Amateur Astronomy: Which type of telescope should I start with?

I have long wanted to get a telescope and get into amateur astronomy. I see there are some older threads here about this but they are over 12 years old and figured worth asking again.

I live in Chicago and most times I would be on the lakeshore. So, all the light pollution from the city. I might get to remote (dark) areas on occasion but, mostly, light polluted city viewing.

Price I would say $200-5000. $5,000 is almost certainly waaay more than I would spend but I don’t want to limit the discussion (and I know telescopes can get much more expensive than that).

I have done some research and it seems refractor scopes would be great for moon and planet observing but they are heavy and expensive. A Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope has lots of advantages, light and versatile and priced well but a jack-of-all trades and a master of none. A Dobsonian telescope is cheap(ish) and simple and works great but is large and unwieldy.

Being in a light polluted city are the best things I can hope to view local planets and the moon? Can I do deep(ish) space?

Any opinions on this?

ETA: Because I am lazy, a tracking mount that can find things in the sky would be nice. More importantly, something that can track an object so no need to constantly move the scope manually.

I will say I have no interest in astronomic photography. From what I read it is a whole other level of complexity and expense. I’m not prepared to go there.

Start with a pair of good binoculars with a 50 mm or larger aperture and preferably with a tripod mount and a wide interpupillary adjustment range. Here is a good option.. Given your experience and the environment you are in, a good telescope (which starts at the high end of your range) is overkill and a cheap one is just a waste of money. Binoculars are a comfortable, flexible alternative. Spend good money on a lightweight but sturdy adjustable travel tripod; I like this one, and while I have the carbon fiber version for backpacking the aluminum one will do fine for your purposes. If you really want a scope, look at spotting scopes; they’re an inexpensive alternative, easy to pack and transport, and pretty robust in weather and handling compared to astronomy telescopes which are often awkward and delicate.

There are doubtless astronomy clubs in your area full of people knowledgable about what can be seen from your locale and the best optics for the purpose. They’ll be happy to show you the features to consider in amore expensive telescope if and when you get to that point, the best mounting options for cameras or monitors (I know you said you don’t care about cameras but it can really enhance your experience to capture images for later viewing and filtering), tracking mounts, et cetera. Starting out you do not need a tracking mount and it will just be one more thing to fiddle with and prevent you from focusing on the splendor of the cosmos. Learn the basic constellations and how to find planets (some great smartphone apps for this that make it trivial now) before dropping many dimes on expensive optics that you may not get good use from.


Since you don’t have an interest in photography you are going to be disappointed in deep-ish space. Your eye isn’t sensitive enough to see light that is that faint.

I am in a fairly rural area. With a telescope in the $200 to $500 range, and clear skies with no light pollution, I can see the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and its four large moons (and Jupiter’s spot), and Saturn and its rings. I told my kids that we probably wouldn’t be able to see Saturn’s rings, but then I found Saturn and proved myself wrong.

Deep space just looks dark.

Jupiter is going to look like this:

Saturn is going to look like this:

Light pollution is going to be a big problem.

Even with light pollution you should be able to see a lot of good detail on the Moon.

When I was young, someone recommended that I start with binoculars. I was very disappointed. I don’t recommend it. YMMV.

My issue with astronomical photography that I could manage is it has already been done much, much better than I could ever do. As an example, I would not buy a camera and spend weeks or months to take a picture of the Empire State Building. Loads of people have done it better than I ever would be able to. It is a waste of my time and money. I can take an easy snapshot from my phone but…meh.

So, I am more interested in being able to look in the eyepiece and see something amazing. It seems that only very close objects (like planets and the moon) fit that bill. Maybe stars.

Put another way, if I try to view something like the Andromeda Galaxy in a telescope will it look like a smudge unless I take a six hour exposure?

The nature of your disappointment isn’t clear but with tripod stabilized binoculars with a suitable aperture you can see can see a lot of detail on the moon as well as getting a broad expanse of space that is often missing in telescope viewing without patching together a mosaic of images. You will not see the moons of Jupiter or Saturn (unless your eyes are very, very good) but you can certainly learn to locate and identify planets and other celestial bodies.

The point of astrophotography isn’t to take a better picture than anyone has ever taken; it is the satisfaction of the technical and artistic challenge of taking the best picture that you can take. You don’t actually need a lot of equipment to get started in astrophotography and in fact some of the most outstanding images just use a wide field lens with a good full frame sensor (which for astrophoto purposes is much superior to film). But if you aren’t into photography then it isn’t your bag.

