Heretic's Guide
The Heretic's Guide to Choosing and Buying Your First Telescope

A Beginners' Telescope Handbook For The Astronomical Novice

Copyright 1997-2014 Michael J Edelman - all rights reserved.

These pages may not be copied without my express permission

last updated May 29, 2014

There are a lot of people who are anxious to own a telescope to view the heavens above, but who need some direction as to what scope to buy. This web site is my attempt to help point those people in the right direction. While I try to be as objective as possible, it does reflect my viewing biases.


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Quick and Easy Recommendations

If you're not interested in reading a lot about telescopes, and just want a fast recommendation, this section is for you.

Cheap Scope Recommendation

Finally, Celestron offers an under-$50 scope I can recommend for kids and beginners on a restricted budget.

It's called the Celestron 21024 FirstScope Telescope , and features a 3" mirror in a tabletop Dobsonian mount, and Amazon has it for under $40. Click on the link to read more about it. Orion has the very similar which does have the advantage of an included red-dot type finder- very useful. Under $50, and well worth it.

Keep in mind that these are simple, small, telescopes, and will not deliver the kinds of images that larger scopes will! But they're a fine introduction to astronomy, and much better than any cheap department store scope. Eitehr of them will show you craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn, and bright deep space objects.

A Good $100 Telescope

I used to recommend a 60mm refractor of the type sold by almost every vendor, but now I like the as bright as the smaller under-$50 scopes above, and better resolution, too.

A Good $200 Telescope

The is a reasonably priced, easy to use, and highly portable mini-Dobsonian with good optical quality that can be used on a sturdy tabletop or a tripod. A good choice for kids and adults, too.

A Good $300 Telescope

If you just want to buy a telescope for a bright child, or you're looking for a reasonably priced ($300) beginner's scope, I recommend the

It's a well made, easy to use scope, and at the asking price, an excellent investment. This is a scope that can delievr years of use and discovery.

A big, easy to use, moderately priced telescope

A dobsonian reflector, like this (It's also available from Amazon ) is the perfect starter scope for 90% of the people reading this. It's large enough to see very faint objects, inexpensive (under $330), easy to use, and sets up in minutes. It's only 2" larger and the $50 more than the XT6 mentioned above, but that extra $50 buys a lot of light gathering power. If you're still confused after reading this guide- this is the scope you want.

A really big scope for dark skies

Say you live in a semi-rural area, or you have a summer cottage by a lake where the skies are dark. This is the type of place where you can really take advantage of a big scope- the kind that's too big or heavy to transport to a viewing site on a regular basis. In that case, you might consider the 14" which is also available from Amazon.) It's a big scope that can knock down into a package small enough to transport in a compact car, and comes complete with a computer to help to find objects. Price? Around $1800. If that's too much, you can get slightly smaller complete with object locator, for just over $1,000. It doesn't pack as small as the other scope, and has a 12" mirror, rather than a 14", but it does include the guiding computer. Scopes this size are a delight to use when viewing star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. They show details and colors you simply don't see in smaller scopes.

Total Automation

If youy're looking for the ultimate plug-n-go scope, the one that will automatically orient itself to the sky and find objects, right now the state of the art is Celestron's line of SkyProdigy telescopes. The Celestron SkyProdigy 6, which can be had for just under $1,000, is a high quality 6" Schmidt-Cassegain in a compact, totally automated alt-az mount. Set up the tripod, switch it on, and a built-in camera starts comparing its view of the sky to a database of stars. After alignment is complete, the user just selects a target and the scope automatically slews to locate it. Celestron also offers a 4" refractor (the Celestron SkyProdigy 102 ), a six inch Newtonian , and a 90mm Maksutov in the SkyProdigy line.

A Compact Scope for Nature Watching

One excellent option is the With a 20-60x zoom eyepiece it would be a fine choice for nature watching and birding. While not idea for astronomy use, it will povide excellent views of the Moon and the larger planets, too. At $210 it's a good value, but if that's outside your budget, Celestron also offers the slightly smaller for $155. You'll also want a tripod for mounting it. If you have a decent camera tripod that will work just fine.

Super portable, super high-quality all-around telescope recommendation

Get a For $895 you get an exceptionally fine small telescope that's perfect for nature viewing or astronomy. From a dark site you'll be able to see all the Messier objects, and even from a brightly lit city you'll get great views of the moon, planets, double stars, and a number of bright objects. At this point you may be scratching your head, wondering why anyone would pay $900 for a small 60mm scope, when they could buy the 60mm Celestron spottsng scope mentioned above for around $150! Two reasons. First, this scope is built to a much higher standard of construction than the Celestron. More importantly, the Tele Vue has hand-figured optics that will deliver contrast and resolution close to the theoretical limit of what's possible in a scope this size. That's the difference between hand figured, hand matched lenses and the machine ground and polished lenses found in the Celestron. While the Celestron can give a decent image at 20x and an acceptable one at 60x, the Tele Vue will deliver crytal clear, sharp images at 150x with the porper diagonal and eyepiece.

