If you are in the market for a fine first telescope, here are tips I think most veteran stargazers would agree are wise guidelines to follow. They will help you get the best value for your money, rather than a telescope that never gets used again after a disappointing first night out.
TIP 1: Don’t Buy a Telescope!
You buy a telescope and excitedly set it up. Now what are you going to look at? The Moon is easy to find and spectacular! But after that? Do you know where the planets are?
Even if you buy that promises to find celestial wonders for you, getting it going often requires that you correctly identify bright stars. Telescopes that can auto-align without you “having to know a star in the sky” can still leave you lost in space, wondering what to look at. Do you know what a Messier object is? And which ones are best to look at?
Getting the most out of any telescope requires you have a basic familiarity with the sky. You’re ready for a telescope when: 1) You can identify the brightest stars by name, 2) Find the major planets, and 3) Point to the main constellations, and 4) to the locations of popular targets such as the Andromeda Galaxy and Orion Nebula.
That pre-requisite “Astro 101” knowledge comes from first spending a few months exploring the sky with a simple star chart, guidebook, and binoculars. Don’t spend money; spend time. That’s true whether you are buying for yourself or for a child. Help them (and you!) learn the sky first in family stargazing sessions under the stars. Discover the sky together.
Lured by images from Hubble and NASA planet probes, and by colorful photos taken by amateur astronomers that grace social media, many buyers expect that’s what they’ll see in the eyepiece of a telescope. Sorry!
Planets will be small, and distant objects such as galaxies and glowing nebulas will all be colorless. Even with the aid of a telescope, such deep-sky objects are not bright enough to excite the color receptors in your eye.
To discover what a telescope can show, seek out a star party staged by a local astronomy club, planetarium, or observatory. You might be impressed with the views. Or not! Either way, it’s free! A hastily chosen telescope is not.
TIP 3: Ignore Magnification Claims
When you are shopping, ignore any and all claims about how powerful a telescope is. In fact, dismiss any telescope model (likely ones on show at your local big box store, or sold for appealing prices at on-line retailers) that is advertised on the basis of magnification: “Powerful 500x Observatory Telescope!” Such claims are sure signs the telescope is junk. That’s the rule. Trust me.
The magnification of a telescope is unimportant. By changing eyepieces any scope can be made to magnify by anyamount required. Powers of 25x to 150x are all you need. Over 200x even good telescopes often can’t provide sharp images anyway, as all scopes are limited by the blurring effects of our atmosphere.
What’s important is the aperture — the diameter of the main lens or mirror that collects and focuses the light. The bigger the aperture, the brighter and sharper the view. As a general rule, a refractor with a 70mm (2.8-inch) aperture or a reflector with a 100mm (4-inch) aperture are the minimum sizes for a decent starter scope. A 150mm (6-inch) reflector can show enough to keep you occupied for years, .
There is a best telescope — it is any scope you will use most often. Period. The biggest and fanciest telescope is of no value if it never gets out under the stars to show you anything, likely because it is too much effort to set up, or too big to lug around the backyard or out to the car.
As per Tip 6, a smaller, lighter telescope will likely be used more often than a big scope. Yes, the latter’s wider aperture can show you more, but only if it gets set up and used. Don’t become afflicted with “aperture fever,” buying more telescope than you can handle.
TIP 6: Consider Your Site
First-time buyers often get entranced by specs and features, forgetting the most important factor to consider: where will they use their scope? If your primary site is a light-polluted backyard, then the Moon and planets are likely to be your main targets. A large-aperture (more than 6-inch) telescope is partly overkill. might be too long or heavy to be practical at your site, or to fit into your car and still take the family!
On the other hand, if your main site is a darker rural location where fainter deep-sky objects will be seen to advantage, and you don’t have to haul a scope far, then by all means that will show those objects well.
But for use in most suburban backyards, a smaller (under 8-inch) scope might be best. It can be carried out to the yard more easily, for quick sessions when clouds clear and to move around the yard to avoid trees and lights.
TIP 7: Keep It Simple, but Solid
Telescopes with mounts that sport all manner of dials, knobs and locks look high-tech and scientific. I’m talking here about the equatorial mounts sold with many beginner scopes. In practice many can be hard to use, align and aim, and are often shaky. Ditto on mounts on very low-cost scopes that are no more than flimsy camera tripods. Avoid those. A wobbly mount or tripod will be a constant frustration, no matter how attractive the price might be.
and can indeed find and track things for you — but only if they are set up and aligned correctly. Many beginners find the process a challenge. Contrary to what you might expect, such scopes cannot find things at the mere flick of a switch. . Most “GoTo” scopes require you start with some skills and knowledge, as per Tip 1.
TIP 8: Start Modest, Then Upgrade
No one telescope can do it all. An 80mm to 100mm refractor or a 130mm to 150mm reflector on a basic but sturdy mount is a great, economical way to start. Use it for a couple of years. If you get hooked on stargazing, and develop a passion to pursue a specialized goal, then upgrade to a bigger or more complex scope later. Your faithful first scope will still have its use for quick “grab-and-go” sessions. Or it will retain value as a used scope to sell, or to pass along to a new aspiring astronomer.
TIP 9: Buy Locally for the Service
Yes, on-line retailers offer tempting prices and free shipping, but if there’s a problem with the scope, or you just need advice on how to use it, the big box supplier will be of no service to you.
If there is a telescope store in your area, do buy from them. They will provide invaluable service both before and after the sale. And chances are their prices aren’t much different than what the on-line outlets sell for. And please do not “showroom” — asking a local dealer to spend their time advising you, then buying from another outlet with no after-sale service just because they are 5% cheaper.
TIP 10: Forget Photography
A common quest of newcomers is for that mythical telescope that can do it all: provide excellent views of all kinds of objects, and allow them to connect their camera for fabulous photos just like they see on the web. All for $250!
Forget it. A good telescope rig for astrophotography can cost upwards of $2,000, or much more! And the best scope for imaging isn’t necessarily the model that will provide the best views visually. Certainly not for the budget of most beginners. And as a rule, entry-level scopes don’t have mounts and drives good enough for the demands of imaging.
Impressive shots of the Moon can be taken with a phone camera using any telescope (). However, the photos many beginners aspire to shoot require complex and costly gear beyond what any novice stargazer should consider.
Keep it simple and enjoy just looking through your new telescope. It opens up a vast universe to explore by eye that you’ll never exhaust in a lifetime of viewing.
You’ll find many reviews of telescopes for all budgets and interests here at . Check them out to help you make a choice. Start with some articles for getting started selected by AGT Editor Mike Simmons.