlChapter_3__Choosing_a_Telescope.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0
The Best Beginner Telescopes (under $1,000)

   While we were able to pack a lot of information and advice into Chapter 3 on buying 
   telescopes, a question we get is: “What telescope do you recommend for beginners?” 
  © 2009 by Alan Dyer and Terence Dickinson     

The basic models of entry-level telescopes haven’t changed too dramatically over the years. As we describe in Chapter 3, good beginner scopes include:

• 70mm     to     100mm     (2.7- to 4-inch)  refractors
• 100mm   to     200mm     (4- to 8-inch)     reflectors
90mm     to     150mm     (3.7- to 6-inch)  catadioptric or compound telescopes

[The numbers refer to the aperture of the lens or mirror that gathers the light — generally the bigger the better. We won’t go into all the pros and cons here — that’s what you buy our book for!]

What does change are specific models. So here are beginner telescopes we can recommend on the North American market as of mid-2009. All are under $1,000; most under $500. This is not an exhaustive listing of every decent beginner scope, but a listing of models we like and can recommend. Prices are in U.S. dollars, of March 2011. Let’s start with scopes for kids ...

Suggested Telescopes for Young Astronomers ($50 to $300)

Our Top Recommendation: The Dobsonian ($280 to $550)

The Classic Reflector ($250 to $650)

The Classic Refractor ($175 to $750)

Adding “Go To” Capability ($400 to $1,100)

So those are our picks for “Best Beginner Telescopes” ... as of early 2011.

Chapter 3 of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide provides much more information on how to make a buying decision — the factors to weigh, terminology explained, and specs to look for. Here we are simply providing a rundown on current entry-level telescopes we recommend, at the same time updating the book with information about newer models. 

If you can, we suggest purchasing your telescope from a local telescope store, or on-line or via mail order from a dealer who advertises in one of the major astronomy magazines. All will have knowledgeable staff willing to assist you in your purchase. 

NOTE: Most photos were gleaned from manufacturers’ and dealers’ websites.

AS A FINAL NOTE: To complement your new telescope, don’t forget a magazine like SkyNews, Astronomy, Sky and Telescope or The Sky at Night to provide a current star chart and locations of the planets. Or else, how will you find things?

supplement to the Book the Backyard Astronomer’s guide

The same advice for adults applies for kids as well. Aperture rules! A bigger lens 
or mirror means brighter, sharper images. So, as we do for adults, we 
recommend a mirror-type reflector telescope on a simple Dobsonian-style 
(up-down, side to side motion) mount. “Dobs” are easy to set up and
durable, while reflectors provide more aperture for the money. 

Celestron now offers a “Year of Astronomy” special, their FirstScope.
It’s a 75mm (3-inch) reflector with basic fittings. The best feature is its price:
$50! The drawback will be finding things. Get the optional finderscope! 
In some countries, Synta Optics (a.k.a. Sky-Watcher), the Chinese company who owns Celestron, will soon offer the same scope as their Heritage 76 (not shown), with finder, for about $65. Orion offers a similar “FunScope 76.” All are great values for a parent looking for a low-cost scope for the 8-year-old with a keen (but passing?) interest in the stars.

Orion has a larger kid-friendly “Dob,” their 114mm (4.5-inch) StarBlast reflector, above right with the green tube, again on a simple but sturdy wooden Dobsonian mount. Like the FirstScope, the StarBlast must be set up on a table to put the eyepiece at a convenient height, even for kids. The metal fittings are excellent, and the price a reasonable $200. 

A step up in aperture is Synta/Sky-Watcher’s Heritage 130mm (5-inch), a new tabletop mini-Dobsonian produced as a special scope for the Year of Astronomy. It features a unique sliding, collapsible tube, bright, sharp f/5 optics and a very solid, smooth-moving mount. All for under $200. The exposed secondary mirror and plastic focuser could be a bit fragile so this is a purchase best for an older child able to take care of a quality telescope.

A “full-height” telescope is Orion’s SkyQuest 4.5, with the same 114mm aperture
as the Starblast but a longer focal length better suited to higher power planet
views. The longer tube puts the eyepiece at a good kid height with the base on
the ground. This is a child-sized version of the class of scope we recommend for
adults. At $220 the SkyQuest 4.5 is very reasonably priced for what you get. The solid, steady mount way better than those flimsy beginner scopes that pack the shelves of the 
big-box superstores. Quality means shopping elsewhere — all these mini-Dobs have to be purchased from telescope dealers or from the distributor via the internet or by phone. 

OK, the other issue with Dobsonian reflectors is that they don’t look like telescopes, at least not to many beginners. The scopes that do are refractors, the lens-type telescope. The small 50mm and 60mm refractors sold in the big-box chains for under $100 are almost always what we call “Christmas trash scopes” — plastic junk. Our book provides all the details. 

