One of the most frequently asked questions we get is how to buy a good telescope without breaking the bank.  This question comes up even more frequently during the gift giving season.   This article is our attempt at a complete “soup to nuts” answer to this question.

One of the most frequent mistakes we see is folks running out to the nearest toy or hobby store and quickly picking up a telescope off the shelf that promises much more than it can deliver.  Often these telescopes are stocked and sold by folks who don’t have the knowledge necessary to guide your purchase decisions or even the inventory required to supply a suitable product in the first place.  This sort of telescope purchase will ultimately frustrate any would be amateur astronomer and your hard earned money will end up collecting dust in a corner or closet somewhere.   

Sadly, although some of these telescopes are purchased at an extremely low price point (making them nearly disposable as well as useless), in all too many cases the amount of money spent on these low performing, frustration inducing instruments is sufficient to purchase a much better instrument that is easier to use, maintain and upgrade.   Fortunately, if you are reading this you are already on your way to avoiding this potentially costly mistake.

We want to set you up for success and not for frustration.  In this article we’ll present our best shot at lining up what we consider to be a best value currently out there for a truly worthwhile and enjoyable first-time telescope using the following fundamental criteria:

·         Good quality construction – well, given the title of the article it should be clear that we’re not thinking “Mercedes”, but at the same time we’re definitely not thinking “Yugo” either.  The goal here is to provide solid and reliable build quality at a reasonable cost, both for the mechanicals and the electronics.  We want a good cheap telescope, not the least expensive thing we can find.

·         Stable mounting – having a strong, stable mounting is easily at least as important as having a telescope with good optics… in fact, without a stable mounting even the best telescope in the world will never deliver good views.  If you don’t have a very stable mount you’re guaranteeing yourself a very frustrating time.  Lack of a suitably stable mount is the primary downfall of the vast majority of “cheap” telescopes, and having that stability is an absolute must for anything we would recommend.

·         Easy to use – controls must be easy to reach and operate.  The optics should not require frequent adjustment (known as collimation) in order to provide good views.  After all, we are talking about a first-timer’s telescope here.  If you have to be an engineer, contortionist or a body builder to operate it, it’ll end up in the closet and not out under the stars. 

·         Conveniently mobile – although you’ll most likely be setting up and viewing from your home at first, city skies are badly light polluted and eventually you’ll want to take your telescope out to darker sky.  Your telescope should be easy to pack up and transport safely, and be easy to set up under dark conditions.  Since you’re going to be out and away from the lights, there almost certainly won’t be any electrical outlets where you’ll be going.  The telescope must be able to be operated without access to the electrical mains.

·         Reasonable performance expectations – in our opinion the main purpose for a first-time telescope should be visual observing.  You should expect to be able to easily see the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and Mars, bright nebula such as the Orion Nebula, double stars, the brighter comets and more depending on the darkness of your observing location.  But don’t expect the views through your telescope to rival the pictures you see in magazines, as these pictures were taken with far superior equipment than we are considering using very advanced techniques.  While it is certainly possible to see nebulas and galaxies in your telescope depending on the size and brightness of these objects and the darkness of the sky, most of the deep space objects (DSO’s) that you will be capable of seeing in almost any consumer grade telescope will appear as gray or gray-green “smudges” or “clouds” in the eyepiece.  This is mostly due to the human eye’s ability to gather and process light and not the telescope’s light gathering ability.  Speaking of pictures, while it is possible to use your smart phone or a small lightweight astronomy camera to take pictures with this setup, heavier cameras such as a DSLR would be totally unsuitable for this “first-time” setup.  Setting a reasonable expectation as to what you can and can’t see or do with your equipment at the beginning can be very important to your enjoyment of the hobby.

We’ve settled at a price point of less than $300.00 for a basic setup that is perfect for kids 12 and older (younger kids should always have adult supervision when using this equipment), and around $600.00 for a setup with greater capability that’s ideal for teenagers and adults.    

At the <$300.00 price point (good for children over age 12, younger children will require adult supervision) we suggest the $230 Orion StarMax 90mm TableTop Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescope, from Orion (Product Code 10022 – link). 

The telescope comes with a basic tabletop base that provides a stable viewing platform you can set on any sturdy table.  This is a manual “point & look” mount that is truly as simple as it gets – no tracking, no motors, and no computer.  The sturdy mounting is great for younger observers, hard to break and very easy to use, and the telescope itself is a “keeper” that performs well for its size, will rarely if ever require collimation and can be easily moved from the tabletop mount to a different mount when it’s time to upgrade to a more capable platform.  The package also comes with a removable red dot (reflex) finder, a diagonal and two eyepieces. 

At the $600.00 price point (suitable for teenagers & adults), we recommend the same telescope as above paired with the $370 iOptron SmartStar (Cube) G Series Telescope Mount, Tripod, and 8402 hand controller with USB interface from iOptron (Product Code 8800B link).

This setup maintains the easy maintenance and viewing abilities of the Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope, and adds the ability to automatically find and track objects with a self-contained computerized object database (a “Go-To” system) containing 50,000 objects that is considered to be one of the easiest to use systems of its kind.  The mount also contains a 32 channel GPS module that is used to synchronize the telescope’s location and current time with the “Go-To” system to allow for fully automated alignment and operation.  Once aligned, you can use the easy to follow menus to select and “go to” any object in the database.  A USB connection allows for future software upgrades and also allows the mount to be controlled via a computer with the proper software.

The mount comes with a sturdy collapsible tripod and can be powered from 8 “AA” batteries, from the mains with the included AC adapter, or can also be run from an optional DC adapter for extended viewing sessions away from mains power.   

This mount dramatically increases the capabilities of your telescope but we must stress that this is too complex a solution for younger children – although given the fact that the telescope comes with the tabletop mount included, families with younger children would have the best of both worlds… use the tabletop mount with the kids, and break out the “go-to” mount after bedtime!

Now we realize that – particularly at the $600.00 price point – we may have maxed out some folks’ budget for a first time telescope.  We truly believe that you would be very hard pressed to match suitability and capability at a lower price point.  Before you spend less money than this take a careful look at what you are getting for the money you are spending, and keep our criteria in mind when making your decision.  It would be better to wait than to make the wrong choice for this.

Last but not least, if you haven’t hit the budget wall quite yet, we would also like to suggest some truly useful “add-ons” that you might want to consider:

$22.00 – 12V DC cigarette lighter power cable, iOptron (Product Code 8418 – link)

$42.00 – Car starter battery – run longer than on AA batteries, (Peak PKC0J6 – link )

$14.00 – Moon filter – dims bright Moon, (link)

$40.00 – Tripod dolly for floors (not pavers/grass/dirt), by Ravelli (link), (link)

$88.00 – White light Solar filter – see Sunspots (not solar flares) (# 07733 – link)

$36.00 – 40mm eyepiece – reduces need to use red dot finder, (link)

(PLEASE NOTE: If your budget is greater than $600.00, and particularly if your interest is in producing deep sky images, these recommendations do NOT apply to you.   Your needs are well beyond the scope of this article – but please do contact us directly and also consider joining the club as we have a very large knowledge pool in this area and can certainly help with your choices)

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