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, 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
- 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 deep sky objects.
- Astrophotography. If you want to attempt anything other than very short exposures, you will need a good motorised equatorial mount 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, 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
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 UK-Astronomy Buy-Sell, or the classified ads in Stargazers Lounge.
- 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.
|Skywatcher Heritage 100P
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.
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
£200 - £300
£300 - £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.|
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]-email@example.com.
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.