But if it is a refractor you want, then Sky-Watcher USA and Orion sell virtually the same telescope, a good 70mm-aperture refractor on a decent alt-azimuth mount with metal tripod. On the left, below, is the Sky-Watcher GreatStart 70AR, now selling for $125. 

                                            On the far right, coming from the same factory in China, is the                            
                                                    Orion Observer 70mm for $140. Tripods are included, plus
                                     two decent eyepieces that provide useful magnifications —  
no ridiculous 500             power marketing hype here.

                                                 At left, is the Vixen A70Lf on their
                                                                        Mini-Porta mount. A super quality                                             telescope, but at $300 a bit steep for a
beginner’s scope with just 70mm aperture.
Still, this is a first-class little telescope.
Nothing flimsy or plastic about it!
As we advise in Chapter 3, our first choice for a recommended telescope for a serious beginner is Dobsonian-mounted reflector telescope. Period. You just can’t beat the value — sharp, bright optics on a steady mount that is easy to set up and use. No frills value. 

Orion’s new StarBlast 6 is a tabletop Dob with a 6-inch f/5 mirror on a solid mount 
and excellent fittings. This is a good kids scope but it’s fine for adults, as long 
as the scope is placed on a suitable table or stand. At $280, it is a great buy and 
won’t be obsoleted by further scope purchases. A version with Orion’s Intelliscope computerized finding device is also available ($400), for a great combination.
The Sky-Watcher Heritage 130mm mini-Dob described above is a lower-cost alternative.

Orion has a full-height 6-inch f/8 Dobsonian as well (their SkyQuest 6, shown at right), also for $280. Or, you might consider their 8-inch SkyQuest 8 (a steal at $330, not shown). 

In our book, we praise the Sky-Watcher 8-inch Dobsonian (about $400, shown at right with the solid white tube). However, as of May 2009, it looks like the classic solid-tube Sky-Watcher Dobs are not available in the U.S., only thru Sky-Watcher dealers elsewhere in the world. The U.S. Sky-Watcher outlet is selling just the new truss-tube Dobs.

Meade Instruments started the trend toward low-cost truss-tube Dobs 
with their excellent Lightbridge series. We praise these in our book, 
and as of May 2009 their models are the same and remain great choices. 
For a beginner the 8-inch Lightbridge is probably best, and goes for about $400.
Third party suppliers like JMI offer tracking systems for the Lightbridges.

More low-cost truss-tube Dobs were inevitable, and were 
introduced after The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide was published. 
So these are new recommendations from us. The new 
Sky-Watcher Collapsible Dobsonians require no assembly of the 
trusses, simply unlocking the releases and sliding the whole upper end 
forward to lock it into position. The upper end slides back for storage. 
Though not quite as compact as the Lightbridges when collapsed, 
the Sky-Watcher Collapsible Dobs do work very well. Available in 8, 10, 
and 12-inch sizes (a 16 can’t be far behind!), we’d suggest the 8 at $400.
Versions with Go To and tracking have been announced but won’t be
available until at least mid-2009. Cost will be $400 to $500 higher. It is not 
clear if older Sky-Watcher Dobs will be upgradeable with Go To hardware.

For now, if you want a no-frills Dobsonian coupled with high-tech computerized finding, look at the Orion IntelliScopes ($530 for the 8-inch, shown). These work great and provide encoders and digital setting circles to guide you to objects as you move the scope around the sky (a “Push-To” Dob). They do not have motorized Go To nor tracking once on target. But as we describe in our book, they are a reliable way to locate objects easily. The IntelliScopes have solid tubes, except for the new XX12 Truss-Tube model (but it’s $1,300).
For those who would prefer their reflectors on an equatorial mount (so they can have motorized tracking of the sky), we suggest these models. Yes, there are lots of 114mm (4.5-inch) reflectors about, but for not much more money you can have one of these 130mm (5-inch) models. (Avoid the short-tubed 114mm reflectors, as most have poor mirrors coupled with low-cost built-in Barlow lenses which yield fuzzy images at higher power.) However, optics in these 130mm f/5 reflectors are very good, though the mounts tend to be a bit shaky. A motor for tracking objects is usually an optional extra, so keep that cost in mind. Models are similar, coming from the same source in China, but with cosmetic differences. 

