If you've ever tried to take up astronomy but given up out of frustration, or gotten overwhelmed before you've even started, you're not alone. As with many hobbies, getting off on the right start is all-important, and can make the difference between fleeting interest or a potential lifelong passion.
Start With Binoculars
The first piece of advice you'll get if you ask an astronomer what telescope to buy is this: Wait just a second. Telescopes require knowledge, patience, and a major investment, so you don't want to get ahead of yourself. Instead, get a pair of binoculars first.
A good pair of binoculars will let you see a lot more than you might expect, including Jupiter and its moons and even faraway places like the Orion Nebula and distant galaxies. Not only are binoculars considerably cheaper than a decent telescope, but you can use them for another hobby like birding, or other outdoor sporting activities.
For backyard astronomy, most people recommend a 7x50 or 10x50 set of binoculars—or, as , "the largest lenses you can comfortably hold." It's the second number in that equation, the aperture of the lens (measured in millimeters), that's the most important consideration. If you're familiar with photography at all, you'll know that's what determines the amount of light the lens gathers. This makes a bigger difference in what you can see than the magnification factor, which is the first number of those two.
A pair like the Celestron Cometron 7x50 costs , or you can step up to something like Nikon’s Aculon A211 10x50 binoculars () if you're looking for a higher-quality pair. Larger binoculars like Celestron SkyMaster 25X100 () are another option for even better views, but you’ll give up quite a bit in portability (a is a must).
The second piece of advice you're likely to get is to join a local astronomy club, where you can learn some of the basics and try out different types of telescopes before taking the plunge. Sky & Telescope has an .
Your First Telescope
If you're really ready for some serious stargazing, then you should know there are some telescopes that will get you off to a faster start than others, and some general things to keep in mind when shopping for one.
The closest you'll find to a consensus pick for the best inexpensive telescope is the Astronomers Without Borders OneSky 130, a reflector telescope with a 5-inch aperture . Sky & Telescope it to be "the best bang-for-the-buck beginner's scope" and one that "manages to get all the big-picture stuff right," while "it's the best telescope value we have seen at any price." It conveniently collapses down to a compact size and sits on a table instead of a tripod, if space is tight.
What's more, about half of that $200 goes to fund the telescope's namesake organization that promotes astronomy around the world. One downside: It's available only in the U.S. directly from Astronomers Without Borders, which can lead to backorders. If you're outside the US, though, the SkyWatcher Heritage 130 is essentially the same telescope and about the same price.
Another popular choice that runs about twice as much is the Celestron NexStar 130SLT. Like the OneSky, this is a reflector telescope with a 5-inch aperture, but the Celestron has the added benefit of computerized or "go-to" controls that help you find objects in the night sky. This will get you off and running much faster than if you had to learn the skill of finding celestial objects and pointing the telescope; just tell the NexStar 130SLT you want to see Jupiter and it brings the planet into view. In his review, Ian Morison of the Jodrell Bank Observatory said that "apart from a few minor caveats, this scope performed better than I ever expected." It goes .
If computerized controls aren't a top concern, however, the Orion SkyQuest XT8 Dobsonian telescope (or newer XT8 Plus model) will give you a larger aperture . Another option for those really looking to keep things traditional is the Levenhuk Skyline 120x1000 EQ (), which Space.com a “learning experience” from the moment you begin to set it up.
The next step you could take would be to a telescope like the Celestron NexStar 6 SE (), a compound Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a 6-inch aperture—or, better still, the 8-inch NexStar 8 SE (). A compound telescope uses a combination of lenses and mirrors to make it considerably more compact than a reflector (among other advantages), but these scopes don't come cheap. If you’re looking for an even larger aperture and have the space to set one up, Orion’s 10019 SkyQuest XT10i Dobsonian telescope () is another well-reviewed option that unlikely to disappoint any amateur astronomer.
If you're looking for a really inexpensive option that isn't a pair of binoculars, theis worth a look . It's also a reflector telescope, albeit a decidedly barebones one with just a 76mm aperture. Kevin Kelley recommends it highly in his —although, as he notes, you'll probably want to spend a bit extra on a better eyepiece to get the most out of it.
Otherwise, steer clear of any telescopes under about $200, especially department store fare that tout their magnification capabilities above all else. As "Bad Astronomer" , a cheap telescope is a "sure-fire way to grind someone's enthusiasm into the ground."