Incidentally, that $895 is just the optical tube. You'll also need a mirror diagonal (the is a super unit for nature viewing and astronomy, but you can use a less expensive one), and a selection of eyepieces. I recommend starting with a 20 or 24mm eyepieces for wider angle views, and a 7mm for higher magnification. For terrestrial (nature viewing) you might consider a high-quality zoom eyepiece, like the .

You'll also want to get a solid, portable mount like the or, if you own a good, solid photo tripod, there's the ($264) that you could mount on your own tripod. If you already own a solid photo tripod, that'll be fine for terrestrial viewing, but for astronomical viewing you really need a mount that can smoothly track moving objects.

All this will run $1500-1600 or more, but you'll have an unsurpassed portable telescope system that will equal or outperform many larger telescopes. I don't expect many readder of this page will go for that package, but if you have the money and the need for a super compact and portable telescope, this would be my first choice. I recommended a similar outfit to a field producer for the Nature channel, and he repoted back to me that he's carried it all over the world.


Explore This months Sky

Basic Rules Before You Buy

Glossary of Common Telescope Terms

The Find-A-Scope Store. Recommended books, scopes and accessories from Amazon.

Recommended Books, Videos and Software

What Scopes To Buy (and what not to buy)

Department Store Scopes
Cheap Scopes
Very Cheap Scopes
Medium priced scopes
4.5" Reflectors
Portable Scopes
Short Scopes
Those cheap 6" Refractors
Astrophotography
Deep Sky scopes
Expensive Scopes
I gotta have a computerized scope!
"Price is no limit" Scopes
Questars
Used Telescopes
Scopes to Avoid

Frequently Asked Questions:

Where should I buy my scope?
What are f/ratios?
What's better, a reflector or a refractor?
What's a good scope for a child?
Are those little refractors really better than a bigger scope?
What eyepieces do I need?
Can I use a camera lens as a telescope?
I read that Mars is going to be really close to the Earth soon..
Can I use my telescope to look at the sun?
How can I test a telescope?
I bought an inexpensive Bushnell/Tasco/other scope at a yard sale...
A note on optical quality
Email the author

Comets of 2013

Let's start with some basic rules:

Never buy a telescope in a department store. I used to qualify this rule, but I've decided to make it absolute. Similarly, don't buy telescopes from "close-out" catalogs, stores that specialize in high-tech toys, catalog showrooms, etc. Don't buy from anyplace that doesn't do a May 11major business in astronomy related tools.

"Christmas Trash" telescopes. Every fall, thousands of cheap, useless telescopes flood the toy stores and department stores. These instruments look like telescopes, and are offered at what look like bargain prices. And they're junk. These are what we call "Christmas Trash" telescopes. They havebadly figured lenses- some of them plastic- cheap, wobbly mountings, unusuable eyepieces, and outrageous claims of 400x and 640x, and sometimes 1200x magnification. Often they're sold in respectable department and discount stores. Stay away from these. They are a waste of money, and will do nothing but destroy a child's interest in astronomy.

Magnification by itself is meaningless. Don't choose a telescope by its advertised magnification. The way to compare similar telescope is by aperture; that is, the size of the objective lens or mirror. As a rule of thumb, few scopes can deliver more than 50x per inch of aperture under the best conditions; That means that the 2.5" (60mm) telescope advertised as a "625x telescope!" is really a 125x scope at best! A lot of the really interesting objects out there are very large, but very dim. The Great Galaxy in Andromeda - one of the most majestic sights in the sky- is eight times the size of the full moon, but a lot dimmer. A magnification of 20-40x is all you'd ever want to view it. This leads to...

There's no substitute for aperture. All things being equal, size counts. Larger is better. But there's a caution that goes with this:

There's no substitute for optical quality. A small scope with excellent optics can see more than a large scope with mediocre optics. I stood in line at a star party a while ago to look at M31, the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, through a 21" telescope. I imagined I'd see dust lanes, structure... what I saw was a fuzzy blob of cotton, with less structure than I'd seen in my 3.5" Questar! The owner was as proud as can be of this white elephant. He'd never looked though a good scope. See the FAQ for some comments on why a high-quality small scope can be a far better choice than a large scope.

I just picked up a 40mm Unitron refractor made in the 1960s- that's a 1.6" telescope! But it has a very long forcal length (700mm- that's f/17.5), very high contrast, and a really solid mount. It can split double stars and provide planetary views that would be impossible in a lot of cheap department store scopes. It sold for $75 back in the 1960s; that's close to $500 in 2007 dollars.

