By Colin Rosemont
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Few things are as awe-inspiring as being out under a clear night sky, looking up, and gazing at a seemingly infinite array of stars overhead. So we gathered 10 telescopes, and after five months of star parties we think the Celestron NexStar 5SE is the best telescope for a curious amateur. It gathers enough light for you to view the best features of our solar system, and it gives you enough power to begin to explore deep-sky objects. In addition, this model has an electronic GPS database preloaded with almost 40,000 celestial objects, and after you calibrate the scope, it can scan the skies for you.
Our overall pick for the best amateur telescope, the Celestron NexStar 5SE is a Schmidt-Cassegrain scope, a design that uses both lenses and mirrors in a relatively compact package. It has a primary 5-inch mirror, which is big enough for a light-gathering capacity that yields crisp images of some of the best objects in our solar system, from Saturn’s rings to Jupiter’s cloud bands, and provides sufficient power to introduce you to objects in the deep sky.
This telescope operates on a fully computerized system and gives you a handheld controller to guide it. Instead of fumbling through the learning curve of reading star charts and aligning the telescope manually, you can align and focus your telescope on a myriad of celestial objects with the press of a button. Unlike with some of the NexStar 5SE’s competitors, this controller worked flawlessly in our tests, offering micro adjustments and responsive tracking with the attached controller system. The NexStar 5SE weighs 15 pounds, which is very portable relative to other options out there, so you should have no problem packing it up into a trunk and setting it up on location.
The Astronomers Without Borders OneSky Reflector Telescope offers the most scope for the money if you don’t want an electronic GPS function (meaning it won’t automatically find the specific celestial bodies you seek). One reason you may not want a manual telescope: You have to collimate (align) the telescope’s mirrors, which can be tedious or frustrating if you weren’t aware it had to be done. With that in mind, some of our experts told us they preferred (and even advised) learning the ins and outs of astronomy on a manual telescope, so if you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll become a smarter stargazer.
Like our top pick, this Newtonian-style reflector telescope has a 5-inch mirror, but it’s designed to sit on a tabletop rather than on a tripod, so it works best if you have a picnic table or other support to set it on. The mirrors expand and collapse, making this model even more amenable to storing indoors. We easily spotted Saturn’s rings and Jupiter and its moons with this model. Even better, free shipping is included.
The traditional Dobsonian telescope, a type of instrument sometimes referred to as a "light bucket," is all about light gathering, and the images we saw through the lens of the Sky-Watcher Traditional Dobsonian Telescope were awe-inspiring. The 8-inch mirror, which is what captures the light, is larger than that of our top pick, and that means crisper, clearer images and the ability to see fainter objects that are farther away. The trade-off is that this scope is huge: Loading it into a car or even moving it around the yard is a chore, so it’s best suited for folks who have a dedicated space for it at home.
Why you should trust us
I consulted numerous experts for guidance while I researched what makes the best telescope. I spoke with Daniel Mounsey, who works at Woodland Hills Camera & Telescopes, a retailer that’s known as telescope/binocular central for serious skywatchers and birders in Los Angeles. Mounsey has been a guest lecturer at astronomical trade shows and academic institutions, including Loyola Marymount University and El Camino College, and has taught astronomy at the Creative Minds Learning Center in Culver City, California. He has appeared in numerous astronomical publications, including Astronomy Magazine, Astronomy Technology Today, and Sky & Telescope. He also founded the Oak Canyon Astronomy Group, which hosts star parties every month of the year.
In addition, I spoke with Margaret McCrea, president of the Rose City Astronomers of Portland, Oregon, a nonprofit group that supports the public in pursuit of education and interests in astronomy, as well as with Greg Jones, another member of that organization and president of Eclipse Technologies.
Personally, I grew up around telescopes, and I’ve had a longtime interest in astronomy, but I still consider myself a beginner. My relative lack of expertise allowed me to get a fresh perspective on each telescope model we tested, flailing and making mistakes when setup instructions were not clear and learning to operate each telescope as though I were a complete novice—exactly the group we wanted to write this guide for.
