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

What matters is the surface brightness of the object compared to the amount of light pollution. Even with a camera, very dim objects are not easily seen from a light polluted area - take an exposure long enough to make the object visible and you’re likely to wind up with just a washed out reddish image. A larger telescope will just make the entire image brighter.

In this case, a scope with a narrow field of view is better. The amount of light you capture from around you is lower, and you can see dimmer objects.

It’s all a tradeoff, and depends what you are trying to do. For planets and the moon, it’s really hard to beat a Scmidt-Cassegrain or a Maksutov-Cassegrain. If you want to look at deep sky objects from a dark area, aperture is king and large Do sonian is a good choice. For astrophotography of deep sky objects, dohblet and triplet refractors can be amazing.

What’s your budget?

Important point here… I have a $5 smartphone app for finding objects. Very easy to use, and I feel like it serves me as well as an auto-tracker running hundreds of bucks. I just hold it flat against the eyepiece of my finder scope. There are inexpensive smartphone mounts you can buy. Those are probably helpful, I keep saying I’ll get one, but TBH I haven’t really missed having it.

Yeah this seems insane, if that bottom row of images came from a $249 tube. Your apparent magnification is like 10x greater than I got from my Celestron Omni XLT 102. As I search for the C90 Mak I see it described as a “spotting scope” which seems to undersell the images that you posted, so I wonder if I’m looking at the same item as yours. (example)

It’s the same scope. They are sold as spotting scopes and as astro scopes. They can be used as spotting scopes because A) they are quite small and portable, and B) they come with an erecting right-angle adapter so images can be viewed right side up.

The Omni XLT 102 refractor is actually a long focal length design, at f9.8 and 1000 mm. That’s not far off the 1250mm focal length of the C90. However, the singlet refractor design of the XLT limits resolution due to chromatic aberration. So you can’t magnify the image as much.

Here’s an astrobin search for ‘C90’ so you can see the kinds of images you can get with them:

The main drawback to this kind of scope is that they are an f13 optical design, so while the focal length is long, the images are dimmer. This does not matter at all for lunar or planetary viewing. In fact, on some scopes you use a neutral filter to block out light from the moon when viewing it as it can be painfully bright through a telescope.

Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve run into people ostensibly stargazing, and instead of using the damned app to find the object in the sky, they are content to face in the generally correct direction and look at their phone, considering that viewing the object.

I seem to recall hearing some similar discussion of some of the newer scopes which had computerized trackers as well as video screens displaying the image. People were discussing whether that was the same experience as looking through an eyepiece…

My favorite astronomy joke when viewing a planetary conjunction: Let’s say the conjunction is Jupiter and Mars. I’ll say, “So neat to see 3 planets at one time!” The vast majority of times, people will cast about wildly asking something like, “Is Saturn up there?” Without realizing they can also see the planet they are standing on! :wink:

I had a outing with our scouts when Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mercury, and Mars were all visible NASA April 2002 - they couldn’t quite figure out what was the sixth planet that I was trying to get them to see.

There’s been some mentions of binoculars; does anyone have experience with image stabilization binoculars and can make some recommendations? I’d wouldn’t mind using binoculars, but I’d rather not have to set up a tripod for daytime bird or wildlife viewing. So what’s a good choice?

Some things I just do not get.

I was looking around at various telescopes and options and I came across more than a few people loving on the Astro-Physics 130mm refractor (see below). I have no intention of buying it (I’m too much of a noob) but I am amazed that they seemingly have a very, very long wait list for it yet seem really uninterested in meeting that need. What company does that? There is loads of money on the table and they are kinda eh…whatever. Lucky you if you get one, otherwise fuckoff. (and this does not seem a new issue for them related to COVID supply issues)

Bugs me for some reason and makes me worry about getting in to the hobby.

Do you live in an apartment? Would you have to take your scope up and down stairs, or on an elevator? Do have room for storage? Those would be a few questions I would want to have answers to. That said, the Maks are hard to beat, but you can get a lot of aperature for cheap with a dob. Truth, you’ll need money for eyepieces.

