I know, I know, you want the best telescope you can get. You have some money saved up, you've convinced your significant other that you can get one, but you have NO IDEA which one to buy! How can you get the best telescope for your money? Which one is best? What can you see with them?
Here, I want to try to help guide you into getting a great telescope.
Too often, people rush into a store or go to an online retailer with a wad of cash burning a hole in their pocket, and they end up with a telescope poorly suited to them. Either it is too difficult to use, too heavy, too complicated, or worse, too cheap to be able to see anything.
Before buying anything though, you need to read this (and all the other) articles on this website. You'll save money and be sure you're getting started right.
I don't want to see anyone end up with a crappy telescope.
There is a fine line between a good, cheap telescope and a cheap telescope. Obviously, we want to spend as little money as possible, but along with that, in order to get a good value for our money and ensure that we end up with a telescope we'll actually use, let's ask ourselves some questions.
- Why do I want a telescope?
- Is this my first telescope?
- What is my familiarity with the night sky? Can I find five constellations from my backyard?
- What am I hoping to see with it? Planets? Galaxies? Nebulae? All of the above?
- How much can I spend?
- Where do I live, in a city of out in the boondocks?
Let's take each one of these in turn.
Why do I want a telescope?
Why Do You Want a Telescope?
This question is usually the most fun to answer. Many of us imagine standing outside on a clear, dark night under a canopy of stars peering into the distant reaches of the universe with our new optical toy as the photons that have travelled millions or billions of light years end their long journey on our retinas.
Or... maybe not, maybe that's just me.
I need to caution you though, if you've never looked through a telescope before, I feel compelled to tell you that you are NOT going to see anything like what you see in magazines and on the Hubble Space Telescope or NASA's websites.
Telescopes work by collecting more light than your eye can. A lot more. A 4-inch reflector can collect hundreds of times more light than your eye, which means you'll be able to see very faint things.
Believe me when I tell you that the galaxies and nebulae flying over our heads are extremely faint. To see them at all from a dark sky will require a telescope with an aperture of at least four inches in diameter, eight is better.
At least four inches, more if you live in under a light polluted area.
The main point to remember here is that no matter what telescope you buy, what you are going to see when you look through the eyepiece are faint smudges. Galaxies will be faint smudges, nebulae will be even larger faint smudges with different shapes.
In many cases, depending on the condition of the skies and the size of your telescope, you can pick out colors and detail, like spiral arms in galaxies or the Trapezium in the Orion Nebula.
Planets are different. You can see amazing detail, even with a small telescope. Saturn's rings are spectacular in any scope, you can even see them with binoculars. Jupiter's rings are visible in most telescopes as well.
So please don't buy a telescope with the expectation that you're going to see what the Hubble sees, because you're won't. The Hubble Space Telescope is in space, above the atmosphere and a lot of processing is done on the images to get them to look the way they do.
If you're buying a telescope to do some imaging, and you're a beginner (which I'm assuming because you're reading this article), then hold off on that. Taking pictures with a telescope is hard and expensive. You need experience just finding things and using a telescope before you can start that.
In my opinion, the best reason to buy a telescope is to get you under the night sky, learn your way around and experience first hand the joys of seeing all those objects that are printed on posters for yourself.
When you look through that eyepiece for the first time at the Andromeda Galaxy, it's very humbling to think that those scant few photons collected by your primary mirror and focused on your eyes have been traveling for over two million years. They've ended their exhaustive journey - across intergalactic space, through the spiral arms of our galaxy, around interstellar gas and dust, collected and focused through our telescope, and landed on the back of our eyeball - as a signal in our brain.
Is this my first telescope?
If this is a first time hobby for you and you've never owned a telescope, then of paramount importance is EASE OF USE. I can't emphasize that enough. If you have to struggle to understand how the telescope works, what all the knobs do, I can promise you, you won't use it very much. After the newness wears off, you'll have a several hundred dollar (or more) door stop and coat hanger.
The best telescope is a simple telescope.
Your first telescope should be simple. How can you tell? Just look at it. If it's designed such that when you walk up to it, you can immediately see how it works, that is a good sign. A Dobsonian and the Astroscan fill this bill nicely. One look at these and you know how they work.
Don't forget: telescopes are used in darkness, complete darkness if possible (although that's almost impossible these days). Complicated telescopes that take a lot of time to set up and are hard to operate require experience doing things in the dark. Red flashlights help, but now you've got one of your hands occupied while you try to work the telescope with the other.
Buying a simple telescope like this means you'll spend more time learning the sky and finding planets, galaxies and nebulae, and less time fumbling in the dark.
Your First Telescope
You'll also spend more time outside. If I had to set up my 10 inch SCT everytime I wanted to observe, I wouldn't do it nearly as much. I use my Dobsonian at least 10 times more, I can easily run outside for a few minutes observing before bed and bring it back in easily.