Who this is for
These telescopes are for beginning astronomers, and designed to help you become familiar with the night sky. Using one of these scopes, you can start with a look at the moon, move on to the planets of our solar system, and then venture on to the "deep sky" to examine star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. We wanted to find scopes that had the appropriate range to start a new astronomer out and then keep them involved. We also limited our testing pool to telescopes that were about $700 or less: Once you start spending more, telescopes become more specialized, and if you’re at that stage you likely already know what specific features you’d like to spend that extra cash on.
How we picked
We spent over 20 hours scouring the Internet for every resource written about buying your first telescope. We went to the Rose City Astronomers telescope workshop in 2017, and we interviewed its members and the club’s president about the most common trials and tribulations they’ve witnessed when new sky watchers begin shifting their gazes upward. While in Los Angeles we stopped by the well-known Woodland Hills Camera & Telescope, as well as the Griffith Observatory to speak with the staff.
After interviewing our experts and reading through NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, Terence Dickinson’s quintessential reference, as well as taking advice from published sources at GeekWrapped, Space.com, Sky & Telescope, and the inner reaches of the Cloudy Nights forum, we had a pretty good sense of what we were looking for.
Aperture might be the most discussed component of a telescope. The aperture is the diameter of the telescope’s mirror or lens, and it determines how much light the telescope lets in and, in turn, how sharp the image appears.
These criteria can be said to correspond to the strength and power of the telescope. And yet, as Mounsey of Woodland Hills Camera & Telescopes and the Oak Canyon Astronomy Group warned us, one mistake that beginners make when choosing a telescope is thinking that bigger is always better when it comes to aperture. Bigger aperture most often means a higher price and a bulkier telescope.
As Mounsey stressed, the need for a bigger aperture depends on where you are viewing from and what you hope to see. If you are viewing super-dark skies with hopes of seeing deep-sky objects such as diffuse nebulae, planetary nebulae, open clusters, globular clusters, and galaxies of the Messier catalog, the "bigger aperture equals better vision" maxim holds true. Another concern: The "urban aperture" myth suggests that a larger-aperture telescope will collect excess light pollution in city environments, thus affecting performance. A larger aperture will in fact collect more starlight in any scenario, allowing you to view fainter objects. That said, larger apertures are more sensitive to heat currents and turbulent atmospheric conditions, and that can affect the image’s sharpness. For our testing pool we did not venture into the much larger 10-inch, 12-inch, or 14-plus-inch apertures, which are often so big and unwieldy as to deter many people from getting their telescope out and using it as much as possible.
Magnification is also a big consideration, and it’s determined by two things. First is the focal length, or the distance (in millimeters) between the telescope’s principal lens or mirror and the point where the light rays come together. The focal length is equal to the telescope’s focal ratio (f/number) multiplied by the diameter of the primary optic, or aperture. It is the focal length that is the primary factor in determining the telescope’s magnifying power.
More magnifying power does mean you can see tinier objects that are farther away, but it doesn’t necessarily mean better image quality. At lower magnifications the image you observe can appear bright and in good resolution, whereas at higher magnifications the same amount of light is dispersed over a larger area, resulting in a bigger but blurrier image. Think about the effect of blowing up an image on your phone or computer beyond its normal size. You don’t always get the best image quality.
The second key component of determining magnification is the telescope’s eyepiece. To figure out your telescope’s magnifying power, you have to divide the focal length of the telescope by the focal length of the eyepiece. If you put a 10mm eyepiece on a telescope with a 1000mm focal length, for example, your magnification power will be 100x.
You can determine a telescope’s magnification limits by multiplying the diameter (in millimeters) of the main lens or mirror by 2. So a 150mm telescope, for instance, would have a practical magnification limit of about 300x. As a general rule, the maximum amount of desired magnification for a telescope is 50x per inch of aperture. If you have our top pick, the Celestron NexStar 5SE, which boasts a 5-inch aperture, 250x is the highest magnification, or power, you should consider.
Lenses are another consideration. A Barlow lens comes as an accessory with several of the telescopes we tested. This auxiliary lens system fits between the telescope and the eyepiece, decreasing the eyepiece’s focal length and offering double or sometimes even triple the magnification of the image.
All of the telescopes we tested come with a 20mm or 25mm eyepiece. Most of the models we tried also come with a 10mm eyepiece. It may seem counterintuitive, but the 10mm eyepiece offers more magnification, producing an enlarged image and a smaller field of view.