I agree with going to a local club’s star party. My club has beginner nights, where you can look through a variety of scopes or get help with your scope. They also have a loaner program so you can try a variety of types before you buy.

I am in light-polluted St. Paul, but I can see planets and the moon with a small dob (4.5" f8). I got a 6" last fall (was too big for the young woman who had it), and it’s very nice.

I’ve seen the Galilean moons of Jupiter many times with a set of binocs.

Binoculars are probably the ultimate in terms of portability and simplicity of use, but I am also lukewarm on the rush to recommend them as a ‘first scope’.

You see the moons, or you see tiny points of unidentifiable light where the moons should be? I would consider actually seeing the moons to be able to resolve some kind of identifiable characteristics such as color or relative size, which you won’t be able to do without a larger aperture telescope where you can just make out Io and Callisto by color and Ganymede and Europa by size. If you can see more than that you have much better eyesight than I do or have access to optics that are way outside of the price range of the o.p.


With my stabilized Canon 10x30s, I can see the points of lights in a plane around Jupiter. I consider that ‘seeing’ them, although to your point, I cannot resolve any detail.

I can also see a pronounced bulge to Saturn that I take as seeing the rings, but again, no discernible detail.

Well, by that standard no one can ‘see’ the stars either. None of them are resolvable as disks with anything other than the largest telescopes looking at the largest close stars like Betelgeuse.

When you look at Jupiter with binoculars you will see the Galilean moons very clearly as bright points of light around the olanet. You can track their orbits, see their relative positions, and I’m not convinced that you can’t see a bit of color.

The fact that you can see moons orbiting another planet is the cool part - not seeing surface details on the moons, which you really can’t do much of with any amateur scope, and certainly not visually.

The scope you looked at is a very expensive, specialized scope for a particular purpose - wide-field shots of large sky objects. The extremely expensive mounts they sell are necessary for narrow-band imaging where exposures have to be really long and you need many of them to get the various bands like Hydrogen-alpha, sodium, potassium, etc. If you tried to look at the planets through that scope you would be very disappointed. A $400 SCT or Mak would be more pleasing.

Scopes like that can have long lead times because they take a fair bit of time to make, and are expensive enough that small manufacturers aren’t going to have large inventories of them. Plus, like everything else right now there are severe supply-chain issues right now woth astronomical gear.

One thing to keep in mind - we can go through long periods where there are no decent opportunities to view the planets high in the sky. When they are low, your view will suffer from atmospheric dispersion and from the fact that you have to look through a lot more atmosphere to see them. This is a much bigger deal for astrophotography but will also affect visual viewing. And of course, we go through long periods where the moon is new or below below the horizon.

I recommend installing Stellarium, which is free, then getting used to what the sky looks like from your location. And once you have a scope you can use Stellarium to decide what to look for in the sky when you go out.

If you want to see what a great amateur can do with a hobby-level scope, check out Damian Peach. Most of his photography is done with anywhere from an 8" to a 14" Celestron Scmidt-Cassegrain (SCT) from his backyard in England. Some of it looks like it came from Hubble or a great observatory.

Fair to say, I suppose, but an order of magnitude above the OP.

Also, I have several quality tripods, including the one you linked to, but that would likely be the last one I’d reach for to stargaze with binos.

Fair enough, but I think even unexperienced people don’t expect to see anything of a star more than just a bright point (albeit one with recognizable brightness and at least a hint of spectral color) whereas people often expect to be able to resolve the moon of another planet as they can our oversized moon. My threshold for actually ‘seeing’ a moon is being able to distinguish it from other objects, which would be a real challenge with binoculars notwithstanding the light pollution issues that, as you pointed out earlier, make binoculars a poor choice for looking at planets and moons.

I’ve used the Peak Design tripod with a couple of different spotting scopes as well as binoculars like this (not that model but similar construction) with great success. Of course, you need a low-sitting chair and a willingness to do a bit of articulation to get into position but there is no way I am humping a 30# wood and steel tripod ten miles into the backcountry to get as far from light pollution as possible.


Again, fair to say, but that’s an entirely different thread.

