Your First Telescope

If you are new to astronomy, and thinking of buying a telescope, PLEASE read

first! For a more detailed guide, which echoes much of the same advice, see

Buy from Telescope Shops, not Department Stores

Regardless of what you choose, I'll echo advice you'll see on a lot of other websites: DO NOT BUY A TELESCOPE IN A DEPARTMENT STORE. Just don't do it. Cheap department store telescopes are a waste of money. That includes scopes you see on cable shopping channels, in gadget stores, and the like. Buy only from a store that specializes in telescopes. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Scope City in San Francisco and Orion Telescopes in Cupertino are both excellent choices. That is the single most important piece of advice for getting a good telescope.

Also, DO NOT BUY any telescope that is marketed primarily on the basis of magnification. That is a certain sign the scope is a mass-market, poorly built instrument that will drive you away from the hobby. See this explanation to learn why magnification is not all that important when selecting a telescope.

But I Already Have a Department Store Telescope!

Well, I wish I could have reached you sooner. But check out my article:

A Starter Scope Recommendation

Starblast photo

Finding a quality starter telescope that best fits your needs can be very difficult. I know, I once faced this choice myself! People often ask for my recommendations. So here's mine: The Orion Starblast, from Orion Telescopes (pictured here). This is by far the best buy you can get in an under-$200 telescope, probably even under-$400. It's perfect for kids (and adults!) of all ages, it's portable, it is simple to use, and it has fine optics. If you advance in the hobby and decide you want a fancier scope, you will still use this one because it is so portable and easy to use. (Several very experienced observers I know have purchased the Starblast as a second, "grab and go" scope). It comes with everything you need to get started, except a red flashlight, a good beginner's book and basic star charts.

Consider Binoculars Before a Telescope

Instead of getting a telescope first, why not go with a pair of binoculars? That's how I got my start in astronomy.

You can buy a good pair of astronomy binoculars for less than $100. This is a great introduction to astronomy if you're on a limited budget. Or maybe you already have a pair, in which case you can get started for free!

Binoculars are a big step up in viewing power compared to the naked eye, and give you a chance to learn the night sky. They will show you the Moon, comets, the moons of Jupiter, star clusters, double and variable stars, nebulae, and even some galaxies. They offer wide fields and a view oriented the same as you see with the naked eye. This makes finding things with binoculars much easier than with a telescope. And believe it or not, some objects in the night sky often look better through binoculars than they do through telescopes! Comets are but one example.

If you find that you don't like astronomy, you can use your binoculars for lots of other activities, such as hikes, nature, ballgames, etc. If you do go further in the hobby, you will still find the binoculars useful as an observing tool to complement your telescope.

While you learn the night sky with your binoculars, you can research the various types of telescopes and what might interest you. You might also save up the necessary funds. At some point — and you will know when that is — you will be ready to take the next step and purchase the telescope of your dreams.

To get started with binoculars, check out these sites:

Also, check out my review:

GOTO Telescopes

As a new astronomer, you might be in the market for a "GOTO" telescope. These telescopes have built-in computers that do the work of pointing the telescope and finding objects for you. Common brands include the Meade ETX and Celestron NexStar. The manufacturers of these devices claim to make astronomy effortless.

I think GOTO is a great convenience, but I've found too many would-be beginners come to the SFAA/Sidewalk Astronomers Telescope Clinics with GOTO scopes they've never used. The computerized hand controllers are so poorly designed, owners cannot figure out how to use them. They can't get past the computer's setup procedure, and so they never are able to use their scope. Ironically, this situation is much worse than people with non-computerized scopes, who can at least look at the Moon, the planets, or random places in the sky if they don't know how to find objects.

If you're the type of person that's good at figuring out computers and gadgets, then a GOTO scope might be a very good buy. If you are the type of person who has a VCR flashing "12:00" at home, you should look at a non-computerized scope and get a good beginner's book to help you learn to find things.

Also keep in mind that a GOTO telescope will not relieve of you of the requirement to learn the night sky. You still have to know the basic constellations and bright stars in order to set it up. But think for a moment; aren't you getting into astronomy expressly so you can learn these things? In the ideal case, what a GOTO scope will do is remove the requirement of learning lots of this stuff up front, so that you can learn the fine points of the night sky at your own pace.

Finally, I don't recommend buying a GOTO scope in the $500 or under range. Too much of your $500 is going towards the computer, and not enough is going towards the scope. I've seen low-cost GOTO scopes, and they typically have small apertures (meaning you can't see much), plastic parts and flimsy mounts. If you want GOTO, think at least in the $800 to $1000 range.

Build Your Own

If you still don't know what telescope to buy, you could consider building your own. The experience of seeing the universe through a telescope you built yourself, from plywood, cardboard and glass, is quite unique.

This is the path I ultimately took. After observing with binoculars for some time, and researching my options, I came to the conclusion that I was ready for a telescope. And what's more, I was ready for the experience of building my own.

To learn more, see my Telescope Making page.

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