A finder scope comes included with a telescope and is normally mounted on the telescope itself. Each finder scope has either a battery-operated red dot or a set of crosshairs to allow you to align and center an object in its sights. Aligning the finder scope before viewing through your telescope is an essential step that will help you locate what you’re looking for through the more powerful telescope.
Next, we learned about the different types of scopes. In a refractor telescope, light passes through the lens at the front and travels directly to a mirror at the back of the scope and then into the eyepiece. Through this type of telescope, you can view objects both in the sky and on earth, because the image is not inverted inside the telescope. The trade-off is that this type of telescope generally does not do as well with faint objects in the sky.
A reflector telescope uses two mirrors instead of a lens to gather and focus light. Such models typically allow for higher image quality of faint sky objects. On the downside, reflector telescopes can gather more dust and debris in their internal components and require a bit more maintenance. Dobsonian telescopes, a type of reflector model, are often referred to in astronomy circles as "light buckets."
A compound, or Schmidt-Cassegrain, telescope (sometimes referred to as a catadioptric or Cassegrain telescope for short) is a combination of two mirrors and one lens. These scopes are best for viewing faint objects and can also work for viewing objects on earth.
Finally, we familiarized ourselves with the mounts that scopes come on. An altazimuth mount, or alt-aziumth mount, is a simple system that moves both vertically ("altitude" motion up and down) and horizontally ("azimuth" motion side to side). This kind offers the best beginner experience, in ease of use and control of the scope. These mounts sometimes come with computer controls that will find objects in the sky for you.
Equatorial mounts are more complicated and must be aligned with the earth’s axis. Once you’ve done that, the scope tracks objects in the sky as they move. This design is especially useful for astrophotography, because it eliminates field rotation as it tracks the object through the night sky.
How we tested
We selected and evaluated 10 telescopes over the course of five months, giving each telescope its own test run under a clear city night sky in Portland, Oregon. This location proved best for viewing the brightest planets in the sky (Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), as well as for enjoying amazing views of the moon. On an especially clear night in Portland in early spring, we set up our fleet of telescopes to get great views of Jupiter and its moons, along with Saturn’s rings, in the early hours before sunrise. For a darker night sky, we brought the telescopes out for a star party in the high desert near Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon.
We timed how long we took to set up each telescope and have it ready for stargazing. Nobody wants to be discouraged by the technology before they even have the chance to position it outside, so ease of setup was a big factor in our assessment.
We also tested the stability and user-friendliness of each telescope’s mount. While we were out under the stars with a group of 12 onlookers, we had several people peek through each telescope’s eyepiece in quick succession. The slight bumps of the eyepiece that came with several people using each telescope keyed us in to which mounts were sturdy and which ones could not handle even the slightest shake without losing the image in its frame. Additionally, we took portability into account, considering size, weight, and packability for the average recreational observer.
We asked each person in our 12-person group out in the desert to rank (from one to 10) the relative clarity of the image and the brightness level of our top five contenders. To measure each telescope’s ease of use, we asked those people to operate each telescope, moving it back and forth between Jupiter and the moon, two relatively easily located objects in the night sky. We then averaged those numbers.
We tested three different computerized mounts, allowing for a side-by-side comparison of their functionality. A recurring word of advice from our interviewed experts: Figure out how to work your computerized system before you get out under the night sky! Using the technology can definitely involve a learning curve, so it is a good idea to dial it in while you’re in the comfort of your own backyard, before you go farther afield.
To test the telescopes’ optical quality, we followed the advice of Greg Jones, president of Eclipse Technologies and resident optics expert of the Rose City Astronomers club, in performing a Ronchi eyepiece test. Using a 35mm film canister and the Ronchi screen that Jones sent to us, we improvised a Ronchi eyepiece. After replacing the normal eyepiece with the Ronchi eyepiece fitted with the screen, we focused the telescopes on a bright star to see whether we observed a pattern of parallel lines on the object.
As expected, we observed lines that appeared relatively straight and parallel to the edge, rather than the warped lines that would indicate some type of aberration or distortion in the main optical unit. The majority of commercial telescopes nowadays are manufactured in China or Taiwan; the standardized manufacturing and testing methods those companies use ensure more consistent optical quality than in the past, as well as increasingly affordable prices.