Stranger on a Train: Fair enough. Different people have different goals. But you aren’t ever going to get to see any surface details of Jupiter’s moons visually in even the biggest amateur scopes. Terrestrial ‘seeing’ just isn’t good enough. Photographically you can see a bit. Here’s an image by Damian Peach of Jupiter and Moons where you can see surface details on Ganymede and the color of Io.

That’s probably from a stack of a thousand or more images, in good seeing, while Jupiter was near opposition and therefore closer to us. Visually, you won’t get that level of detail of those moons.

It’s also with probably $10,000 worth of gear - telescope, mount, astro camera, etc.

Binoculars work just fine on a quality photo tripod with a ball head. I have a Manfrotto 55x and a ball head that I use for regular photography, and it works great for a small scope as well.

With binoculars a cheaper choice might be a video tripod, if you don’t already have a camera tripod. Monopods are also a favorite for binocular users. Very light and portable, and great for using terrestrially as well. No moving head required, so they are cheap. You can use them sitting in a chair as well, and even while reclining.

If you aren’t going crazy with something super powerful like 20X100, a monopod or cheap video tripod would work well.

I even use my Manfrotto with the Celestron C90. I’ve managed some pretty decent planetary photography with that setup and my Canon DSLR. It’s about the cheapest good quality solar system telescope setup you can get.

Here’s a telescope that might fit your needs:

That’s a 127mm Maksutov-Cassegrain on a computerized mount that will self-align. All reasonable quality stuff that won’t frustrate you like telescopes on cheaper mounts will.

Some of the pictures at the link are amazing to the point that it’s hard to believe they were really taken with any sort of backyard telescope. For instance many Hubble pictures of Mars have less detail than the one this guy has on his site. I’m not doubting their authenticity, just agreeing that it’s pretty amazing. Hubble has a 2.4 meter (7.8 foot) primary mirror, and it’s in outer space! This guy’s largest telescope is a 14" Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain and has to look through the earth’s atmosphere from near sea level.

BTW, all of this guy’s scopes are Schmidt-Cassegrains. There were some negative comments upthread about this design, and I don’t agree with them. I’m no expert but I do own a small Meade Maksutov-Cassegrain. Both Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Cassegrain designs can be excellent scopes and are far more practical and portable than conventional reflectors or refractors of similar focal length. Meade makes a fair number of these compact Cassegrain designs; the ones that are in the OP’s price range have primary mirrors ranging between 5" to 10". The smaller ones are Maksutov-Cassegrains, the larger ones use a design that Meade calls Advanced Coma-Free (ACF) which is a lower-cost variation of Ritchey-Chretien Cassegrain with somewhat lesser performance; R-C Cassegrain eliminates coma and spherical aberration and is often used in large research telescopes including the Hubble.

Looks like a good scope. My friend has the NexStar 5SE, which is similar scope (Schmidt-Cassegrain instead of Mak):

I’m guessing the mount may be slightly better. Doesn’t come with any eyepieces, though.

It’s really the miracle of high speed video imaging. While deep sky objects are shot with single frame cameras, with each image being exposed for anywhere from 15 seconds to many minutes and then multiple images stacked to increase signal to noise ratio, planetary imaging is done with high frame rate video. It used to be called ‘lucky’ imaging.

The idea is that as the atmospheric turbulence changes, once in a while it will be extremely clear for a second or two where you are looking just through luck. So you take a few minutes of high speed video, you get thousands of frames, then you use software to evaluate them and throw out everything but the sharpest ones. It’s sort of a poor man’s adaptive optics.

There are programs that do this for you automatically - ‘Registax’ and ‘Autostakkert’ are the two most common. You feed it a video and tell it what threshold of frame quality you want, and they will spit out a stacked image ready for other processing (sharpening, color enhancement, etc). Registax also has an excellent wavelet sharpening system.

The programs are free, and you can use them with just about any video. A webcam used to be a common camera for this, now there are better dedicated ones but webcams still work.

To get the kind of quality Peach gets, you have to meticulously collimate your scope and also attain precise focus (harder than you think). You also need excellent ‘seeing’ to get the best pictures, so patience is required. Around here we can go weeks on end with lousy seeing. A $10,000 14" telescope doesn’t hurt either…