It’s hard not 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 (DarkSiteFinder can help you find an excellent spot to use your telescope. Shades of yellow are fine, green and blues are better).
These days, telescope manufacturers have a telescope for everyone. Let’s take a look at the best telescopes out there for you and the one I use.
1. Celestron NexStar 8SE is Pricey, But Good
This is the one I use, and it is a beast in more ways than one. 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 a 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 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.
What’s the best telescope for you?
It depends on how much you’re willing to spend, and what you want from a telescope. I’ll cover a few options below.
2. The Celestron NexStar 5SE ($900) is a cheaper alternative
Why the 5SE? A couple of reasons. The biggest one is the most obvious, price. Instead of dropping $1,600 the 8SE, you can save some 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).
3. The Orion SkyQuest XT8 is perfect for beginners
The Orion XT8 is a Dobsonian telescope. This type is often dubbed a “light bucket.” 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.
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 $379 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.
– A big mirror without the big price tag.
– Carrying it around is a breeze.
– It does lack the motorized mount of the Celestron NexStar series.
4. The Celestron 70mm travel scope doubles as a decent spotting scope
This portable refractor costs around $100 and doubles as a decent spotting scope for daytime viewing. All the other telescopes above are reflectors and flip the image. Not a big deal when looking at a planet at night, but makes bird-watching a no-go.
This 70mm is a solid entry point to see if astronomy is something you want to dive into without breaking the bank. And it doubles as a decent spotting scope for wildlife viewing.
You’ll still get excellent views of the Moon, but will need dark skies to get the most out of it when viewing planets.
– A cheap entry point into astronomy.
– Doubles as a decent spotting scope for daytime wildlife viewing.
5. The Celestron FirstScope Telescope is an ideal choice for kids
Not only is it a decent little telescope for the youngest astronomers out there, it’s also wrapped in the names of notable astronomers throughout history. The optics on this small telescope punch above its price point. Kids will be able to see planets and even nebulas like Orion’s Nebula with this beginner-friendly telescope.
– A 76mm aperture reflector optical tube pulls in many of the night’s best views.
– Names of notable astronomers throughout history wrap around the telescope’s tube.
– Less than the price of a video game.
6. Support a good cause with the Astronomers Without Borders OneSky Reflector Telescope
The OneSky Reflector Telescope packs a 5-inch mirror at a $200 price point. It is a manual telescope so you’ll have to point it to whatever celestial object you want to see yourself. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes I almost prefer a manual, especially when I have to run back inside to grab batteries for my telescope.
What does $200 get you? Awe-inspiring views of Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons. Even better, all the proceeds from these telescope sales go to supporting astronomy-based STEM education programs all around the world. You get to start your astronomy hobby and help less fortunate people start theirs.
– All proceeds support the Astronomers Without Borders foundation
– A 5-inch mirror packs a whole lot of punch at a $200 price point.
Binoculars Are Another Cheap 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. They are much cheaper than telescopes, and their portability is unmatched.
7. The SkyMaster 15×70 Binoculars is the ultimate in portability
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 the Celestron NexStar series, but I also wouldn’t hesitate to grab a Dobsonian telescope for a cheaper option, 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.