If you've ever tried to take up astronomy but given up out of frustration, or gotten overwhelmed before you've even started, you're not alone. As with many hobbies, getting off on the right start is all-important, and can make the difference between fleeting interest or a potential lifelong passion.
The first piece of advice you'll get if you ask an astronomer what telescope to buy is this: Wait just a second. Telescopes require knowledge, patience, and a major investment, so you don't want to get ahead of yourself. Instead, get a pair of binoculars first.
A good pair of binoculars will let you see a lot more than you might expect, including Jupiter and its moons and even faraway places like the Orion Nebula and distant galaxies. Not only are binoculars considerably cheaper than a decent telescope, but you can use them for another hobby like birding, or other outdoor sporting activities.
For backyard astronomy, most people recommend a 7x50 or 10x50 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.
The second piece of advice you're likely to get is to join a local astronomy club, where you can learn some of the basics and try out different types of telescopes before taking the plunge. Sky & Telescope has an extensive directory of local clubs.
Your First Telescope
If you're really ready for some serious stargazing, then you should know there are some telescopes that will get you off to a faster start than others, and some general things to keep in mind when shopping for one.
The closest you'll find to a consensus pick for the best inexpensive telescope is the Astronomers Without Borders OneSky 130, a reflector telescope with a 5-inch aperture that costs just $200. Sky & Telescope found it to be "the best bang-for-the-buck beginner's scope" and one that "manages to get all the big-picture stuff right," while Space.com said "it's the best telescope value we have seen at any price." It conveniently collapses down to a compact size and sits on a table instead of a tripod, if space is tight.
What's more, about half of that $200 goes to fund the telescope's namesake organization that promotes astronomy around the world. One downside: It's available only in the U.S. directly from Astronomers Without Borders, which can lead to backorders. If you're outside the US, though, the SkyWatcher Heritage 130 is essentially the same telescope and about the same price.
Another popular choice that runs about twice as much is the Celestron NexStar 130SLT. Like the OneSky, this is a reflector telescope with a 5-inch aperture, but the Celestron has the added benefit of computerized or "go-to" controls that help you find objects in the night sky. This will get you off and running much faster than if you had to learn the skill of finding celestial objects and pointing the telescope; just tell the NexStar 130SLT you want to see Jupiter and it brings the planet into view. In his review, Ian Morison of the Jodrell Bank Observatory said that "apart from a few minor caveats, this scope performed better than I ever expected." If computerized controls aren't a top concern, however, the Orion SkyQuest XT8 Dobsonian telescope (or newer XT8 Plus model) will give you a larger aperture in the same price range.
The next step you could take would be to a telescope like the Celestron NexStar 6 SE, a compound Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a 6-inch aperture-or, better still, the 8-inch NexStar 8 SE. A compound telescope uses a combination of lenses and mirrors to make it considerably more compact than a reflector (among other advantages), but these scopes don't come cheap. The 6 SE will set you back $800, while going all out for the 8 SE will push the price tag up yet another $400 to $1,200.
If you're looking for a really inexpensive option that isn't a pair of binoculars, the $50 Celestron FirstScope is worth a look. It's also a reflector telescope, albeit a decidedly barebones one with just a 76mm aperture. Kevin Kelley recommends it highly in his Cool Tools review-although, as he notes, you'll probably want to spend a bit extra on a better eyepiece to get the most out of it.
Otherwise, steer clear of any telescopes under about $200, especially department store fare that tout their magnification capabilities above all else. As "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait explains it, a cheap telescope is a "sure-fire way to grind someone's enthusiasm into the ground."
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