It’s easy being a space fan these days. SpaceX’s exciting launches (and jaw-dropping landings) never fail to impress. NASA’s awe-inspiring missions deep into the solar system bring us stunning views of Pluto, Saturn, and Jupiter. But you don’t need the deep pockets of Elon Musk, or the expertise of NASA to reach for the stars.
A solid pair of binoculars or a telescope can put you right on the Moon, or give you incredible views of Saturn’s majestic rings. You can even tease out Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. All you need is a clear, dark sky, whether it’s your backyard or a rural field.
Before we dive into the best telescopes for sale (and the one I own), let’s talk about the best option for you. It might seem tempting to jump to the ‘best of the best,’ but there’s more to stargazing then just having the right gear. The right location is just as important.
Finding the Best Place to Stargaze
Light pollution is the biggest obstacle to stargazing. The biggest cities drown at all but the brightest stars and planets. Suburbs are better, but the further you can get away from city lights, the better. A rural field is good. A National Park with a clear view of the sky is even better.
DarkSiteFinder is a handy website to find the right spot to set up your telescope. Let’s take a look at how light pollution shapes up across the U.S.
You can see how the western half of the U.S. has large areas with minimal light pollution (rural areas, deserts, national parks), but don’t let the colors worry you too much. I live in one of the yellowish-green areas, and the Milky Way is easily visible on clear nights. You want to try and get away from the whites, reds, and oranges shown in and around cities.
What’s in the Sky (August)
The highlight this month is the Perseid meteor shower peaking in the morning hours of August 12 and 13. A bright moon will drown out the fainter meteors, but peak rates should still be around 20/hour. Plus, the Perseids are known to produce fireballs so be on the lookout for one of those.
While the Moon crashes the Perseid party, it’ll also offer a couple of fantastic viewing opportunities. Planet spotting gets even easier as the Moon and Jupiter team up in the night sky on August 9th. Saturn joins the Moon a few nights later on the 11th.
Celestron NexStar 8 SE Is Pricey, But Good
Let’s dive into the best telescopes for you. First, I’m going to start with the one I own. The Celestron NexStar 8 SE is a beast. It’s on the heavy side at about 30 pounds fully assembled, but it pulls its weight with phenomenal views of the night’s sky. Its huge mirror pulls you right onto the surface of the Moon and offers jaw-dropping views of the planets. I don’t want to bore you with spec sheets, let’s take a look at what you can see through the 8SE.
A quick note about how I took these pictures: I used a cheap DSLR with a short exposure on a hazy summer night. Both Saturn and Jupiter are quite a bit clearer when looking through the eyepiece. And you can easily make out four of Jupiter’s largest moons.
Saturn is the perfect ‘whoa’ moment for you and your family.
And Jupiter owns the night’s sky with its visible cloud bands and its small moons shining nearby. Unfortunately, the exposure I took wasn’t enough to see its moons. I had to use a shorter exposure to offset Jupiter’s movement through the telescope. Plus, Jupiter was low, close to the horizon.
But the Celestron NexStar SE isn’t only a telescope for the solar system. One of my favorite views is the Orion Nebula on a cold winter night. Tucked right below Orion’s Belt, a colorful, dusty cloud of gases more than 1,300 light-years away is easily seen.
The Orion Nebula is one of the closest major star-making factories to Earth. Astronomers have observed about 700 stars at different stages of formation in an area stretching 24 light-years across.
Now that you can see what this telescope can do let’s dive into how it does it. The headline spec is right in the product’s name. The 8 relates to the mirror size (aperture) at 8 inches. A bigger mirror means more light-gathering. That’s the key with reflective telescopes. The more light you can gather, the better the view will be through the eyepiece.
The rush to buy a telescope with a bigger aperture is tempting, but I would pump the brakes on that idea, especially if you’re a beginner. We all want to head to the backyard and point a new telescope at a galaxy and see something like this.
But that’s not going to happen. Instead, you’re going to see a smudge. Why? Because the pictures of galaxies and other deep space objects are taken using long exposures from cameras. The camera’s shutter stays open for upwards of a few minutes as it continuously soaks in light to create the stunning image showing a well-defined galaxy. Unfortunately, our eyes don’t work like that.
For beginners, it’s all about buying a telescope that’s good enough to give you stunning views of our cosmic backyard (the solar system) while seeing if astronomy is a hobby you want to really dive into. You can take pictures of deep space objects like the one above. But you’re going to need the right mount and a solid camera to make it happen. For this guide, we’re keeping the focus on folks just starting with backyard astronomy.
The Celestron NexStar 8 SE also comes equipped with a fully automated Go-To mount. You won’t be moving it by hand as you did with those telescopes you had as a kid. A controller gives you the smooth movement that makes going from the Moon to Mars and Jupiter a breeze. And if you align the telescope first, you can punch in what you want to see via the controller’s display and the mount will move right to the object and track it. That way, you don’t have to re-center Jupiter in the eyepiece every few seconds as it sweeps across the night’s sky.
