The Best Telescopes for Observing Our Solar System and Beyond

·11 min read
Photo credit: Staff, Courtesy of Orion
Photo credit: Staff, Courtesy of Orion


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To anyone looking for a new telescope, especially a first telescope, the array of options that exist might seem overwhelming. Why are there so many types, configurations, bells and whistles? The truth is amatuer astronomy is a wide hobby, not to mention space is a huge place. Matching the observer (that’s you!) with the correct telescope can be a bit of a challenge, but this list—with several of my favorite picks—should help in your search. No matter what you plan to train your ’scope on, there’s a model here that’s right for you.

A bit about me: I’m an amateur astronomer, astronomy educator, and lifelong space enthusiast. Sharing the night sky with my fellow Earthlings near and far is a driving passion for me. I’ve owned six telescopes and used roughly 50 others, and I’m glad to share my expertise with you.

Take a look at quick info on the top-rated telescopes, then scroll down for buying advice and more in-depth reviews of these and other models.

Start With Binoculars

In fact, what many astronomers advise is to not start out with a telescope at all, but with a good pair of binoculars. They’ll not only give you a great view of the lunar surface, but let you see things like Saturn and its rings and Jupiter and its moons this fall—even distant galaxies and nebulae. And even if your interest in astronomy wanes, you’ll still be able to use them for things like birding and other outdoor activities.

For backyard astronomy, most experts recommend a 7 x 50 or 10 x 50 set of binoculars—or, as Ed Ting of Scopereviews.com notes, “ the largest lenses you can comfortably hold.” It’ s the second number in that equation, the aperture of the lens (measured in millimeters), that’ s the most important consideration. If you’ re familiar with photography at all, you’ ll know that’ s what determines the amount of light the lens gathers. This makes a bigger difference in what you can see than the magnification factor, which is the first number of those two.

As with many hobbies, it’s also a good idea to connect locally and join an astronomy club in your area. That way, you can learn some of the basics from experts and try out different types of telescopes before taking the plunge on one yourself. Sky & Telescope has an extensive directory of local clubs.

Choosing Your First Telescope

If you do think you’re ready to move to a telescope, you’ve got a few decisions to make. As Sky & Telescope explains, there are a number of distinct types, but they all fall into three broad categories: refractors, reflectors, and compound telescopes (also called catadioptric).

The key difference between a refractor and a reflector is that a reflector uses a mirror as the primary component of its design, while a refractor uses only a lens at the end of a long tube. That means reflectors can be much shorter in length while also allowing for wider apertures, although they can require more setup and maintenance to keep everything in alignment. Compound telescopes, as you might have guessed, are simply a combination of the two, and employ both mirrors and lenses that allow for even smaller and more portable telescopes (albeit at a higher cost).

In all cases, however, it’ s the aperture (or diameter of the lens) that you’ll want to pay the most attention to. As with binoculars, you will see telescopes that promise a level of magnification that sounds impressive, but that number will do you little good without a big enough aperture to actually collect the light needed to bring an image into focus. Some might be inclined to say that a bigger ’scope with a sizable aperture is better, but larger models are harder to store and transport.

Another important consideration is complexity. A telescope that’s too hard to set up (especially in the dark) is a telescope that won’t get used as much as a simpler one. You also have a choice between manual and computerized movement. A fully manual telescope might be less expensive, but it could prove to be frustrating for someone just starting out. Computerized telescopes (sometimes called “Go To” telescopes) can help you easily find objects in the night sky with minimal setup, and will continue to serve you well as you grow into the hobby. Computerized movements, like some telescope mounts, require a power supply.

Lastly, a note on price: You can spend as much as you want to on a telescope. If you wanted to build a research-grade observatory in your backyard, that’s an option—albeit an expensive one. By the same token, a $20 telescope might not be the highest quality. I would be very skeptical of a standard telescope that cost less than $100, but I wouldn’t recommend spending more than $1000 unless you have explored the hobby a bit and know which direction you want to take your next step toward.

How We Selected These Telescopes

To pick these telescopes, I relied on my personal experience and reviews from expert sites and observer forums. I also looked at customer ratings available on vendor websites. I compared each model’s product specifications, including aperture, dimensions, features, availability, and overall ease of use. For the models that made the list, I suggest their best uses to help guide your search. Remember, the best telescope for you is the one you’ll get the most use out of. Read on to find one that strikes your fancy.

—BEST ALL-AROUND—

Celestron NexStar 8 SE Computerized

Type: Compound | Aperture: 8 in. | Movement: Computerized | Best For: Viewing our solar system, comets, brighter deep sky objects, basic astrophotography

The NexStar series is well-pedigreed in astronomical circles, and the distinctive orange tube is a common site at star parties. The 8-inch aperture model is a personal favorite, striking a great balance between power, price, and convenience. Despite its larger size, the telescope is still portable thanks to its compact-but-complex design that replicates the optic performance of a longer telescope. It carries a slightly higher price tag, but it’s more than worth it for the generous increase in light captured and the subsequent uptick in the quality of your observations. That the computerized pad and guidance has not changed much in the past decade is a sign of the high degree of reliability. The NexStar works very well, and with a bit of practice, a new user can get it pointing and tracking with a decent degree of precision. As with any computerized telescope, a power source will be required, either from an outlet or portable power pack.