The gorgeous images that you see of Andromeda and other galaxies or planetary nebulae are the result of processing and compositing many images. You will mot see this with your eye through any telescope.


So, if you (general “you”) are on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago and want to see the moon and local planets through the eyepiece of the scope what telescope would you want (within that $5000 limit)?

I not looking for a specific product recommendation (although it is fine if you want to make one). I am more looking for a telescope type/size. John Dobson used a Dobson telescope on a street corner to have people look at the moon and most seemed pretty wowed by what they saw. I want that wow…this is really cool when looking through the eyepiece. Less that I need a camera to take a six hour exposure and then stitch pics together.

I had great results with a Meade Dobsonian. six-inch mirror at the back end of basically a cardboard tube. Alt / Azimuth mount. Not my favorite mount, but it worked OK for bringing the moon so close it stung my eyes (bright!) and Jupiter’s bands–and the Galilean moons-- were totally obvious.

These guys are a long-lived club out in Naperville. (And - FYI - when they want to do serious gazing, they hear S and W to find dark9er0 skies.). I linked to their page on selecting scopes. They have an observatory in Naperville, and regularly do other public viewing sessions. I know several members - they are very happy to share their passion.

Buying a scope is challenging - and expensive. They are big(gish) and bulky, tricky to setup and operate. Pretty much if you buy at the low end and realize you are into astronomy, you will quickly consider your initial scope worthless. Or you’ll spend a bunch of $$$ buying new eyepieces, filters, etc. OTOH, you could plow a bunch into a decent quality scope, only to find you don’t dig staying up that late! :smiley:

I STRONGLY second Stranger’s recommendation for image stabilizing binos first. My wife was a longtime member of the Naperville club. I’m trying to remember the last time she pulled out one of her scopes instead of her binos. If you like gazing thru the binos, you know you like the hobby and can spring for a nice scope, and you’ll still have a nice set of binos to use for other purposes. But it sounds like you really want a scope…

Well, I have a pair of binoculars and it is decent. Not crap, not amazing. Middling power. Admittedly I do not have them on a tripod and only use handheld. I have tried using them looking at the moon and…meh. Apart from the shakiness (no surprise there) the image is…meh. Better than the naked eye, of course, but nothing to write home about.

I suppose a tripod would make it a bit better but I am dubious. While the stabilized image would be much better it is still just the meh stabilized image.

So yeah, I kinda want a telescope. I could buy a tripod for the binoculars but I suspect if I like that I will want a telescope and then just need a bigger tripod.

Not to mention really nice binoculars are not all that cheap either.

Yeah - I’d say spend double the low end of your budget on nice image stabilizing binos.

If you want a scope, you’ll have to decide between reflector/refractor. Plusses/minuses with either. But don’t even THINK of anything under $500. I’d assume $1k as a bottomline.

Seriously, give the Naperville guys a call. One of our best friends was a founder of the club. They have TONS of info which they are very glad to share.

About 2 years ago, my kids asked for a telescope and I got a decent $800 refractor. After 10 nights of viewing, we’d exhausted its capabilities, because refractors aren’t much good for deep space (too dim). Moon, planets, that’s about it. I want to look at deeper space, so now I’m looking to sell it (just the tube) and find a big honking reflector that’s compatible with my mount. I’ll get the biggest aperture I can find for $1500 or so.

I have a friend with a high-end reflector rig who got some impressive shots of Andromeda under a sodium vapor streetlight in his front yard (just for grins - that’s not an ideal location at all). Total darkness is of course ideal, but good equipment and experience count for a lot.

Most of the advice I’ve seen says that this doesn’t matter much, and it’s best to invest in powerful, high-quality optics instead. Also that auto-trackers are fiddly and not really worth it. I split the difference by getting a mechanical equatorial mount and I’m fairly happy with it. Minor hassle to set up, but I only have to turn one knob to follow the object.

I felt the same way, but when I showed my kids Saturn for the first time, the first thing they wanted to do is snap photos with their phone. A minimal photo capability would have been nice. Might not apply to you, but it’s something to be aware of.

Can anyone give tips on the pros/cons of a given type of telescope considering what was written in the OP?

