First telescope advice (need advice fast)

Mrs. Charming and Rested would like a telescope for her birthday in two weeks. We’ve set $600 price limit but if small dollars at that point go a long way, we can go a bit over. Since neither she nor I know about telescopes, I’d appreciate opinions on the relative advantages of manufacturers, type (refractor, reflector, or Cassegrain), and mount.

I think she’ll want to look at a range of things, from the moon and planets to other galaxies. I believe some in the Messier catalog are visible with 6" scopes but it seems that people use very different telescopes for solar system objects versus other objects. Are some telescopes more adaptable to both uses? What changes to a solar system setup would make it more suitable for looking at other galaxies?

There’s a lot I don’s understand, like the relationship between aperture, focal length, and magnification. Some telescopes advertise minimum and maximum effective magnification but I don’t understand what variables affect that. I also don’t know the ideal magnifications for looking at the moon, Saturn (rings!), or nearby galaxies.

I’m perfectly willing to buy accessories separate from the telescope if needed.

I don’t expect that she will use it for daylight or ground observation or for astrophotography.

A good easy to calibrate and use GoTo mount is a must. I know the common advice is to skip them but where she is just starting out, I think being confident of finding the thing she wants to look at and knowing it’s the right thing will go a long way to making this more fun.

My wife is shy enough that without knowing anyone in an astronomy club and without knowing much about telescopes or astronomy, I don’t think the suggestion to meet up with an astronomy club will be helpful.

Bonus points for links to a particular telescope that is in stock. Thanks!

I think the best overall rule is that for general use aperture is most valuable, and Newtonian telescopes give the most aperture for the money with the best optical quality.

The other important thing is that high magnification is very cheap to come by. You get it by buying a short focal length eyepiece, and short eyepieces are relatively cheap to make. Observing at high magnification really challenges how stable the telescope mount is.

To see galaxies and nebulae you want big aperture, and maybe moderate or even low magnification. To see planets you typically want high magnification. Star clusters are a pretty easy target and very satisfying to begin with, and are good with a range of apertures and magnifications. Some people like trying to split double stars – that is, see them as multiple points of light rather than just a single point of light – and this is somewhat of a challenge for magnification and telescope sharpness and quality of the “seeing” (air stability) in the air above you.

Is this helpful?

It is very helpful but when you say “high magnification,” what number do you have in mind? The telescope below, which is on my consideration list, has 9mm and 26mm eyepieces. I gather that those two eyepieces on that scope are good for 38x and 111x. Are those decent numbers to let her view a wide range of things? Is the tripod steady enough to use the 111x setup?

Do you think that aperture is enough for galaxies and nebulae? What do you think of the scope below? Are Meade scopes good in general?

I’ve heard it mentioned here that a high quality pair of binoculars is usually the best thing for beginners.

We have decent binoculars but she’d like to be able to see more. She wants to develop a new hobby but she’s punting the research to me. Truthfully, I do more research on things like this so she probably expects that I will find a more pleasing telescope than she would find on her own.

This might be an illegal bump so please don’t shoot me mods. Thank you both Napier and Crafter_Man for your responses so far. I’m leaning towards the Celestron - NexStar 130SLT Computerized Telescope.

The computerized tracking mount sounds great even if the database of 4,000 objects is smaller than some others. I assume that with proper star charts, we can point it at whatever we want to look at. It’s within budget so I can shop guilt free.

I am also wondering whether whether the object tracking of a motorized mount is really useful. I don’t think my wife will pursue astrophotography and I’m not sure if the motorized mounts are smooth and precise enough to make a big difference with that. Unfortunately, I also don’t know how hard it is to manually track objects with a non-motorized mount. I think the darling wife would get a bit frustrated if the the planets she’s trying to watch keep escaping her field of view. This Orion StarBlast 6i IntelliScope Reflector Telescope seems like a great “push to” computerized mount. I like that you can just point it at an object and it will identify it for you. That seems like it would be a lot of fun.


Your spouse should temper her expectations on what she’ll be able to image with any telescope. A galaxy looks like a super dim glowy patch in the sky. Ditto a nebula. To really ‘see’ these as you might online you need to do astrophotography. I’ve looked through a 1 meter (39 inch) reflecting telescope at a university observatory at the Eagle Nebula and after my eyes adjusted for minutes it looked like… a dim glowy patch in the sky. Barely discernible really.

I can’t speak to current equipment as I haven’t owned a telescope/shopped for one in a very long time.

I would go to Cloudy Nights Beginners Forum and ask for some help there, e.g, Celestron NexStar 130SLT, best possible EP mag solution? - Beginners Forum (No astrophotography) - Cloudy Nights
You could also search for reviews of the scopes you are interested in.

