Choosing a First Astronomical Telescope
The recent revival of interest in amateur astronomy has led to a bewildering
variety of telescopes on the market, and an increasing number of retailers, many
of whom are primarily interested in taking your money. It is easy for a newcomer
to be bamboozled by the advertising hype and to spend money upon something that
begs to be replaced after a very short time. It is best to purchase from a
knowledgeable and reputable dealer.
There is no such thing as a "perfect starter scope". The one that is right for you depends upon a number of considerations. For this reason, it would be a good idea to try things out before you buy. Many Astronomical Societies hold field meetings (aka observing evenings) where newcomers can try out different kit and get advice from experienced astronomers. At the very least, you should see if you can find a review of your intended purchase.
Caveat. What follows, especially the BEST BUY, recommendations, represents my opinions, which are formed by my own prejudices. Briefly, these are that decent optics and accessories on a sturdy mount are worth a great deal more than attractive computerised kit that is under-mounted and comes with bottom-of-the-range accessories. Other people have different opinions. Solicit them, either passively from reviews, or actively from experienced amateur astronomers, either in person or on internet forums and mailing lists The prices (and therefore relative prices of various options) are those in the UK .
Factors to Consider
- Budget. This will possibly be the most important constraint for a beginner. At, say, £200 you are much more limited for choice for a good scope than at, say, £1500.
- Portability. If you've got to lug it down 3 flights of stairs in order to observe, this is going to be a very important factor! If you will need to transport the telescope to a dark site, make sure that you can easily get it in and out of the vehicle. Tight fits are no fun in the dark.
- Ease of set-up. By definition, a telescope that is not used is useless. If your telescope is difficult to set up (often in the dark), it will get less use than one that is easy to set up.
- Upgradeability. Do you want a telescope that is upgradeable when you become more experienced and/or have more funds available?
- Astro targets of interest. The requirements for observing detail on the Moon and bright planets are different to those for detecting faint fuzzies.
- Astrophotography. If you want to attempt anything other than very short exposures, you will need a good equatorial mount with an RA drive at the very least.
I give more detailed advice on this in my book AstroFAQs
Who Makes Them?
A frequent question is "What is a good brand name?" Frequently a telescope from a manufacturer is branded by different companies, but is essentially the same telescope in different "livery"; in such circumstances, one cannot recommend one brand over another. For example, I acquired an Orion Short Tube 80 (without a mount) for my son. This same telescope, manufactured by the Chinese company Synta, is also sold (mounted on a small equatorial) in the UK as the Celestron Firstscope 80 EQ WA, the Helios StarTravel 80 and the Skywatcher StarTravel 80. Most of the telescopes that are targeted at beginners are of Far Eastern — usually Chinese or Taiwanese — manufacture, including those from the US "big three" (Celestron, Meade and Orion) and those (e.g. Tasco, Bushnell) that are usually distributed through non-specialist retailers. The quality of these telescopes is variable; within the same model there is often a range of quality, hence it is impossible to categorise such telescopes as "good" or "bad". However, in the last few years improvements in the manufacturing processes have resulted in a general increase in quality and consistency and these instruments can offer excellent value for money.
There are three main exceptions to this Far Eastern origin:
- Orion Optics UK. (Not to be confused with the US company Orion Telescopes and Binoculars). Now the biggest UK telescope manufacturer. Some telescopes in the Europa series are aimed at the top end of the beginner's market, as is their GEM-mounted OMC140. Orion scopes have a good reputation in the UK.
- Beacon Hill Telescopes. Another UK manufacturer whose smaller Dobsonian telescopes are suitable for beginners. They tend to be made more for looking through than for looking at (i.e. functional as opposed to pretty).
- Novosibirsk. This is a Russian company that makes telescopes that are sold in the UK under the brand names of TAL and Siberia. These are typically very robust telescopes, with good optics, that come with a lot of accessories as standard.
Telescope and Mount Types
These are what most people immediately call to mind when they hear the word "telescope"; they have lenses at the front. Good refractors give superb images, but they are expensive to make, especially in large sizes, because they use exotic glass. They need very little maintenance. They are usually preferred for observing the planets and Moon.
Newtonians can be made inexpensively because they have only two optical surfaces and do not need special glass. They give you the most aperture for your expenditure, and so are preferred for visual observation of the deep sky. However, they have a tendency to go out of alignment (lose collimation), so you will need to learn how to collimate them.
"Cats" are good multi-purpose instruments. The folded light-path makes them more compact than Newtonians or refractors. They are more expensive than equivalent-sized Newtonian, but less expensive than the equivalent-sized refractor. Like refractors, they need little maintenance.
Altazimuth (AZ) Mounts
"Altaz" mounts are the simplest mounts; they are therefore the least expensive. Tyhe move up and down (altitude), and side-to side (azimuth). To track an object, both motions must be used. They suffer from image rotation, so they are difficult to use for long-exposure astro-imaging.
"Dobs" are simple altazimuth mounts that are held together by gravity. They are usually used to mount Newtonian reflectors. "Dobs" make excellent first telescopes, owing to their simplicity and the fact that they give you the most aperture for your expenditure.
Equatorial mounts can track an object using only one motion and so are the preferred option for lunar and planetary observations, where high magnifications are typical. They need to be accurately aligned to do this; this takes time unless it is permanently installed in an observatory. They do not suffer from image rotation, so are the simplest mount for long-exposure astro-imaging.
This makes no pretence to be a definitive list of good telescopes. It
represents my opinion of good value-for-money telescopes in each price range.