From left to right, all at amazingly low prices, we have:
the Celestron AstroMaster 130 EQ ($250), the Sky-Watcher USA 130NS ($250), the Sky-Watcher 130mm as sold in Canada ($350 Can), and the Orion SpaceProbe 130ST ($300). All are mounted on variations of the lightweight EQ2 mount we describe on page 53 of our book. All have good quality f/5 parabolic mirrors for a compact tube. We recommend these over the longer f/7 versions (such as Orion’s SpaceProbe 130) because the shorter, lighter tube is a better match for the carrying capacity of small EQ2 mount. Watch for differences in fittings such as number of eyepieces & type of finderscope.

A 130mm (5-inch) reflector not on an equatorial mount, but on a
sturdy alt-azimuth mount is Vixen’s R130sf, pictured here at right. 
At $500, it is more costly than other 130mm scopes, but the
Vixen Porta II mount is solid, easy to use, and can be
adapted to other tube assemblies such as small refractors.

Two other 5-inch-class reflectors are the Celestron Omni 
XLT 127 Schmidt-Cassegrain (at right, centre, $630) and 
Orion’s StarMax 127 Maksutov-Cassegrain (far right, $630).
Both use the larger EQ3 mount which, with these short tubes, 
makes for a very solid and portable setup. The optics in these 
hybrid mirror-lens scopes are excellent. Highly recommended. 

If you want more aperture, go for one of the 150mm (6-inch) f/5 reflectors, usually offered on the larger and sturdier EQ3 mount ubiquitous on Chinese import scopes. In this league are the Celestron Omni XLT 150 (above left, $500) and the similar Orion AstroView 150 (above centre, $450), both excellent starter scopes with a solid mounting and good fittings. Sky-Watcher sells a similar model (the 15075, above right) available in some markets but the U.S. division no longer advertises it. Again, battery-powered motor drives are extra. 

Larger 8-inch reflectors are available from all these suppliers, on bigger EQ4-style equatorial mounts. But for a starter scope we suggest avoiding them — they are too large and heavy for convenient transport and set up. They won’t be used! If you want aperture (perhaps you live in the country), then go for one of the Dobsonians listed above.
Refractors have an allure and appeal that is hard to resist. Their image quality is excellent and the optics are rugged and almost never need aligning or collimating. If you want a telescope that can be used by day as a terrestrial spotting scope, a small refractor is a good choice. The market is rife with refractors, but here are a few that stand out for us. Not listed are the many “short-tube” refractors on the market — they work fine for wide-field scanning of the Milky Way, but false color and other aberrations will result in fuzzy high-power views of the planets, just what beginners most want to look at.

As with reflectors, similar models abound. This group of recommended models are all in the 80mm to 90mm aperture class, the minimum for any serious beginner. From left to right, we have the Celestron AstroMaster 90EQ ($250), the Orion AstroView 90 ($330), and the Sky-Watcher GreatStart 80AR ($175), all on the same EQ2 mounting, just adequate for carrying this size tube. Synta/Sky-Watcher also offers their 90mm refractor on a decent alt-azimuth mount as their GreatStart 90AR (far right, $190). 

If you want more aperture, move up to one of the 102mm (4-inch) or 120mm (4.7-inch) refractors. All have doublet achromatic lenses that will begin to show some false color but are still quite sharp and contrasty for lunar and planetary viewing.

In this class, we have from left to right: The Celestron Omni XLT 102 on the EQ3 mount ($500), the Sky-Watcher 102AR on the larger EQ5 mount ($525), the Celestron Omni XLT 120 on the EQ3 mount ($600), and the Orion SkyView Pro 120 ($630). In this class similar optics are available on various mounts — a bigger mount makes for a steadier image.

To avoid false color, you need to move to an apochromatic refractor with an “ED” lens. We cover these extensively in our book. Though prices have dropped dramatically in recent years, most “apos” still start at $1,000 for just the tube assembly. Exceptions we can recommend are the doublet ED 80mm apos offered by several suppliers.

The Sky-Watcher Equinox 80 (above, $600) and the 
Orion EON 80 (far right, $700) are virtually identical models, 
available as optical tubes only, or packaged with suitable mounts. 
They work great for imaging.

Ditto on the Astro-Tech 80ED f/6 doublet with the sparkling 
carbon fibre tube (right, $750) ... 
... And the Stellarvue 80ED f/7 doublet (below, left, $600).
... And the William Optics ZenithStar 80ED (below, right, $600)

For anyone with a keen interest in deep-sky photography, these high-quality apos are ideal and, at under $1,000 for the optics, are among the lowest cost apos on the market.
The scopes we’ve recommended are some of our favorites from hundreds on the market, ones that combine good optics with a sturdy mount for low cost. We’ve ruled out models that are too shaky or hard to aim — some alt-az mounts, for example, and the flimsy EQ1 equatorial mount. Both should be avoided. You won’t find them listed here. Better scopes don’t cost that much more — a solid mount is just as important as good optics. 