A friend of mine bought a Celestron NexStar 5SE for his wife. He paid about $500, but they seem to have gone up in price.

I prefer the simplicity of a Dobsonian, but nudging it along all the time can get old. Plus searching for some objects can be difficult.

She wants to see a bit more than she can see with binoculars and I think she’ll enjoy learning more about what she’s looking at. I think those are realistic expectations.

Great tip, and thank you.

I know I will be in charge of lugging it so Dobsonians aren’t too high on my list. They also seem pricier for the size of the objective and I am just ignorant of their advantages.

I guarantee that a database of even 1000 objects will have things you won’t be able to see in a 6 inch scope, or even in a 12 inch. Maybe with the 1 meter that squeegee talked about. (The biggest I’ve ever looked thru is the 27 inch at the Idaho State Observatory, that was big enough to see color in the Andromeda galaxy, but it still doesn’t look like the multi-hour exposures you see online).

My recommendation for a starter set is good binoculars and a planisphere. Preferably one that shows the Messier objects. Sounds like you already have the binoculars, so a guide to where things are in the sky would be a good next step. Even with a goto mount unless you get the really fancy automatic ones it will ask you to “center Deneb” or whatever, so you need to be able to find those stars in the sky. The Stars by H.A. Rey of Curious George fame is popular. I also use The Cambridge Star Atlas

A 6 inch or so aperture is a good compromise between what you can see and portability. Get one wide angle eyepiece for deep sky and one closeup for planets (both of the ones you listed come with one of each, you might want to upgrade to higher quality later).

You can put me down as recommending a Dobsonian as well. I like the fast setup (just put it down) and you don’t need to realign if you want to move it because the thing you’re looking at just went behind a tree or something. Can also get more aperture for less cost. They do require you to be able to find the thing yourself. That can be very challenging for things that aren’t naked eye objects.

I’ll second (third?) the recommendation for a Dobsonian. I schlep one around for SunWife and it’s not too bad - we have an Orion Skyquest 8" that breaks down into mount & tube which takes two trips, or if you’ve got a strong back you can carry it together in one. SunWife likes the process of finding an object, starhopping, etc. though so YMMV if your Mrs. Charming & Rested is more into making observation simple. I think there are Dobsonian goto scopes but perhaps not at your price point.

Usually Dobsonians are much cheaper for the the objective size–they’re stripped down, essentially. You could get an Orion XT8 (8" mirror) for under $500.
I understand not wanting to lug it around.

We have decent 7x50 binoculars. Part of the issue with binoculars is seeing something but not knowing what it is. Planisphere is a great idea and I will definitely include one in her gift. Thanks.

I’m somewhat inclined to get a fancy automatic one. I’d be really inclined It seems like it will make it easier for her to explore and learn as she goes.

I hope she learns to like the starhopping and discovery but if she’s too frustrated in the beginning to learn anything, I think she will discouraged. I hope that by making it simple it will bring some joy of learning. I’d like to set her up for success if at all possible.

Thanks for the suggestion. It looks like a nice telescope it’s roughly 5’ tall and 40lbs total. That’s nearly the size of Mrs. Charming and Rested. I’ll gladly carry it for her but she might want to use it on her own from time to time too. It’s peculiar that the Dobsonians don’t have any sort of GoTo or PushTo features until you get way out of our price range.

If you want to go smaller, get an XT6. The Skyquest XT6 Plus comes with a couple of eyepieces and a star chart. It’s a little easier to handle, but not as powerful.

If you are interested in electronics and DIY, there is an Arduino project for adding encoders and motors to dobs:

Arduino seems like a lot of fun for me and I’ve actually been trying to dream up a project that’s worth learning the skill set to implement. Unfortunately, with only two weeks to her birthday, there is no chance I’m getting that built and implemented in time. I’d like something we can basically take out of the box and start enjoying together. Perhaps the best solution is that I get decent non-computerized telescope and I take my remaining free time to learn how to use the star charts and planisphere so I can start to teach her. Of course, my mansplaining to her on her birthday also doesn’t sound fun for either of us.

I don’t know much about telescopes but it seems to me that a lot of people who acquire one will use if for a while but not get immersed in the hobby and then want to part with it. So if you’re willing to consider something used you might get more bang for your buck. Good luck, it does sound like fun.

It seems many people got interested in astronomy during Covid lockdowns (including me), so much so that there are waiting lists to buy telescopes and accessories. The OP may find a telescope he wishes to purchase out of stock.

The second hand market is also a bit thin at the moment, but your reasoning is correct. If one waits a few months to a year the market will probably be flooded with telescopes that were barely used at good prices.

My 2 cents, having spent time, money and such on telescopes since a while back… But as squeegee has said, my knowledge is limited to a long time ago. I’m contributing because the basic ideas are the same, regardless of how “new” we are talking.

