A reflector gathers light with a mirror at the end of a tube, and diverts the light out the side of the front of the tube. Reflectors are, inch for inch, the most cost-effective telescopes you can buy, and are popular among observers who want to hunt down elusive, dim galaxies. It is hard to go wrong these days when shopping for a reflector. The market is filled with good products; the trick is to find the right one for your needs.
Among the budget models, try the Orion 4.5” StarBlast ($249). This is the same model you will find in hundreds of libraries across the country. If your budget is zero but you want to get started in astronomy, see if your library has one you can check out. Astronomers Without Borders (founded by AGT co-owner Mike Simmons) has a OneSky telescope ($199) in the same category. A third option is the Orion SkyQuest XT4.5 ($229). All will do the job of getting you started, but all share a common problem – they are too low to the ground for an adult. It can be a challenge to find something sturdy enough to set them on. On the other hand, their low height is often ideal for a small child.
If you can stretch your budget, a 6” or 8” Dobsonian reflector (a telescope mounted on a simple up-down-left-right base) will be more useful to you in the long run. In the past, many reflectors were mounted on German equatorial mounts, which tilt the telescope up in the air for easy tracking. These days, however, the trend has been towards these Dobsonian mounts.
For decades, the market leader has been the Orion XT series. The 6” XT6 (~$300) and 8” XT8 (~$400) are the ideal balance of aperture, portability, and price. The price will vary a bit depending on the options you select. There are similar models from Apertura, Zhumell, and Sky-Watcher. Check all these brands for the best deals before buying. An 8” reflector is simple and cheap, and will teach you a lot. Not only is this size a great choice for a first telescope, but it can keep you busy for a long time, possibly forever.
Above the 8” class of reflector, you start getting into “light bucket” territory. You can start to see deeper, dimmer objects. One caution is that once “aperture fever” hits, you often cannot get enough. The end result is often a large behemoth of a telescope that sits in the garage and never gets used. Remember that a 6” telescope will show you more than a 12”, if you use it more.
With that caution in mind, there are some larger models worth considering. Orion, Apertura, Sky-Watcher, Meade, Zhumell and others make Dobsonian reflectors in the 10” to 12” range ($700-$1200, depending on options). Note that if you have been following this article series, you can buy a 12” reflector for the price of a 3” apochromatic refractor.
Once you get past the 12” class of telescope, you are officially in light bucket territory. Large reflectors are often too unwieldy to move and align by hand, so some models come equipped with computerized motors to help the observer.
Now, get out there and do some observing!