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This page last modified 2017 November 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, some of which 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 retailer. If a retailer seems to be offering goods very much cheaper than others, check that these are not "grey" imports. If they are, they are unlikely to have a UK warranty. Grey importers also take business away from reputable retailers; you may wish to consider whether this is something you want to support.

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, the Orion Short Tube 80 is the same telescope, manufactured by the Chinese company Synta, as the Celestron Firstscope 80 EQ WA, the Helios StarTravel 80 and the Skywatcher StarTravel 80. Nowadays, almost all of the telescopes that are intended 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 like department stores and camera shops. 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.



Telescope and Mount Types

Refractors

Skywatcher Evostar 120




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

Skywatcher Explorer 150P




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

Celestron C6




"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

Celestron Astromaster




"Altaz" mounts are the simplest mounts; they are therefore the least expensive. They 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

Skywatcher Skyliner 200P Dobsonian




"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

Skywatcher EQ3-2 Deluxe




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 £100

Skywatcher Heritage 100P

Skywatcher Heritage 100




This is a table-top mounted Dobsonian. It is very portable and easy to set up. However, it does suffer from an awkward finder position unless you are very short (which makes it more suitable for children) and, of course, requires a sturdy table. BEST BUY for a child's first telescope under £100.

Skywatcher StarTravel-80

Skywatcher 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. If you upgrade later, it still makes a useful travel scope or guidescope for astrophotography. In this guise, it is the BEST BUY for under £100.

Second hand. (see above)

Binoculars are often a better bet in this price range. 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.


£100 - £200

Skywatcher SkyMax 90, unmounted

Skywatcher SkyMax 90




Extremely good for the Moon, planets and double stars. Worth considering only if you already have a sturdy photographic tripod or other suitable mount to put it on.

Skywatcher Heritage-130p Flextube

Skywatcher Heritage 130P Flextube




Possibly the nearest thing to a perfect beginner telescope. It has a decent light grasp, and a clever design that makes it very compact and, therefore, portable. It is quick and easy to set up, but requires a sturdy table or similar support. BEST BUY for under £150.


£200 - £300

Skywatcher Evostar 90 (EQ3-2)

Skywatcher 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. The mount can be upgraded with motors and computerised GOTO. BEST BUY at under £250

Skywatcher Skyliner 200P Dobsonian

Skywatcher 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



£300 - £450

Skywatcher Explorer 130P SynScan AZ GOTO

Skywatcher Explorer 130P SynScan AZ GOTO




Probably the cheapest computerised telescope worth getting. Reasonably good mount, and a decent aperture to get you started.

Skywatcher Skymax 127 EQ3-2

Skywatcher Skymax 127 EQ3-2




This is a very nice telescope and the mount is good for visual observation. The mount can be upgraded with motors and computerised GOTO. BEST BUY at under £450


Over £450

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 often 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.