Dobsonian - aka Newtonian, or “Sidewalk” telescopes. Sure, they give the most “bang for the buck” in terms of large mirror for less money. Typically they are mounted on a teflon bearing that swings around and up and down, sort of like a battleship gun. Unfortunately, the earth does not turn this way, so to keep an object in view (even the moon!) you must constantly move the telescope by hand. And it’s not easy. When you are focused on a distant object of any type, the earth’s rotation seems to be really fast and the object moves out of view quickly. Oh, also, these telescopes are BIG, often over a meter in length for a 150mm mirror. Not easy to haul around, at least mine wasn’t.

Schmidt - Cassegrain or Compact telescope - These are shorter in length, therefore easier to manage. Often they are mounted “axially” i.e. the mount can be aligned with the rotation axis of the earth, such that you can cancel it out and stay pointed at something by just rotating the telescope around one axis. Oftentimes this is controlled by a little wheel you can turn by yourself while you look through the optics. Also, an axial mount can have a little motor added to it to automatically cancel out the movement of the earth. This allows long-exposure photography, which you will immediately understand the need for, the first time you try to view a galaxy or a nebula. Can’t see anything but a blur? OK, wait a few minutes or hours, and see the image gradually build itself. Wow!

Binoculars - These are actually great because (a) they don’t usually have a mount, (b) have a wide depth of field (making it easier to find stuff) and (c) can have fairly high magnification so you can see detail on planets, moon, etc. Oh, and (d) fairly compact so easier to stow than a large telescope.

If I had to start over again I would have bought good astronomical binoculars. If I had the money I’d get a S-C compact telescope with axial mount. Sadly, my parents bought the fancy telescope (S-C type) but neither of them are astronomers, and together, they managed to lose some critical components such that for over a decade it has sat in the corner of their house, and NEVER GETS USED. I couldn’t get it to work with that stuff missing. Argh.

As for optics, as mentioned, don’t worry about “10x” vs “50x” vs “100x” Some quick notes:

  1. A good telescope can pretty much take any proper eyepiece that will magnify the image fed to it by the telescope. So the job of the telescope is to collect as much light (data) as possible, which is enabled by the widest lens or mirror possible.
  2. Note, the “low” magnifications are good for wide field stuff, typically, and work well for the moon and planets.
  3. But…let’s crank things up! At higher magnifications, things can be cool, but if your telescope cannot track an object (see my Dobsonian) it’s really hard to use. I have to keep moving it…and given the narrow focus, I can’t tell where I am. So for high magnifications you’d want more image stability, with a motorized and/or axial mount.

But, as almost always, the pre-purchase question boils down to: What do you want to do?

Just to clarify, Dobsonians are a specific type of Newtonian.

A Newtonian uses two mirrors: a big curved one at the rear, and a small right angle flat one near the front to move the image off to the side of the telescope where the eyepiece is mounted.

A Dobsonian is a Newtonian with several specific design choices: pretty much everything else is sacrificed to maximize the aperture at a given cost; the mount is very simple and swivels sideways and vertically, rather than pivoting around the Earth’s axis and perpendicular to it; the mirror is very large in diameter; the mirror is optically fast (like a camera lens with a small f/ number) which lets the tube be shorter but creates more distortion especially toward the edge of the viewing field; there is no provision for tracking (compensating Earth’s rotation) for photography with anything but the shortest shutter speeds.

Thanks everyone!

Since this present is not really a surprise, I talked some of the big decision points over with Mrs. Charming and Rested. She doesn’t feel that she needs a GoTo mount because learning how to navigate and use the telescope is part of the fun. She also doesn’t care if we get it by her birthday as long as we get it by our upcoming camping trip. That’s what I get for underestimating her.

She thinks a big aperture Dobsonians might be too big. She was leaning towards a smaller (5") Dobsonian for ease of setup based on some of the recommendations on this site.

A good idea but the time to shop for a good used one and the expertise to evaluate its condition will probably elude me.

From what I can tell telescopes are about 20% more expensive (judging by the prices that old reviews report compared to today’s listings) and not everything is in stock but there is still a pretty good variety. Yes, I’m buying at a bad time but I can eat the extra cost. Happy wife; happy life.

If I understand what you are saying correctly, the mirror in a Dobsonian is fast because they generally have relatively short focal lengths for their aperture size. I’d like to understand better how that creates more distortion toward the edge of the viewing field. Is it because, for any given magnification, you have to use shorter focal length eyepieces, and it’s the eyepiece that makes a difference? Or is it that shorter focal lengths (and accordingly higher apertures) inherently lead to more distortion at the edges? That’s consistent with camera lenses (in a sense) where using the largest aperture available in a lens tends to maximize distortion and particularly so at the corners of the frame.