Your First Telescope for Astronomy

New to amateur astronomy? Want to get involved? Want to buy your first telescope? Here are some things I wish I knew when I was starting out.

Published by Tony Darnell on 14th Nov, 2006

UPDATED, June 2016
This article was originally written in 2006 and all of my original advice still holds. I've updated the article to reflect some changes in prices and models since that time.

If you’re a beginner trying to buy a new telescope, you’re probably very confused about what to buy. You probably don’t have a lot of money to spend and you want to get the best telescope for your money. You also want to get a telescope that lets you get the most out of the night sky – one that lets you see everything you want to see.

The hard reality is that there is no such thing as an all-around, see-everything telescope. Buying your first telescope is all about compromises. You’ll have to balance cost, ease of use, optical quality, features, and accessories with your expectations of what you want to do with the scope, your experience and your knowledge (or lack thereof) of the night sky.

Above all other considerations, your first telescope should be easy to use and relatively inexpensive. By taking this approach, you’re getting your feet wet in your new hobby with as little pain as possible. Starting simple means you can concentrate on the night sky instead of how to work the equipment. You gain valuable experience just sitting under the stars, you and your telescope, scanning the sky for all sorts of new treasures you’ve never seen before.

The period just after you buy your telescope should be a time of excitement and discovery, not frustration and regret. If you really enjoy the time you spend with your new, simple telescope, then you’ve been bitten by the telescope bug and you can think about some of the more expensive toys.

It’s tragic when the reverse happens. Someone buys an expensive telescope, spends hours learning its features and setting it up. Getting it to FINALLY show them something simple like to moon, Mars or the Orion Nebula, they look at it for a while (but not too long because by now it’s 2:00 am and you have to work in the morning), tear it all down and when the next clear night comes along, they think: "ehh, I’ll stay inside tonight".

The telescope never gets set up again and ends up for sale on Craiglist a year later.

Imagine instead that you’ve bought a telescope that just by looking at it you know how it works. It’s a point-and-look affair that doesn’t have any electronics to learn or expensive accessories to figure out. You put the eyepiece in the holder and start pointing it up at things.

The first thing you probably try out is the Moon (if it’s up). “Oh man, check out those craters.” “Wow, that’s really bright! It ruined my night vision.”

Then you move on to some of the bright dots you see in the sky and find out they are planets. “That must be Mars ‘cause it’s so red” “OOOOH, no mistaking that one, that’s Jupiter, look at that! There’s the Red Spot!” “OH MAN! CHECK OUT THOSE RINGS ON SATURN!!!!”

CAPTION: Photo Credit: Brian Jolley

You’ve learned by visiting the SkyTonight website that Orion is up tonight. You manage to find it in the sky from your backyard and notice that there’s a faint smudge just below the belt. You point your scope at it and look through the eyepiece. After scanning around a bit, a large smudge of light whisks back and forth in the eyepiece until you get it centered and it fills your eyepiece. It’s got a faint greenish tinge to it and you notice four very bright stars making a diamond shape in the middle. You’ve just found your first stellar nursery – the Orion Nebula.

This is what the first night with your new telescope should be like. Just you and your telescope, discovering what’s up in the sky visible from your backyard. The feeling of pride and accomplishment at finding things through your telescope BY YOURSELF is one that simply cannot be equalled.

A telescope should make your first night out full of “WOW” moments, not “WTF?”

Fortunately, there is a perfect telescope to help you experience this: the Dobsonian. Invented by a regular guy named John Dobson, the Dobsonian is the ideal first telescope. It has a large enough mirror to show you very faint objects in the sky and it is so simple to use that you don’t need a manual. They are very robust and sturdy so you can handle them roughly, take them all over the place, and set them up in less than five minutes.

Dobson’s design is genius in it’s simplicity. This is a telescope designed to be used, not aligned, calibrated or booted-up. You pick it up, take it outside, and start looking.

This doesn’t mean you can’t make it fancier over time however. As with all toys in all sorts of hobbies, you can get every conceivable gadget for your new obsession, including clock drives, GO-TO controllers and imagers.

Before you can do any of that though, your new telescope needs to become an obsession in the first place. You guys need to get to know one another.

So which Dobsonians are best? Which ones should you buy?

My first choice are the Orion SkyQuest dobsonians. They range in price from $280.00 to a little over $800.00. I would pick the Classic 8” as your first telescope at $389.00. This is the price point I try to suggest for anyone just starting out and unsure if they are going to like this hobby. Spending more than $400.00 on something you’re not sure about is the upper limit I feel comfortable recommending to people.

My second choice, and it’s only my second choice because they’re a little more expensive, are the new Meade LightBridge telescopes. These are excellent telescopes and offer good quality optics at a very affordable price. They are lightweight, which makes them easy to carry outside, and the open-truss design is cool and professional-looking and allows them to collapse and fit in the trunk of your car.

Meade Lightbridge dobsonian
Meade Lightbridge dobsonians are the upper limit you should spend on your first telescope

I used to recommend the 8" Standard model to people looking to spend a little more, but it appears that Meade no longer makes that sized telescope. The smallest diameter objective is now the 10" at $699.00.

I feel like that's a bit too much to spend for your very first telescope, but if you can afford it, and really feel like you're going to use it, then it really is a high quality scope for the money.

If you go with the 10 inch, you'll get a few perks. The extra light-gathering ability will be quite noticeable and give you brighter images in the eyepiece. The level of detail you'll see on planets, galaxies and nebulae will be higher as well.

The above telescopes won’t disappoint. You’ll be able to use them right out of the box and they should fill your nights with fun and discovery. Remember: if your not out there with a big smile on your face as you look through that eyepiece, you’re not doing it right!

If you’re anything like me, then you’ll have this telescope forever. Even though you may have gone on to buy very expensive refractors and GO-TO telescopes, you still have that simple Dobsonian for those nights when you just want to show your kids the latest comet or your mother-in-law that bright light she saw in the sky on her way over.

Every advanced amateur I know has a scope like this in their inventory. More likely than not, it was the first scope they bought, and it was the telescope that ignited their passion about the universe. It is near-and-dear to their hearts because it was through this telescope that they embarked on their journey to learn what’s up there. From this simple, easy-to-use telescope, they went on to become experts in the sky. They became the person their friends go to when they wanted to find out;

  • “Hey man, what’s that bright light I saw on my way home from work today?”
  • “Are we gonna get fragged by an asteroid?”
  • “What is the possibility of life somewhere else?”
  • “Where’s the Big Dipper?”
  • “Are you gonna eat that?”

Further Reading

Published by Tony Darnell

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Tony Darnell is the creator of Deep Astronomy, LLC, a company dedicated to sharing the wonders of the universe and providing perspective of our place in the cosmos. For most of his life, Tony has been interested in science communication and education and has dedicated the best part of his life towards that interest. While embarked on that mission, for 30 years Tony has also worked as a software engineer and worked on writing code for telescopes, astronomy data pipelines, image processing and data analysis. His last gig was the goal of a lifetime: working on data from the Hubble Space Telescope.