You’ve taken advantage of the urge and have decided to buy your first telescope. Congratulations. Deciding to buy though is the easy part, but just what exactly is the best telescope for beginners? If you’ve already done some research, you’ll have quickly seen so much advice, so much technical detail and so many contradictions – it’s enough to make you give up before you start! Don’t worry! – Lonely Spaceman has your back.
By the end of this guide you’ll not only be more familiar with all the different types of telescopes, but I’ll show you my recommendation for just one best telescope for beginners and it’s suitable for young and old. It would be a bit pointless if I just simply told you which telescope is my recommendation for beginners (which is the Sky Watcher Star Travel 102 by the way, for those who don’t want to read more) without explaining why, and other options available. The whole point of research is to give you as much insightful and useful information as I can, along with one telescope suggestion, and give you as much knowledge as I can to help with you with your choice.
Types of Telescopes
First of all, it’s necessary to understand the different types of telescopes. Look at any telescope retailer’s website and you’re bombarded with choice, brands, types, sizes, colors, mounts, lens etc… Although there is so much choice out there on the market, telescopes can really be categorized in to three main groups.
I’ll give you a run down of each, as well as the pros and cons. My recommendation of the best telescope for beginners sits within the refractor telescope section – don’t worry I’ll leave out all the boring complicated scientific jargon – but it’s useful to understand:
A reflector telescope is named as such because the beauty of the night sky is captured by a large mirror at the back of your telescope and reflected to a smaller mirror – which is angled towards the lens and to your eye.
The lens is attached to the side of the telescope, rather than at the back of the scope. Personally, I have found these more comfortable to use than standard refractor telescopes.
The eyepiece on a reflector telescope remains at a similar level as the telescope is moved to different positions through the night. A reflector telescope usually provides larger views of the skies due to their larger aperture’s but do require a little more maintenance (collimation – a way of fine tuning the direction of the mirrors for the best quality).
A refractor telescope is usually encased within a longer and thinner tube than a reflector telescope. With a combination of a large objective lens at the front and a lens, it allows the user to see and focus on a much more magnified view of the night skies than the eye alone can achieve.
The refractor telescope was the design of the very first telescope in the early 1600’s, of which it’s design was enhanced by Galileo Galilei. I’ve found refractor telescopes easier to use than reflectors although the cheaper models can suffer with a purple halo around brighter objects (such as the moon) which is also called chromatic aberration.
We’ll just call it a purple outline. It can be slightly off-putting but not enough to make someone quit the hobby.
Dobsonian ‘Dob’ Telescopes
A Dobsonian – or also affectionately known as a ‘Dob’ for short – really is a reflector type telescope. It works with the same reflecting mirror structure inside. The main difference though between a Dob and a Reflector is the mount both telescopes sit on. A reflector will generally sit on a tripod whereas a Dob will often sit on the floor inside a box, which is used to move the scope. Dobsonians are quick and easy to set up but they are much bigger than their reflector counterparts. A Dobsonian being a reflector will require manual maintenance from time to time by way of collimation to continue to bring sharp clear images.
What size telescope should I buy and what is aperture
When astronomers talk telescope size, they’re rarely talking about its length or bulk.
Some of those long thin tube telescopes you normally see in the Black Friday sales hanging around the front aisles of Walmart for around $50 actually offer pretty sub-standard views. Any telescope that promotes the telescopes magnification (like 350x magnification)– just do yourself a favour and walk away!
These telescopes are not the type amateur stargazers use.
These telescopes end up in one place, and that’s the telescope graveyard in the sky … or Facebook Marketplace! When stargazers and astronomers talk size, they mean ‘aperture’. In simple terms this is the size of the opening of the telescope where all the lovely light is captured from the stars and planets above. This is usually shown in inches. The larger the opening, the more light captured and the better the results. It’s not 100% always the case but it will do for your first dip into the world of astronomy.
As you may have guessed, those larger aperture telescopes usually come with a hefty price tag. This rule of thumb usually works well although you may though see some expensive smaller aperture telescopes, particularly those refractor types, especially when you see abbreviations like ‘ED’ and or ‘APO’. ‘ED’ stands for ‘Extra-low Dispersion’ and ‘APO’ stands for ‘Apochromatic’.