Our interests and situations are similar. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. Have a 13 inch dobsonian and a 4 in refractor. I use the refractor 75%of the time. When using the dob I often stop it down to about 6” with a mask- really great for watching weather on Jupiter. Rarely use binoculars. Travel to dark site about an hour away fairly frequently. Great hobby but damn it gets cold!

My question is, even with a big reflector (amateur size…not mountaintop monsters) can you look through an eyepiece and see anything in deep space (beyond a dim smudge)? Or, is it all photography at that point? Setup your scope and then nap in your car for seven hours while it gathers light kinda thing (or hang out with others doing the same).

That I couldn’t tell you since I don’t have the experience. But I know that all the Messier objects were catalogued before photography was ever invented. Andromeda is something like 3x the width of the full moon in the night sky. So there’s got to be something more than a smudge, though it will be fairly dim and mostly colorless. But don’t take my word on that, ask someone who’s actually done it.

Deep sky objects with normal level scopes (like, say my 13" reflector) are mostly dim and colorless (get some color in the Orion nebula). But you can see different shapes. I get a kick out of knowing that what I’m looking at is another entire galaxy.

Looking through the 25 inch scope at the Bruneau Dunes in Idaho, Andromeda did look like the pictures, with clearly visible dust bands and colors. But that’s more scope than anyone who isn’t sure of the hobby is going to get.

And I’ll disagree with Stranger, you can easily see the moons of Jupiter with binoculars. Rings of Saturn are visible, but small. Get a comfy chair that you can lean back in to hold your head still to fix the shake.

What kind of telescope depends on what you want to look at. For deep sky you don’t need much magnification, but want to get as much light as you can get so go for a big reflector (Dobsonians rule here). For the moon or planets a smaller refractor with more magnification is probably better.

Agree that the setup of a “goto” scope is very fiddly and time consuming. A manual equitorial mount is a good way to go.

What is important for binoculars used for astronomy is not magnifying power but aperture size (the “xNN” in the basic characteristic) and the optical quality of the lenses, and specifically how much dispersion (light scattering) and spherical aberration (color distortion seen that sharp edges of the image) the lenses have. Most astronomy binoculars are only 10x or 12x but have 50 mm or larger apertures for good light collection.

It sounds as if you are really determined to buy a telescope, which is fine, but @Dinsdale ‘s advice about how quickly you will outgrow an inexpensive ‘starter’ telescope is exactly on point. Good scopes start at about the upper end of your budget and better ones can end up costing the price of a very nice car by the time you have them fully kitted out. I really think you’d be better off getting introduced to astronomy in a club where you can see different kinds of telescopes and tap into direct experience of people using them. I suspect that if you buy just based on advice from this thread you’ll probably end up regretting your purchase or at least wishing that you’d started with something cheaper and then stepped up when and if you find a passion for the hobby versus blowing several grand on a garage queen that gets used a few times and then stowed away because the images aren’t what you hoped for or you found it too finicky to use.

Autotrackers are only really useful if you are doing astrophotography (which the o.p. says he’s not interested in); as you note, they require a lot of fiddling, can be easily knocked out of alignment, and by the time you’ve finished screwing with it you could have found a dozen objects using a smartphone app or a star chart just by learning a few common constellations which will also serve you for stellar navigation; look for Cassiopia; she’s my girlfriend and in Europe and most of North America she’s always visible.

Yeah, you’ll see shapes but not colors. That is why lightyears-wide clouds of ionized gas are referred to as “planetary nebulae” and why Messier objects are a bunch of different types of astrophysical phenomena (that were cataloged primarily because they were such an annoyance to astronomers looking for comets. With really big aperture telescopes you can see some colors but the brilliant images you find on line are false color images where radio and ultraviolet frequences have been shifted into the visible spectrum for visualization purposes.


As I’ve been researching telescopes I came across the video below. I thought the people here might enjoy how this guy hacked his telescope to get remarkable results (and no, he does not equal the giant professional scope but he gets closer than you might expect and on a budget with a very modest telescope). Personally, I am nowhere near thinking of this level of commitment and work to the hobby. But it is fun to see.

I’ve been an amateur astronomer for quite a while, and mostly do astrophotography from the middle of a city (A Bortle ‘White Zone’).