—BEST FOR BEGINNERS—

Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector

Type: Reflector | Aperture: 4.5 in. | Movement: Manual | Best For: First-timers and kids, observing larger objects in our solar system like the moon

As the name suggests, Orion StarBlast is a blast. For folks who want to explore astronomy without breaking the bank, this is a gem of an option. All too often I have heard the story of a family buying a “value” telescope only to drop it in frustration due to low quality hardware, difficulty of use, or disappointment in its visuals. This is a solution to all those challenges in a grab-and-go mini package. The aperture of smaller scopes is often the limiting factor, but this clocks in at a considerable 4.5 inches—not huge but nothing to sneeze at. The self-contained design makes it easy to tote around and eliminates the need for setup or takedown. Keep in mind it works best sitting on a picnic or camp table. If you are opposed to sitting on the ground or are less flexible, this will be an inconvenience. However, this no-fuss design is ideal for those who don’t want the hassle of setting up a bigger ’scope, or for a new observer who wants to learn the sky.

—BEST VALUE—

Orion SkyQuest XT8

Type: Reflector | Aperture: 8 in. | Movement: Manual | Best For: Viewing planetary features, comets, other objects in our solar system, deep sky objects

The granddaddy of the StarBlast, the SkyQuest is a telescope near and dear to my heart. Although it’s more than twice the price of the StarBlast, the 8-inch light collecting area is a massive shift upward in observation quality, unlocking much farther and fainter objects for the observer. The downsides are weight (it’s about 40 pounds) and size (the tube alone is 46 inches), so this isn’t a great telescope for carrying up a mountain or storing in a small apartment. For car camping, however, it does the job very well. Under a dark sky, the XT8 can reveal nebulae, Saturn’s rings, the moons of several planets—pretty much anything you can and will want to point it at. Without an onboard computer, you will be handling the aiming and tracking, but don’t panic. There is no better way to learn the night sky than with a simple and forgiving telescope like this one, along with a digital or analog star map.

—BIG APERTURE—

Sky-Watcher Flextube 250P SynScan

Type: Reflector | Aperture: 10 in. | Movement: Computerized | Best For: Observing deep sky objects, comets, planetary features, astrophotography

This family of telescopes is my No. 1 recommendation for folks that want to level-up their backyard astronomy. The manufacturer isn’t one of the big names in amateur astronomy, but the folks at Sky-Watcher have a great reputation and are accumulating tons of positive reviews with their Flextube design. This construction allows for huge ’scopes to pack down enough to fit in the backseat of a Honda Civic. They do take a bit of setting up but can still go from unloaded to aligning in about 15 to 20 minutes once you are familiar with it. With a massive light collector like this, coupled with transportability and go-to pointing software, this is a game changer in the world of big telescopes.

—BEST FOR ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY—

Orion ED80T CF

Type: Refractor | Aperture: 3.14 in. | Movement: Manual | Best For: Astrophotography, wide field imaging

This model is a long-standing classic and a workhorse for the amateur astrophotographers. Although it’s smaller than the other ’scopes on this list, the ED80T CF is optimized for taking photos with a separate imager—make sure you have a camera or CCD to make use of this telescope. The scope itself has a great price point, but don’t plan on opening the box and taking pictures. Aside from the camera, it will need a tracking mount, a tripod, and some astrophotographers would recommend a remote shutter control, a designated laptop, and a comfy camp chair (that one is a must, in my opinion). For someone who has been doing a fair amount of observing and is looking to cross over into the world of astrophotography, this telescope’s wide field of view and good quality optics make it an ideal and compact package to test those waters.

—COOLEST NEW THING—

Unistellar eQuinox

Type: Reflector | Aperture: 4.5 in. | Movement: Computerized | Best For: Tech heads and deep-sky observers

Nothing will ever replace the first time you put your eye to a telescope and see something celestial in a whole new way. But once you reach the limits of that model’s ability, many astronomers are ready to level up and see more. Enter the eQuinox. For an eyepiece-less telescope it sure does offer some impressive views. By digitally stacking images in an onboard computer and sending them to your Bluetooth-enabled phone or tablet, it allows for some stunning views more akin to the edited images most astrophotographers get after a few hours editing on a computer. Plus, you can share your observations for a chance to become part of some interesting citizen science projects (crowdsourced observations are pretty useful to some heavy hitters like the SETI Institute). If you’ve always wanted to impress your friends with some gorgeous deep sky objects and are willing to be patient with new technology and the error messages that might come with it, this might be a good option.

—POWER SUPPLY—

Celestron PowerTank Lithium

Best For: Powering telescopes and mounts

Power cells have had something of a massive leap in the past decade. I will not miss the days of hauling multiple 17-pound Celestron classic PowerTanks to every star party. Although I haven’t used the new 2.25-pound Lithium model yet, its specs look impressive. It boasts a 10-hour runtime with a far greater longevity, offering between two and five times as many charge-drain cycles compared to the previous generation. That means you won’t have to chuck it and buy a new one every three to five years. Luckily, it still has some red LEDs for when you inevitably drop something vital in the dark.

Don Melanson contributed to this article.

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