I said at the start of this guide I’m not planning on making this a science lesson or go into the nitty gritty details but essentially these two abbreviations are used to distinguish a telescope as ‘better quality’, clearer glass and enhanced optical capabilities of non-ED and non-APO (a.k.a. achromatic) telescopes. Generally speaking, the larger the telescope opening, the more detail on the subject you will see.
What can I expect to see through a telescope
This question is asked A LOT! I contemplated putting this section at the very beginning but decided to reserve that space for some details of the telescope itself, but I think this section fits nicely here. Before deciding to spend your money on a telescope, knowing what you’re likely to see (and also what you’re not going to see) is of course important.
The photo above (although slightly enlarged) gives a realistic view of Jupiter through an amateur and beginner’s telescope. The different color cloud bands are clearly visible, as is the Great Red Spot (although in this photo you’ll notice the Great red Spot isn’t visible because at the time it was taken it was around the other side of the planet. The Great Red Spot is visible approx. every 8-10 hours as the planet rotates, just as we do on Earth creating night and day).
There are three main reasons a beginner gives up on their stargazing hobby in the early stages:
- They bought a telescope that was just not suitable for them at their stage of learning;
- They had much higher expectations of what they were going to see by using photos in the media or images on telescope boxes;
- It just wasn’t for them;
I can’t help with the last item of course. This is personal choice. If it’s not for you it’s not for you. The first two reasons though I can try and guide you through.
Get a telescope suitable for your beginner level
It can really be tempting in the early days to splash out on the biggest telescope, heaviest mount, goto equipment and all the lenses, masks, intervalometers and add-ons you can afford.
This though can be costly as well as futile. Astronomy is a learning curve plain and simple. It can be as frustrating as it can be rewarding.
You’ll end up with equipment that can take a long time to set up and long time to master. It’s better to start small and learn as you go. Almost all good telescopes hold their value on the resellers market. When it’s time to start upgrading you should find good scopes resell for around 70-80% of their original purchase value.
Set realistic expectations, and you won’t be disappointed
The expectation to see the wondrous sights in the amazing detail in space magazines, books and in social media such as Instagram will have you believe these are the types of sights you’ll see through an eyepiece. Sadly, no.
In the photo above you can see on the left what type of view you are likely to see when looking at the wonderful galaxy of Andromeda. Even to see this view through a telescope is a real treat. The right hand image is often people’s expectation of what they believe they will see through a telescope.
The image on the right isn’t necessarily false, it has been taken with a a very long exposure, sometimes as long as many hours, to gather considerably more light and detail than you eye can in a moments glimpse.
Its this light and detail gathering, along with a little enhancements in Photoshop and stacking software, that shows the Andromeda galaxy in all her natural glory.
Although this may come as a bit of a shock it should in no way deter you from exploring the skies – because there are so many amazing sights to see – it’s useful to see a comparison like the one shown in the photo above highlighting the differences.
Watching the sun rise across the detailed craters of the moon, standing in awe whilst gazing longingly at the rings of Saturn, clearly making out the four main moons of Jupiter which were hidden to humans until just 400 years ago are just some of the spectacles you CAN SEE in almost every telescope!
See the beautiful detail of the Plaedies cluster, the serenity of the Andromeda Galaxy and the light that has travelled 2.5million years to reach your scope, the magnificence of an open Cluster or just watch the brilliant twinkling of Sirius, the dog star …. all possible with just a beginner telescope.
A telescopes mount – EQ vs Alt AZ
I know, another abbreviation. For some astronomers, and particularly astrophotographers (the art of taking photos of the night sky in wonderful detail), the mount is often more important than the telescope.
The telescope is a combination of mirrors and glass lens to magnify the skies, but the mounts accuracy – down to microscopic detail – can make all the difference between a crisp clear long exposure of the night sky and a blurry one.
Fortunately for you as a beginner you won’t have to worry about such things. Although if astrophotography is the reason you are looking to branch out into this hobby then the beginner telescope recommended below won’t be the best option for you. I will shortly be posting an astrophotography complete guide which will show you.
So, what are EQ and Alt AZ mounts, and which one is best for a beginner?
EQ and Alt AZ are the methods by which those mounts track a star in the night sky. An EQ (Equatorial) mount has a counterweight attached which balances the telescope, and as a result glides across the sky in the same rotation the stars do.
