Buying Your First Telescope - Part One: What's the Best Beginner Telescope?

Buying the right  telescope as a beginner can be a real challenge.  In these articles we explain the key considerations when buying a beginner telescope.  We'll cover the vocabulary you're going to encounter, and the trade offs that beginners need to consider as they get a start in astronomy.
Buying Your First Telescope - Part One: What's the Best Beginner Telescope?

The telescope marketplace provides new buyers with lots of choices. Before we recommend specific models, here’s our advice on what to look for in a beginner telescope that can provide years of viewing pleasure under the stars. 

The MoonJupiterSaturn

What can a telescope show?

All the telescopes we sell, even the lowest-cost models, can reveal incredible details on the Moon’s cratered surface. All telescopes for beginners can show the four large moons of Jupiter and the dark cloud belts in the Jovian atmosphere. And, yes, you can see the rings of Saturn, even under city skies!

Under darker, rural skies you can hunt down glittering clusters of stars, and subtle clouds of gas, called nebulas where stars are forming. The distant Andromeda Galaxy is also well within reach – indeed, it can be seen with the unaided eye!

Andromeda Galaxy

How far can you see?

The Andromeda Galaxy is so far away, its light takes 2.5 million years to reach us. Hundreds of fainter and more distant galaxies tens of millions of light years away are within reach of amateur telescopes. The limiting factor is not how far away an object is, but how faint it is. Dim and tiny Pluto close by is much harder to see than the bright and large Andromeda Galaxy that is much more distant.

How much does it magnify?

The maximum magnification of a beginner telescope is no more important than the top speed marked on a car’s speedometer. A magnification of 100 times (100x) is more than enough to show all the top targets popular with backyard astronomers. Even the best telescopes will rarely be used at more than 200x.

Telescopes to Avoid

Telescopes to Avoid

As such, avoid any telescope sold elsewhere advertised by its top magnification. While it might reach a whopping 525x, images will look dim and fuzzy. We don’t sell such over-powered models, because they are frustrating to use, and underdeliver on their promise.

Aperture — The Most Important Specification

The key telescope specification is not its power, but the diameter of its main lens or mirror, its “aperture.” The bigger the aperture, the more light the telescope can collect and focus, making for a brighter and sharper image. The bigger the telescope aperture, the better the views.

StarSense ExploreClassic Dobsonian

For example, the 150mm (6-inch) reflector at right will provide images that are 3.5 times brighter and nearly twice as sharp than in the 80mm (3.1-inch) refractor at left.

But …

… Is the biggest telescope the best one to buy?

We find people can become just as disenchanted with their new telescope because they bought too big a scope. After the initial honeymoon wears off, the buyer finds setting up the telescope takes too much effort.

The best telescope is … the one you will use most often, because it is portable and easy to use.

Consider your site

When making a decision, consider where you are likely to use your telescope the most. Many objects can be seen from within city limits. But if you have to cart your telescope up and down stairs or move it around your yard to avoid trees and lights, look for a light, compact model that can be carried assembled, or in no more than two pieces.

City vs rural skies

Under city skies the best targets are the Moon, planets, bright star clusters, and colourful pairs of double stars. These don’t need a big telescope for great views.

On the other hand, if you live under darker, rural skies, then fainter “deep-sky” objects – nebulas and galaxies – show up well and benefit from as much aperture as you afford – and move!

What a Beginner Telescope Cannot Show

Even so, don’t expect to see nebulas (like the Orion Nebula shown here) and galaxies in glowing colours. Those colours show up only in long-exposure photos. Nor will planets appear as big as they do in NASA space probe images. Instead, planets appear small, but sharp. On the Moon features as small as a kilometre across can be seen, but not the Apollo landing hardware!

Are you ready for a telescope?

While buying a telescope might seem like the best first step for a beginner, we recommend first learning to identify the brightest stars and constellations, and where the planets are. That takes no more than the simple star charts in astronomy magazines, such as Canada’s SkyNews (available at most newsstands), or a “dial-a-sky” Planisphere. Both are great tools to use for naked-eye stargazing in the backyard.

Using just binoculars you can find bright objects like the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula. (A 10x50mm binocular like the Celestron Ultima is the most popular type for stargazing.) By getting to know what the sky has to offer and how to find the most popular targets first with binoculars, you’ll be well prepared to put a telescope to good and satisfying use.

Where Can I Look Through Telescopes?

To discover what a beginner telescope can actually show you before spending any money, seek out a local astronomy club and attend one of their public stargazing sessions at a city park or at their club or university observatory.

Here in Alberta, both the Calgary Centre and Edmonton Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and the Lethbridge Astronomy Society offer regular sessions for aspiring stargazers where you can look through telescopes to see if what they show meets your expectations. Some people are disappointed. But chances are, one look at Saturn and you’ll be hooked.

For more on what to look for in a telescope, see Buying Your First Telescope — Part Two: Making the Choice.

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