But so far, all our picks have been manual telescopes — you had to move them around the sky to locate targets. What about computerized models, ones that slew automatically to any of thousands of targets at the push of a button? Getting this “Go To” technology and still keeping the price down means sacrificing aperture. You get a smaller telescope. 

However, while there are quite a few low-cost beginner Go To scopes out there, we’ve found that the lowest cost models give up too much — mounts and fittings are plastic and poor, and the Go To technology unreliable and inaccurate. We suggest avoiding them and, if your budget is tight, instead buying any of the scopes listed above, especially the Dobs. Don’t be seduced by the high-tech gadgets — they might only frustrate you. Trust us!

To get a workable Go To scope plan on spending at least $400, on up. Here are some models we can recommend, still within our $1,000 budget limit. In these choices, and as we describe on page 53 of our book, we have avoided Go To scopes with “short-tube” optics, like fast f/4 refractors, preferring optics that will provide sharp views of all kinds of objects. For us, this rules out some of the short 80mm Go To refractors.

At the lower price point are the 130mm f/5 reflectors, the Orion StarSeeker 130 (left, $400) and the similar Celestron NexStar 130 SLT (centre, $440). Sky-Watcher USA offers the same scope, branded as their Light Chariot 130 AZ ($400, not shown). 

The telescope that started the low-cost Go To revolution, the Meade ETX 90PE Maksutov-Cassegrain (above right, $600) is still a great choice. Its hybrid 90mm f/15 Mak optics are sharp and the accurate Autostar system is packed with features. This is a lovely portable scope. The bigger Meade ETX 125PE (far right, above ) at $900 sneaks in below our budget limit and also works great. 

For more choices, we suggest the Celestron NexStar 5SE (left, $700)  or  (not        shown) the larger Celestron NexStar 6SE ($800). The f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain optics in both are superb, the one-armed fork mounts solid, and the Go To system reliable and easy to use.

For less money but with 6-inch apertures, Celestron has their C6N-GT (above, centre, $800), a 6-inch f/5 reflector on their sturdy “Advanced Series” Go To mount. Similar in capabilities is the Meade N-6AT 6-inch f/5 reflector (above, right, $800) which comes with Meade’s excellent Autostar system on their LXD75 Go To mount.

Finally, at far right, is the Sky-Watcher 120AR, a fine 120mm (4.7-inch) f/8 achromatic refractor on the Go To EQ5P mount for $1,100, a tad over our budget. But it’s a refractor!
See Chapter 3 of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide for detailed explanations of optical designs, mounting types, design pros and cons, and telescope jargon. Plus loads of recommendations of telescopes over $1,000.Backyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlBackyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlBackyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlshapeimage_41_link_0shapeimage_41_link_1shapeimage_41_link_2
See Chapter 14 of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide for lots of tips and techniques for using a Go To telescope and other high-tech software.Backyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlBackyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlBackyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlshapeimage_42_link_0shapeimage_42_link_1shapeimage_42_link_2
See Chapter 13 of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide for all the information you need on how to photograph the night sky with and without a telescope.Backyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlBackyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlBackyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlshapeimage_43_link_0shapeimage_43_link_1shapeimage_43_link_2
Uses a lens to focus light

Uses a mirror to focus light

Uses a combination of a mirror and a lens-like corrector (a hybrid design)
See Chapter 4 and 5 of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide for loads of advice and recommendations on accessories such as eyepieces and filters.Backyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlBackyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlshapeimage_45_link_0shapeimage_45_link_1
While more complex to set up and aim, these mounts can track the sky, using a motor (often optional) to keep targets centered.
These mounts are 
named for John 
Dobson, the 
astronomer who 
the design.
All these mounts move up-down and left-right but cannot track the stars.
These telescopes use motors pulsed by a small computerized hand-paddle (laptops not required) to find objects on command.
These refractors use a pair of lenses (a doublet) to reduce false color.

Use special glass in a 2- or 3-lens design to eliminate false color halos.
Fast f-ratio (f/4 to f/5) telescopes provide a wider field of view but some can suffer from image-blurring optical flaws.
When computerized, this style of mount (like on the Celestron NexStar and Meade ETX scopes) can track the sky without the need to be “polar aligned” as do equatorial mounts.
See our Chapter 3 Links page for links to other telescope review websites and to lots of equipment suppliers.Chapter_3_Links.htmlChapter_3_Links.htmlshapeimage_62_link_0shapeimage_62_link_1
Shots of the Moon can be done with any telescope but the planets need a motorized mount like these that can track the sky (i.e. not an alt-azimuth or Dob). However ... shooting closeups of nebulas and galaxies is beyond any beginner telescope.
Go To telescopes like these all track the sky and so can be used for imaging the Moon and planets.