To be 100% accurate this mount requires precise polar alignment if you’re looking to use a motor to track the stars and are a little trickier to setup. An Alt AZ (Altazimuth) mount moves across two axis – one vertical and the other horizontal. These are all but useless for long exposure and photography of the night sky but are great for beginners and those looking to just observe.
Should a beginner go for a Goto mount
Goto mounts are a wonderful invention. Helping to explore the night skies with ease.
Once setup you simply type in the night sky objects co-ordinates (easily found on the internet) and the telescope with automatically go find it for you.
As a little Lonely Spaceman, I started without a Goto. It was a frustrating but rewarding experience. You had to rely on knowledge, star hopping and lots of learning. Trying to find objects you couldn’t see took patience. Sometimes finding objects you could see took a little time.
What I didn’t realise was just how much knowledge I was amassing in those long dark cold nights and how exciting it was when the object – whatever it was at the time – finally drifted in to view! A Goto has many advantages but some stargazers have said it can take the fun away and I can see their point.
With a Goto mount I’ve managed to see 15-20 objects in a single night. Moving swiftly from one object to another. The automation meant I no longer had to learn. A bit like turning on a GPS whilst driving. No need to study the maps anymore.
I would say a Goto is a must when you move in to intermediate and advanced stages of astronomy and stargazing and is essential when moving in to the eye wateringly expensive world of astrophotography but for now the extra cost isn’t worth it until you’re sure it’s a hobby you want to get in to.
….and the best telescope for beginners is…
The Sky Watcher Sky Travel 102
Why is the Sky Watcher 102 the best telescope for beginners?
Taking everything, without knowing your personal circumstance, into consideration I would recommend the Sky Watcher Star Travel 102 telescope for beginners young and old.
The Star Travel 102 telescope (my own Star Travel 102 pictured below) is a great all-rounder. The 4-inch aperture is enough to capture the light of great sights in the night sky (including all those I mentioned in the What can I expect to see in a telescope’ section.
The Star Travel 102 is a reflector telescope which means no collimation, it’s ready to go when you are. The telescope itself is pretty lightweight. It weighs just 3kg and so can be carried in one hand (or two hands for children). If you want to travel to a dark sky area this setup makes it pretty easy. At just 55cm in length it can be put in to the drunk or backseat of any car.
What mount should I get with the Star Travel 102
Here you have two options, depending on your budget and want:
AZ3 Manual Mount with Tripod
The AZ3 is a standard manual mount that can be purchased together with the Star Travel 102. It’s an Alt AZ mount which is great for beginners. The cost of a Star Travel 102 along with the AZ3 Mount and tripod costs approx.. $250 and comes with the standard 10mm and wide angle 25mm lenses to get you started.
AZ GTe Goto Mount with Tripod
The AZ GTe Goto mount is a great way to combine technology and stargazing.
It’s a beginner entry goto mount but is quick and easy to get started with. With the amazing advancement in technology you can even connect your telescope to your cell phone using WiFi and control your telescope though your mobile device! You can even connect your telescope to a planetarium app such as Sky Safari 6 or Stellarium, tap a star on your cell phone and your telescope will automatically go to it.
The cost of a bundle Star Travel 102 along with the AZ GTe mount and tripod costs approx.… $450 and also comes with the standard 10mm and 25mm lens which is more than enough to get started.
Researching the telescope market will throw you around in circles. So much choice and so many recommendations (usually without reasoning).
Having tested and tried a number of telescopes and mounts throughout the years – including the recommended Star Travel 102 – I am confident this is a good all-rounder telescope that will suit most people. The Sky Watcher 130p on an EQ2 mount, or AZ GTe mount, came a close second.
The Sky Watcher 130p also very versatile. Slightly bigger than the Star Travel 102 and being a reflector, it will require some maintenance from time to time. I decided to award first choice to the Star Travel 102 because of its ease of use.
Nothing is more likely to drive someone away from a new hobby than a steeper-than-necessary learning curve. I hope you found this guide helpful. Feel free to share with your friends, social media pages and to anyone you feel might be interested in exploring the wonders of the night sky. It certainly is a hobby and a passion that’s one of the easiest to do (clear skies willing) and really does stay with you for life.