Here are some tips/observations:

  • From a city you can forget about all the dim objects - nebulas, most galaxies, etc. You can see Andromeda, Orion, and maybe a couple of others, but that’s about it. With astrophotography you can capture a whole lot more, but there are challenges to astrophotography from inside a light polluted area.

  • Your primary targets are going to be the moon, the brighter planets, globular clusters, open star clusters, a handful of bright nebula and a few bright galaxies like Andromeda, M51 and M82. The galaxies will look like faint smudges in almost any telescrope when using your eyeballs.

  • For planets, you don’t need aperture. You need focal length. Magnification is king. So reflectors and refractors are not ideal for planetary viewing. High magnification and narrow fields of view are also helpful in a light-polluted area.

  • Binoculars will easily show you some bands on Jupiter, Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings, but the moons will be pinpoints. Mars will be a red dot. You’ll be able to see the phases of Venus, but it will also be very small. The Moon can be spectacular in binoculars, but they are best used on a tripod for that purpose. I have a pair of Celestron 10X70 astro binoculars that are decent, quite inexpensive and can be used with a tripod mount. But if you’ve tried binoculars and weren’t impressed, skip 'em.

So, all that said, from a light polluted area I would recommend as a starter scope a Celestron C90 or equivalent. This is a Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope that is very small, easy to transport, and has an incredibly good set of optics for its price point.

The drawback of Mak-Cass scopes is that they are really unsuitable for very dim, large objects like nebulae. But you aren’t going to see those anyway from in the city. For the moon and planets, a Maksutov-Cassegrain is without equal. The C90 has a 90mm primary mirror, and a 1260mm focal length. Cheaper refractors and reflectors are typically more like 700mm or less. Great for big nebulae, not so much for small bright objects.

With a 2X barlow lens and a steady tripod, you will be able to see lots of details on Jupiter like the great red spot and shadows of the moons passing over it. Features on Mars like Valles Marineris and dust storms will be visible. There are lots and lots of very cool targets on the moon, details in the rings of Saturn such as the Cassini gap and many of its moons, and lots more.

Another cool aspect of the scope is that it can also be used as a terrestrial spotting scope for birdwatching or whatever. The small size means you can use a good camera tripod and don’t have to buy an expensive tracking mount.

I do most of my photography with an 8" Celestron EdgeHD with a German Equatorial Mount for tracking. It’s about a $4000 setup, but for the moon and planets my little $249 Celestron C90 isn’t far behind.

And if you want to try some astrophotography for fun, you can use your cell phone and do ‘eyepiece projection’ by holding your phone lens up to the eyepiece. or you can buy a cheap cell phone mount.

Speaking of eyepieces… Beginners often overlook the need for good eyepieces to really enjoy looking through the scope. Cheap Plossls that come with scopes often have very little ‘eye relief’, narrow fields of view, and require precise eye placement which gets fatiguing. Better eyepieces will give you a much more comfortable viewing experience.

Here’s an example of some images that have been taken with a Celestron C90:

.The top images are taken with a 9.25" Celestron EdgeHD. The bottom three with a C90. To give you an idea of the insane value of the C90, the bigger scope costs $3750 in Canada for just the optical tube. The C90 costs about $249 with eyepiece, right angle eyepiece holder and carrying bag.

Really, any of the Mak-Cassegrains would be good. If you want to spend a little more money you can find larger ones with 102mm, 127mm or larger primary mirrors and longer focal lengths.

Also, if Celestron doesn’t have them, they are actually made in China by Synta, and sold also by Meade, Explore Scientific and other telescope manufacturers.

Another thing I would recommend for city viewing is a ‘goto’ mount, as finding targets with a high-power, narrow field of view scope is not easy. In dark zones you can ‘star hop’ to find targets, but so few stars are visible by eye in the city that you can’t do that. A goto scope will allow you to just type in a target into your phone or keypad, and the scope will slew to it. Expect to pay $400 to $700 for a Mak on a goto mount.

If you get into lunar observing, you will find something new to look at every time you go to the eyepiece, as the detail on lunar objects really ‘pops’ when they are near the lunar terminator and throwing long shadows. Many objects aren’t even visible until they are near the terminator. So every night the list of interesting objects changes.

Here’s a sample of what kind of lunar images you can see with a C90:

The crater in the middle is Clavius - famous for being the location of the lunar base in '2001 - A Space Odyssey"

If you have any questions, ask away.

Thanks a lot for the detailed reply. One question (for now):

What other choice is there?