This article is part of a three part series, don't miss out:Part 1: What’s the Best Telescope?
Part 2: Making the Choice
Part 3: Our Recommendations (2022)
Once you have become familiar with the sky and have been enticed by the views through other peoples’ telescopes, you will want your own. So what to buy?
What to Budget For
Once you are ready to buy a telescope, how much should you expect to spend? We have surveyed the marketplace and found that to get a telescope with the desirable combination of sharp and bright optics on a steady mount, you should expect to spend at least $250 to $300. Anything less is often a plastic and flimsy toy.
Refractor vs Reflector Optics
Telescopes come in two main varieties: “refractors” that use a lens to collect and focus light; and “reflectors” that use a mirror. Reflectors generally offer more aperture (the most important specification – see Part One) for the money. But refractors can provide sharp images, and be more portable and maintenance-free.
The most common type of reflector is called a Newtonian, because the optical design was invented the 17th century by none other than Sir Isaac Newton.
Hybrid models invented in the 20th century called Maksutov- and Schmidt-Cassegrains (from brands such as Celestron and Meade) employ a combination of a mirror and corrective front lens for a reflector variation that is more compact than a Newtonian, but more expensive.
No one type of telescope is best. Each has its advantages.
The All-Important Mount
A sturdy mount with smooth motions is essential for finding objects and keeping them steady at high power.
Telescopes come on mounts with two motions: up-down (or north-south) and left-right (or east-west). The mount might be on a metal tripod or a wooden stand. The simple but solid wood mount called a Dobsonian (named for astronomer John Dobson who popularized the design) is often used for Newtonian reflectors. “Dobs” provide by far the best value in a telescope, but most require that you find and follow targets.
Tracking vs Non-Tracking Mounts
Mounts come in two main varieties: ones that have motors to track the sky as it turns from east to west, and ones that require you to keep nudging the scope every minute or so to follow targets and keep them in view.
The latter type might seem inconvenient, but they are less expensive, great for those on a budget, and they provide more telescope for the money, good for those seeking the best value.
Many telescopes come with computerized motors that when set up properly (they must be aimed first at two or three bright stars to align their computers), they can automatically turn or “Go To” targets selected from their hand controller menus, or with a mobile app. Telescopes with this technology can locate many objects that would otherwise be hard to find.
But a GoTo scope costs more than a non-tracking scope of the same aperture. Or to stay within a budget, having GoTo means sacrificing aperture.
For example, fully motorized GoTo telescopes start at $850 for the Celestron NextStar 4SE, a 4-inch (100mm) Maksutov-Cassegrain. For the same cost you can get an 8-inch (200mm) reflector on a solid, but non-tracking, Dobsonian mount.
The Affordable StarSense Alternative
However, Celestron’s revolutionary StarSense telescopes offer computerized pointing at a very affordable price, because you supply the computer – your phone. A special StarSense app shows you where to aim the telescope to centre targets. StarSense scopes do not have GoTo motors or tracking, but they do make it easy, fun and affordable to locate many targets you might otherwise never see.
Buying For a Child
The telescope should be simple to use, but still provide views that will continue to wow the budding young astronomer long after the novelty of the first night out.
We’ve found the Celestron StarSense LT80 AZ ($300) a great choice. It’s an 80mm (3.1-inch) refractor with sharp optics and an easy-to-use non-tracking mount, but with the bonus of computerized finding. It has the great benefit of looking like what a child (and many adults!) expect a telescope to look like, and it comes in an attractive box (below) for an exciting gift-opening experience.
Reflector telescopes like the Sky-Watcher Heritage 130 ($340) offer more aperture for the money, with simple Dobsonian mounts easy for a child to set up on a sturdy table.
Taking photos WITH A TELESCOPE
Many first-time buyers want to take images through their new telescope. It is possible, but with limitations. The Moon is fun to capture, using a phone camera on any telescope, as shown.
But images of colourful nebulas and galaxies that many newcomers are after require specialized gear. See our tutorials on Astrophotography for tips on getting started in capturing the night sky.
To Learn More
For more detailed recommendations of telescope models, see Buying Your First Telescope — Part Three: Our Recommendations.For an excellent introduction to the hobby with practical star charts to use outside, we recommend Terence Dickinson’s book NightWatch. We include it with the Observer’s Packages we recommend adding to many telescopes.