– The Celestron 8 SE is pricey for a beginner telescope, but worth it for the views.
– Automated mount and alignment make your first dive into astronomy a breeze.
– But it is hefty. Make sure you live in darker skies or don’t mind traveling with it.
– And don’t expect crazy views of galaxies with the naked eye. That’s only possible via astrophotography.
– The mount runs on eight AA batteries (AC adapter is also an option), and it will drain them in just a couple of hours of constant use.
Now, let’s dive into the telescope I would buy if I had to do it over again.
Which Telescope Should You Buy?
I’m a big fan of the one I own, so we’ll keep it in the Celestron family. I would go with the Celestron NexStar 5 SE. Why the 5 SE? A couple of reasons. The biggest one is the most obvious, price. Instead of dropping close to a grand for the 8 SE, you can save $400 and still have stunning views of the solar system. The money you save going smaller could be spent on more eyepieces or a solar filter to look at the Sun.
The second is the telescope’s footprint. A smaller mirror means an overall smaller telescope. Not a crazy size difference, but you can feel it if you’re hauling the telescope to darker skies often.
The 5SE keeps all of the same major features of the 8SE. You get the Go-To mount. You can align the telescope to let it pan to moons, planets, galaxies, and more on its own. A database of almost 40,000 objects will keep you busy for quite a few nights. You give up a bigger mirror, but you also don’t have to break the bank to get started with a quality first telescope.
It strikes the best balance between power and size. Not everyone is going to have the best backyard for stargazing. Having a telescope that you can move around is the best bet for turning astronomy into a hobby, and not being left with an expensive dust collector.
– All the features of the Celestron NexStar 8SE, but with a smaller mirror.
– $400 cheaper than the 8SE.
– The smaller footprint makes traveling less of a hassle.
– Limitations when it comes to astrophotography (especially long exposures).
There’s another option that doesn’t have the feature set of Celestron’s NexStar series but does have a solid combination of price, power, and portability.
Dobsonian Telescopes Offer Fantastic Bang for Buck
Dobsonian telescopes are often dubbed “light buckets.” The focus is all on the mirror with a simple mount requiring hand control. What you give up in motor mounts and tracking, you make up in aperture size at a lower price.
Take the Orion SkyQuest XT8. You’re getting the same size aperture as the Celestron NexStar 8SE, but it’s 60% cheaper. The SkyQuest XT8 Classic is on Amazon right now for $399 versus $999 for the 8SE. An 8-inch mirror still means a beefy footprint, but Dobsonian telescopes don’t sit on tripods, so they’re not as unwieldy. Most even come with a handle built into them like the SkyQuest line.
I would say the lack of a computerized mount is a big mark against Dobsonian telescopes, but these days you don’t need paper star charts to find your way across the night sky. You can use smartphone apps and point your phone towards the sky to see what’s in the vicinity. Then guide the telescope to the spot by hand. Plus, alignment with computerized mounts can be tricky to get working sometimes.
In the end, it’s all about what you’re looking for. If you only have a couple of hundred bucks to spend, look at Dobsonian telescopes from Sky-Watcher or Orion SkyQuest. If you have a little more, consider starting with the Celestron NexStar 5SE.
And if you’re still hesitant about buying a telescope, but want to start getting into stargazing – consider a pair of binoculars.
Binoculars Are A Cheaper Way To Get Started
Several companies (including Orion and Celestron) make solid pairs of binoculars – but I’m going to focus on Celestron since I’ve used this pair often. While they have nowhere near the magnification of a telescope, a good pair of binoculars is an excellent starting point for stargazing. You don’t break the bank, their portability is unmatched, and you can use them during the day too.
The SkyMaster 15×70 Binoculars have some heft to them so it might not hurt to grab a cheap tripod to go along with them. You can manage without a tripod, but your arms will get tired after a bit. A tripod also helps keep the binoculars steady so you can enjoy the views through them more.
So, what can you see with a pair of binoculars? The Moon will be the best target for them. Planets too, but don’t expect a lot of detail. Planets will look like small balls of light. You might even be able to tease out the tiny pinpoints around Jupiter as you see its moons. Again, binoculars have the advantage of being able to use them for more than just stargazing. But a telescope is what you want if you’re looking for those ‘whoa’ moments.
You can’t go wrong with any I listed above. I like the computerized mounts of Celestron NexStar series, but also wouldn’t hesitate to grab a Dobsonian telescope if money was an issue or I wasn’t sure how much stargazing I would do.
Remember, you’re not going to see Hubble quality images through your eyepiece. But there’s nothing quite like seeing Saturn or Jupiter for the first time from your backyard.