There's no substitute for darkness. What does this mean? It means if you have to choose between a huge scope that sits in your light polluted city back yard, and a small scope that you can carry out to remote, dark areas, go small and transportable. I can see more with my 2.7" scope under a really dark country sky than I could with my 10" scope in my suburban back yard.

The smaller the scope, the more often it gets used. My 8x56 binoculars get used just about every clear night. The 2.7" Pronto comes out a lot too; it only takes a minute to set up. The Questar gets set up most weekends if the sky is clear. The 10" Newtonian that I spent 6 months restoring and improving spent most of its time in my garage. Loading it into the car- a five-foot long tube, and a huge mount made of steel and cast iron that weighed well over 100 pounds- was a major undertaking. And the 17" Coulter Dobsonian never got used at all. It was too big to transport enywhere and too heavy to move aorund my backyard. It's now the property of a happy amateur who has a large treeless area far from the city lights.

The mount is as important as the scope. Without a solid, steady mounting, you can't even focus properly, let alone view or do things like photography. Those scientific looking mounts on cheap telescopes may look good, but they're absolutely worthless. They shake like crazy and make focusing impossible. That's why those simple-looking Dobson reflectors are so good. They're as stable a a rock. Even my little 2.7" Pronto is mounted on a TeleVue Upswing head on a Gitzo 320 tripod- that's a pretty heavy-duty photographic tripod that costs $300 by itself! Add the Upswing and you're talking $460 for a simple alt-az mount to support a 2.7" scope. Now you don't have to spend that much, but it points out why a $120 refractor with included tripod and head isn't going to be terribly stable.

Before You Buy...

A telescope is a useful tool- but only if you know what to do with it. Before you decide to get a telescope, you should spend a little time reading about telescopes to get a better idea of what they can do, and to better understand your own needs. If at all possible, find an astronomy society or club you can visit to get some personal experience using different telescopes. Too many people spend a lot of money on a scope with unrealistic expectations of what they'll be able to see. Others get discouraged when they find they can't just point the scope heavenwards and see amazing sights.

If you're already set on observing the moon and the planets, then by all means, go ahead and buy a telescope. If you are more interested in deep sky objects like galaxies and nebulas, you would do well to spend time learning the sky with the aid of a simple star atlas and a pair of binoculars.

If you have specific questions about something I've written, feel free to e-mail me. I'll try to help if I can. If I don't know I'll try to refer you to someone who does. If you have suggestions for improving this page I'd like to hear from you, too.

Michael Edelmanmje@spamcop.net

While I'm glad to help where I can, please read all the pages before asking for help. I probably receive two or three e-mails a week asking a question that's answered above. Most of them are asking for my opinion on a cheap 4.5" scope (no) a department store scope (no) or a cheap import sold under the Bushnell, Tasco or Jason label (no).

Some of you have asked: Why "Heretic's" guide? Well, it's because when I wrote the first version in 1997, it was contrary to most of the other FAQs out on the web. The typical advice given was to buy a Celestron or Meade 8" SCT, as if that was the only choice for "serious" amateurs. Since that time, more amateur astronomers have discovered the advantages of smaller scopes, the higher contrast available in good refractors and the advantage of Maksutovs, and the market has responded in kind. Now, of course, you hear different sorts of nonsense, and some companies are marketing junk refractors and Maksutovs.

There are still some points of view held to here that you'll see disputed elsewhere. Often you'll read "there's no substitute for aperture" with the necessary qualifications about quality, or that "you need a long focal length for high magnification" or "you need a short focal length for wide angle views". Thus I suppose I still hold some heretical views- but mine are backed up by observation and physics.

Links to other interesting sites:

Ed Ting has an excellent (and huge!) collection of reviews of specific scopes at http://www.scopereviews.com/. You can find a lot of articles and reviews at http://cloudynights.com as well as some interesting projects.

If you have any intentions of doing astrophotography, you need to look at Michael Covington's web site, and preferably his book, too. He'll answer all your questions and show you how to do it right.

Fritz Kleinhans, Resident Astronomer Emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University Indiana, has a web page for a Backyard Astronomy class he teaches with some good reference material for beginning astronomers and those running their own classes. The Project List offers a number of ideas for projects of interest to amateur astronomers.

` When it's too cold, rainy, or bright out to observe, you can entertain yourself by reading my blog about food and cooking. (It's really quite interesting.)

There are a lot of good astronomy sites on the web, but beware- there are a lot of site that are merely collections of ads, or material scraped from other web pages designed as a vehicle for advertising. I periodically get solicitations from these sites asking for a listing on my page in return for a listing on theirs. Read as much as you can, but learn to distinguish the writing of experienced amateurs from people merely trying to take your money.

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