This page last modified 2012 December 17

Choosing a First Astronomical Telescope

For choosing a basic set of eyepieces, click here (opens in a new tab).
For choosing binoculars for astronomy, click here (opens in a new tab).

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

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:



Telescope and Mount Types

Refractors

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.

Reflectors

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.

Catadioptrics

"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.

Dobsonian Mounts

"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

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.



Which Telescope?

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":


Under £200


£200 - £300



£300 - £500


Over £500

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.

Telescope Retailers

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.

Reviews

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.