What is my familiarity with the night sky? Can I find five constellations from my backyard?
If you can't find at least five constellation when you look up, you need experience. This means you're back to using a simple telescope. In my opinion, under no circumstances should you spend more than about $500.00 if you can't find five constellations. Why? You may not like going outside and using a telescope. You may hate it. If you can't be bothered to go outside and just look up, using a telescope is going to be a real chore.
Not being able to find five constellations tells me you've not even gone out in your backyard to just look at the stars - with NO equipment.
The joy of finding things in the sky doesn't require expensive equipment. It doesn't require any equipment at all.
If this is you, wait before you buy anything. Go to Sky and Telescope's website, print out a sky chart, and start looking for constellations. If you find that enjoyable, you're gonna love your new telescope!
What am I hoping to see with it?
Another consideration when selecting the best telescope is the kind of observing you'll be doing and what you like looking at. Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all telescope that lets you see everything equally well.
For example, planets are relatively bright compared to galaxies so they don't require a large aperture, but to see any detail it helps to use high magnification. This means a longer focal length on a good mount is better.
Dimmer, extended objects, like galaxies and nebulae, because they are large and faint, benefit the most from large mirrors and short focal lengths which let you see larger areas of the sky and collect as many photons as possible. Lower magnifications are also the norm with this kind of observing.
So you see, there is no one best telescope that meets all needs, but we can find good compromises.
Keeping in mind your skill level, Dobsonians are great choices for first telescopes. They let you see really faint objects, are easy to use, portable and with a barlow lens, you can increase the focal length to get some good detail of the planets. They are also extremely affordable. I really like the Orion Dobsionians from telescopes.com. I find them to be the best telescopes for the money.
If you are more advanced, and can afford it, Schmidt-Cassegrains like the Meade LX-200 and the Celestron at right are among the best telescopes and are very versatile. Although one must buy additional equipment like focal reducers and barlow lenses to adjust the field of view and magnification for the conditions and object being observed.
Refractors are good choices for planets, although they are quite expensive as a function of aperture. If you can afford them though, they produce the best views of the planets.
For all these considerations though, if you are a beginner, keep your initial selection to under $500.00. You can always spend more if the bug hits you.
How much can I spend?
Money is always a factor in what telescope you buy, and I've covered this already with respect to beginners. For more advanced users, getting the best telescope means you'll need to think more about the kind of observing you'll be doing.
My basic advice here is to buy the largest aperture telescope you can afford. This usually means getting a really big Dobsonian. With the amount of light pollution in our skies these days, collecting as many photons from the source we're trying to see is more important than ever.
Forget about magnification! High magnifications require high-end expensive mounts to use effectively. Most consumer telescopes give terrible views at high magnification. Get aperture, as much as you can afford. The more photons you collect, the brighter the object will be and the more detail you'll be able to resolve.
The only thing magnification does is make things bigger, including the atmosphere. If the stars are twinkling madly, then high magnification will take them twinkle even more. In the eyepiece the star will look like it's boiling under high power. It is useless under those conditions. Stick with aperture.
If you think you'll be doing lots of planetary observing, get a good refractor. Refractors offer crisp, high quality views of the planets and many come with very sturdy mounts. Their long focal lengths yield a high magnification, but you have more photons to work with to see the detail. Good planetary views still require a steady, dark night though. Nothing gets around that, although wide field Dobsonians make it less noticeable.
Where do I live?
As much as it saddens me to say this, when it comes to what you get out of observing with a telescope, it really matters where you live. Living in a city, I find I never set up my 10 inch Meade SCT. I just take out my Astroscan and look at whatever comet is out or a cool planetary alignment, etc. I have to make a big effort to drive out to the country to make setting up my complicated telescopes worth the effort.
So if you live in a city, the best telescopes are the simple ones, telescopes that allow you to set up quickly and take back in easily. Using sophisticated telescopes in the city is certainly doable, and many people do that quite successfully, but they are in the minority and it usually requires a variety of expensive filters and eyepieces to get good results. That's especially true with imaging.
What is the best telescope? Simple, simple, simple. As an advanced observer, I can tell you that they are the telescopes that get used the most, even if we've spent tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, it's the simple ones that we grab when the urge to observe hits. The only exceptions to this I can think of are those that have an observatory in their backyard. Those lucky people only have to walk out the door, open up a dome or roll off a roof, turn on some equipment, and start looking.
The best telescope is the telescope that gets used
If all you have is a complicated, heavy and difficult to use telescope, you may not take it out very often and this can be the difference between deciding on spending a few hours under the stars or staying inside and watching Gilligan's Island.
As good as that show is, it doesn't compare to the canopy of stars over our heads.