Our pick: Celestron NexStar 5SE Telescope
The Celestron NexStar 5SE Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope is our top pick due to its all-around accessibility and ease of use. Its primary 5-inch mirror offers crisp, intimate views of the moon and bright planets, and provides an entry into views of distant galaxies and star clusters. This telescope operates on a fully computerized system with a handheld controller to guide the telescope across the sky. In contrast to our experience with some competing models, we found that this controller worked seamlessly, offering micro adjustments and responsive tracking with the attached controller system. The telescope and the included tripod together weigh about 27 pounds and easily disassemble into several portable pieces.
The NexStar 5SE is one in a series of telescopes from Celestron that also includes a 4SE, 6SE, 8SE, and so on, with the model numbers indicating the aperture size (in inches) of the main optical unit. We chose the 5SE as the best telescope for most beginners because of its size, functionality, and cost. We were looking for portability in a telescope, so we set aside the larger models, the 6SE and above. Then we set aside the 4SE model due to its more limited capacity to offer views of deep-sky objects. Although we would recommend upgrading to the NexStar 6SE if size is not much of an issue for you—an extra inch of aperture opens up more light-gathering potential and thus more viewing opportunities—we stand by the 5SE as the model that hits the sweet spot where performance and size meet.
Initially we had to decide whether to include these computerized models at all in our testing pool. When you’re shopping, the choice comes down to a question of personal philosophy and how you want to experience the stars. These new technologies will literally find things in the sky for you, making star charts and an internalized knowledge of the stars virtually obsolete. But what happens when that technology stops working for whatever reason? Are you still the expert you once thought you were? And do you really need a computerized telescope when star-finding applications are so readily available on a smartphone? These were all questions posed to us by the Rose City Astronomers, many of whom have gotten fed up more than once trying to help a beginner navigate their fancy tech-heavy telescope.
In the end, we found the technology to offer a true advantage for a beginner—these computerized mounts can help speed up the learning process and assist novices in navigating the endless sea of stars without their having to commit years of their lives to accumulating that kind of knowledge. (If you want to learn the old-fashioned way, a great way to involve the whole family is to get a copy of The Stars: A New Way to See Them, an astronomy how-to written by H.A. Rey, the creator of Curious George.)
The GPS features are built into the mount, not the telescope itself. When you enter information such as the date, the time, and the nearest city to your observing site, the NexStar 5SE offers up a database of nearly 40,000 nighttime objects. This database allows you to identify objects you see through the scope, as well as to instruct the telescope to find new objects. The Tour feature offers a list of the best objects to view tailored to your time and location anywhere in the world.
Besides offering an appealing collapsable size for transportation and storage, in our tests the NexStar 5SE excelled in its ease of setup and use. Along with an extensive user manual, the NexStar 5SE comes with an expedited and abridged setup manual replete with instructional photos intended to get you using your telescope as fast as possible. Using these friendly instructions, we had the telescope mounted and set up in under 15 minutes and were already playing with the SkyAlign telescope-alignment features.
The NexStar 5SE includes a 25mm eyepiece, which serves as the best starter eyepiece to expand upon later. It also comes with an ultra-sturdy steel tripod and allows for the attachment of the optical tube with no tools necessary. Although we don’t dive into the fast-growing possibilities of using your telescope for astrophotography in this guide, note that the NexStar 5SE’s tripod (and not that of the 6SE or the 8SE) includes a wedge for adjusting the mount and allowing for some tinkering in longer-exposure astrophotography. This telescope does take eight AA batteries, and those are not included.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The NexStar 5SE runs on eight AA batteries to power the mount. When the mount is in use, these batteries drain fast, offering an average of only two to four hours of power. If you’re out for an entire evening, the mount can eat through your battery supply. It is common practice, however, to use batteries in the NexStar telescope as a backup to an external battery-power source so that the scope’s operation will not be interrupted.
When using your NexStar at home or near a wall power outlet, consider investing in an AC adapter, like this one from Celestron. If you’re out at a remote location, you could draw power from your car battery and a portable 12 V DC power supply. Celestron also sells an accessory called a Power Tank for use in the field, but we haven’t tested it ourselves.