There are almost certainly good buys that I have omitted owing to my ignorance
of them. With new models being introduced all the time and with prices
fluctuating, it is inevitable that this list will become out of date in some
respects — so check the date at the top of the page.
First, there are some general "rules":
- Astronomers use telescopes primarily to gather more light. This requires aperture, not magnification. Always be suspicious if a vendor emphasises the magnification. Exercise extreme caution if the vendor advertises magnification that exceeds x50 per inch of aperture.
- Consider a binocular. Yes, I know you want a telescope, but a binocular is merely two telescopes mounted in tandem. There are some very good binoculars available in in each of the price ranges below. These give you more pleasure and less frustration than you will get from a bad telescope. Most serious amateur astronomers frequently use a binocular as well as a telescope. For the last decade or so, I have been using 100mm binoculars in preference to telescopes.
- The combination of good optics and a poor mount will perform poorly. A shaky mount with motion that is not silky-smooth will soon become infuriating. The not-very-old adage was that the mount should cost at least as much as the telescope; the older one was that it should cost twice as much!
- Don't skimp on eyepieces. Many telescopes are sold without them, so you should allow for them in your budget. They are part of the optical system and need to be of quality that is at least as good as the rest of it.
- Consider buying second-hand — you can get good second-hand kit at extremely good prices. See the adverts in AstroClassifieds or UK-Astronomy Buy-Sell, or the classified ads in Astronomy Now.
- Lastly, and possibly most importantly, an astronomical telescope should be a precision scientific instrument and not a toy, an ornament, or a fashion accessory. Choose your telescope, and your supplier, with this in mind.
- Sky-Watcher StarTravel-80. An extremely portable scope that is excellent value for money. It excels at observation of open clusters and is acceptably good for the Moon and bright planets. If you have a decent photographic tripod, it is worth getting this telescope as the OTA (optical tube assembly) only option. In this guise, it is the BEST BUY for under £100.
- Sky-Watcher SkyHawk-1145. This is a 114mm f/4.4 reflector with good optics. It is slightly under-mounted, but is still exceptional value for money. BEST BUY at under £150
- Sky-Watcher SkyMax 90, unmounted. Worth considering only if you already have as sturdy photographic tripod or other suitable mount to put it on.
- Second hand. (see above)
- Build Your Own. It's not as difficult as you may think. If you want to investigate that possibility, click here.
- Binoculars. My guide to choosing a first binocular for astronomy is here.
- There is a lot of rubbish in this price range. Most of it is on insubstantial mounts and comes with atrocious accessories. If this is your budget and you are tempted by something else, check out the tutorial on evaluating telescopes before you buy. If you already have one, check out my tutorial on upgrading them.
£200 - £300
- Sky-Watcher Evostar 90 (EQ3-2). Good optics on a mount that is suitable for the telescope. This is possibly the best beginner option for a lunar and planetary telescope. BEST BUY at under £250
- Sky-Watcher Skyliner 200P Dobsonian. Basic but good; has the greatest aperture in this price range. Possibly the best option for an all-round starter scope, especially if your interest is the Deep Sky. BEST BUY at under £300
- The Skywatcher Skymax 102 (Maksutov-Cassegrain) is a good performer but is a bit under-mounted mounted. Better for planetary and lunar than the 80mm StarTravel above. Both are good value ultra-portable telescopes.
- Skywatcher Explorer 130P SynScan AZ GOTO Probably the cheapest computerised telescope worth getting.
- 70mm Binoculars from the Helios Apollo series. These are of very good quality.
£300 - £500
- Sky-Watcher Skymax 127 EQ3-2. This is a very nice telescope and the mount is good for visual observation. BEST BUY at under £400
- TAL-150P equatorial reflector. Very sturdy with in impressive range of good quality accessories of accessories. The only telescope in this price range that has a good finderscope as standard kit.
- 8" (or larger) Beacon Hill Dob. Can be upgraded later to an equatorially mounted scope.
- 85mm Binoculars of the Helios Apollo series. These are of very good quality.
Possibly not a wise amount to spend on a "starter" telescope unless you have tried it out and are convinced that you want it. At this price, it is best to choose the telescope, the mount, the eyepieces and the other accessories separately, in order to meet your specific requirements.
The following are retailers of "starter scopes" from whom I have purchased astronomical equipment within the last few years, and from whom I would do so again, i.e. those whom I can recommend from my recent personal experience. The absence of a retailer from this list does not imply that it is not reputable; the absence may be due to my not having purchased anything from that retailer.
There are reviews of telescopes and other astro kit at:
Internet Forums and Mailing Lists
The following are useful sources of information on intended purchases.
Remember to get more than one opinion — there is a lot of information and
opinion on the internet, and some of it is rubbish! However, an advantage of
Usenet newsgroups and Internet mailing lists is that there is an element of
peer-review in that fallacious statements and unsupportable opinions will be
challenged — for this reason it is advisable to verify the information you
receive in any private replies that people send you.
- Internet Forums: The largest of these in the UK is Stargazer's Lounge. It has Beginners and Equipment sections where you may solicit a variety of opinions.
- Mailing Lists: There are many at Yahoogroups,
some general, such as the [telescopes] list, some slightly more focused, such as
the [sct-user] list, and some concentrating on a particular telescope, such as
the [80f5] list. To subscribe to a Yahoogroups mailing list, either do it on
the web site or send a blank email (without the square brackets), from the
address where you want the list mail to be sent, to[groupname]-firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe to [telescopes]
Subscribe to [sct-user]
Subscribe to [80f5]
Subscribe to [telescopesuk]
- You could also consult the
FAQ; it's very US-oriented, but still useful.