Budget pick: Astronomers Without Borders OneSky Reflector Telescope
Finding a high-quality telescope on a budget can be hard, so when we kept hearing about the Astronomers Without Borders OneSky Reflector Telescope (manufactured by Celestron), which comes in at under $200, we had to give it a try. This telescope is manufactured especially for sale by the nonprofit organization Astronomers Without Borders, whose profits go toward expanding astronomical scientific educational programming in underserved countries around the world. During our tests, this model not only excelled in image quality, providing great views of Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons, and faint detail in the spiral arms of the Andromeda galaxy, but also offered the best mix of portability and ease of assembly and use for its price.
When you’re looking for a telescope on a budget, it is important to consider potential flaws such as poor optics, shaky mounts, substandard eyepieces, and faulty finder scopes. We vetted the OneSky for all of these common issues, and it passed our examination with flying colors.
The OneSky is easily portable. The optical truss tube assembly collapses from its 24-inch viewing length to 14 inches, and it weighs only 14 pounds. The tabletop Dobsonian mount, a simplified alt-azimuth mount, is steady and smooth, and it works well when the OneSky telescope is sitting on a table or some other solid platform. This swiveling mount has an integrated handle for easy carrying, and in our experience it proved reasonably stable and smooth when we searched for objects in the night sky.
The OneSky comes with both a 10mm eyepiece and a 25mm eyepiece for a range of viewing magnifications. For the price, this starter telescope has a dynamic range that can really get you exploring everything from the moon to some deep-sky objects. We found that out of the box the OneSky needed collimation (alignment of the telescope mirrors). With the help of online forums to complete the collimation, you can be ready to go.
Also great: Sky-Watcher Traditional Dobsonian Telescope (8-inch)
The Sky-Watcher Traditional Dobsonian Telescope (8-inch) is another great choice. The upgrade it provides in light-gathering capacity, however, comes with the caveat that next to our Astronomers Without Borders budget pick, this Sky-Watcher Dobsonian model is substantially larger, weighing about 60 pounds including the scope and base. It ships in two boxes, one housing the tubular scope and the other containing the unassembled swiveling base. We had this telescope fully assembled and ready to go in under an hour, which, compared with the process for some other Dobsonians, proved to be quite fast.
This telescope fits the category that experts most often suggest for beginners looking to get the most bang for their buck. Also referred to as "light buckets," Dobsonian models offer exceptional image quality and light-gathering capability for the price. For our tests, we were able to transport two 8-inch Dobsonians in the back of a Subaru hatchback, but we imagine that a single Dobsonian could fit in the majority of cars with some ingenuity on your part. That being said, don’t expect to just throw this telescope in your trunk and head out with a bunch of friends to do some stargazing. This telescope works best for backyard or "sidewalk" viewing, where minimal transportation is required.
As with our Astronomers Without Borders budget pick, this Sky-Watcher Dobsonian does not come with any computerized components to assist in locating and tracking stars in the sky.
For a beginner the absence of such a system can be either a blessing or a curse. When we interviewed Greg Jones, president of Eclipse Technologies and member of the Rose City Astronomers, he stated, "People will generally use [manual] telescopes a lot more than computerized models… Every star-viewing event, people show up with their computerized mounts wondering how to use them and needing help." The superb optics of this pick from Sky-Watcher will work best for people who want a taste of a high-powered scope but don’t need or want the hassle of a computerized mount.
Celestron Astro Fi 130 mm Newtonian: This new telescope from Celestron offers some neat technological features, as it emits its own Wi-Fi signal and allows you to control the mount using an application on your smartphone or tablet. We really wanted to like this smart-tech interface, but delays and glitches in the connection thwarted our repeated attempts at smooth operation, causing more frustration than we thought this tech was worth. We also found the tripod to be considerably flimsier than that of our top choice.
Orion SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope Dobsonian: While this large 8-inch Dobsonian telescope offered great views of faint galaxies and nebulae in our tests, its time-intensive setup and many moving parts made it feel less accessible and portable than our top pick. Although it offers a computer database of more than 14,000 objects, this telescope instructs you to position the scope manually instead of moving on a motorized system. This method has its pros and cons, but we’d like the accessibility of motorized mounts if we’re going for GPS functions.
Celestron Inspire 80AZ Refractor: Although this straightforward and easily assembled refractor telescope offered good views of the planets in our tests, with an 80mm aperture, it couldn’t compare to the 5-inch aperture and image quality of our budget pick.
Sky-Watcher Virtuoso: This model is intended to excel at tracking objects in the sky throughout their trajectory, making it suitable for people venturing into astrophotography. But it comes with a difficult learning curve, and it fits a niche segment that is not beginner-friendly.
Levenhuk Strike 90 Plus: This 90mm refractor telescope, while classic in its design, comes with a mount and tripod that produced more shakiness than our budget pick in our tests. We also had trouble getting the included counterweight to control the telescope’s position effectively.
Orion SkyScanner 100mm TableTop Reflector: While we were impressed with the image quality from such a mini Dobsonian, the SkyScanner did not feel as grab-and-go as another Orion model we tested, the kid-friendly GoScope, a refractor scope ideal for casual viewing. The SkyScanner offered better planetary viewing than the kids scope, but when it came to whipping the Orion GoScope out of its specially designed backpack and pointing it at the moon, it really took the cake.
Care and maintenance
Take care of your telescope, and your equipment will serve you well for years. Dust or moisture can build up on the lens or mirror depending on what type of telescope you have. The traditional method for cleaning the lens or mirror is to brush lightly with a camel-hair brush. You can find such brushes in camera shops; their soft bristles will do the least damage in scraping the optical unit. Alternatively you can use a can of pressurized air to spray the glass surface to remove any excess dust particles. If your optical unit is in need of a deep cleaning, you can apply an optical-cleaning solution to remove debris. To minimize the need to clean your telescope, put all lens covers back on once you have finished using it.
That said, the best telescope for you is the one that you use the most out in the field. Dirt will inevitably accumulate in small amounts on your telescope lens and mirrors. You can have quite a bit of dust and crud build up with very little noticeable effect on your viewing experience.
In addition, don’t leave your telescope out and exposed to the elements for any length of time. Avoid inclement weather, and don’t leave it in the heat of your car. We suggest storing your telescope in a safe place inside where it is least susceptible to moisture, dust buildup, and bumps from a child or pet.
A few words of advice
People in the amateur astronomy community are generally very welcoming and willing to share their expertise with newcomers who are just starting out. Getting involved with your local astronomy club and attending its organized star-viewing parties can be a great way to get to know like-minded people and hear some advice about telescopes from seasoned veterans.
Observing the try-before-you-buy maxim, although sometimes an unrealistic goal, can be a good way to make sure you’re purchasing the right telescope for your needs and tastes. As Margaret McCrea, president of the Rose City Astronomers club, emphasized to us, "Telescopes are scientific instruments and not toys. My advice is to go to your local astronomy club and look through other people’s telescopes first to get a better idea of what kind of models are out there and what best meet your individual needs. Another question you need to have answered for yourself is, what do you want to look at? Buying a telescope right off the bat is like buying a set of golf clubs before ever playing the game."
By far the most accessible of stargazing instruments is a good pair of binoculars. We tested the Celestron SkyMaster 15×70 Binoculars and found that they appealed to people looking for the easiest way to catch a glimpse of the night sky (you’ll likely need a tripod to hold them steady). If you’re interested in really learning the stars but not quite ready to invest in a serious telescope, and you don’t want to spend your money on a cheaper model, we suggest these binoculars as a great point of entry. (For more on the topic, our binocular guide is here, though it concentrates on models with 10x magnification—great for viewing far-off critters, but not far-off stars.)
Spending long nights outside under the stars comes with an element of intensity. Since we did our testing up in the Pacific Northwest, we were very attuned to the frigid winter nights and the cloud cover that often swept in and obscured our views. So depending on where you are in the world, if you intend to spend the requisite nighttime hours to get a grasp on what is above you, be prepared with warm clothes, snacks, and a firm resolve. We suggest investing in a red flashlight or a headlamp with that function so as not to affect your hard-earned night vision or that of your viewing partners. And although it might be tempting, here’s a friendly reminder not to look through your telescope into the sun.
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