Telescope Buying Guide
Orion telescopes we recommend
There are many different telescope designs available, but what telescope is the best choice for someone just starting out? The question of which telescope is best for a beginner is asked quite often, and the best person to answer the question is you! The telescope that's right for you will depend on your lifestyle and your astronomy goals. To help steer you in the right direction, let's review the major factors to consider.
Performance - What will I be able to see?
Performance is perhaps the most important factor when choosing a telescope. Knowing what you can expect to see through the telescope can help determine which instrument is right for you. The aperture, or diameter, of a telescope governs how much light the telescope can collect. A larger aperture telescope will be able to collect more light than a smaller diameter instrument, and therefore will be able to show you a larger number of night sky objects and more detail on them. Also, a telescope with a larger aperture can be pushed to a higher viewing magnification compared to a smaller diameter scope.
Telescopes measuring 60-80mm (2 - 3 inches) in aperture will provide nice views of the Moon, bright planets like Jupiter and Saturn, and a few of the brighter cloudy nebulas and star clusters. A telescope with an aperture of 90-130mm (3.5-5 inches) will show a substantial increase in detail on the same subjects, and allow you to see more dim objects in the sky, like galaxies, some of the more faint nebulas and star clusters. Telescopes with apertures of 150mm (6 inches) and above are capable of providing very bright and sharply detailed views of solar system objects and most deep space objects like cloudy nebulas, sparkling star clusters, and distant galaxies.
Every increase in aperture, no matter how small, will have an exponential effect on performance. A 10-inch telescope will show more than an 8-inch model, which will show more than a 6-inch, and so on. Of course, the larger the telescope's aperture: the larger the telescope. Don't forget to weigh your decision of telescope aperture with the size and portability factor.
Size and Portability
An old saying in amateur astronomy is "the best telescope is one that is used often." Like many sayings, it has a lot of truth to it. The size and relative portability of a telescope can have a significant effect on how often you use it. While a larger telescope will usually allow you to see more, you may not want an especially large telescope if its size will prohibit you from using it regularly. Our advice is to pay close attention to the size and weight of the telescopes you consider, and try to anticipate how much effort each one will take to set up and use. If you have any concerns about the size of a particular telescope, there is a good chance Orion has a slightly smaller model with similar characteristics and features. Although some telescope designs can be bulky, many observers find the extra effort worth it to obtain beautiful views of the heavens.
Optical Design - Which telescope design is best for me?
While most people think of a pirate with an eye-patch wielding a long brass tube when we hear the word "telescope", there are actually many different optical designs used to make telescopes. The three most common telescope designs are: refractors, reflectors, and Cassegrains. Each design has different attributes that may make one more enticing to you compared to another, depending on your goals. Let's briefly investigate each design and their main differentiating factors to help you make an informed decision on which one is right for you.
Refractors are the oldest telescope design. A small refractor of 60mm to 80mm diameter, referred to as aperture, is usually what most beginners consider buying as a first telescope, thanks to their recognizable appearance and history of good performance. Refractors use a lens system to collect and bend, or refract, light into a cone shape that is focused in an eyepiece for you to view.
A refractor is an excellent choice if you'll be doing most of your stargazing from the city or suburbs, where night skies are moderately light polluted. Since they use a lens system, refractors can be equipped with accessories for daytime use taking in magnified views of terrestrial objects like birds, wildlife, and scenery. Refractors require little to no maintenance, since their optical elements are fixed in place and cannot be misaligned during normal use. Renowned for crisp, sharp images, refractors are the priciest per inch of aperture of all three most common types of telescope, but they are arguably the most user-friendly as well.
As their name implies, reflector telescopes reflect light to a focus point by using mirror based optics. Collected light is reflected off a large dish-shaped parabolic primary mirror, and then reflected again off a smaller secondary mirror so you can focus the view in an eyepiece.
Reflectors provide a big performance punch in a very affordable package relative to other optical designs. All things considered, you will most likely get the most performance per dollar invested out of a reflector design. While affordable, reflectors do require more maintenance, which is an important consideration. Unlike refractor telescopes, the mirrors of a reflector can occasionally become misaligned if the telescope is roughly handled. Because of this, reflectors can sporadically require manual re-alignment, or collimation, of the optics. Don't let collimation intimidate you; any telescope owner can perform this task with a little practice.
Reflectors are most commonly offered in two ways: mounted to a tripod, or attached to a base. Base-mounted reflectors are known as "Dobsonian" designs, named after astronomer John Dobson who unveiled the first Dobsonian base-mounted telescope in 1978. Known as the "best bang for the buck" compared to other telescopes, a Dobsonian or tripod-equipped reflector will provide years of enjoyment for a comparably modest investment.
Cassegrain telescopes are a relatively recent design compared to refractors and reflectors. Cassegrains are a more advanced and specialized telescope design that uses elements of both refractors and reflectors to bend and reflect collected light. This gives a Cassegrain telescope a very long focal length in a conveniently compact telescope tube.
There are numerous variations of Cassegrain telescopes available to amateurs, all based on the original design attributed to Laurent Cassegrain of France. Orion offers a selection of Maksutov-Cassegrains, which is a variation including elements of both Cassegrain and Maksutov telescope designs. The Maksutov telescope design is named after optician and astronomer Dmitrievich Maksutov of Russia. A Maksutov-Cassegrain (Mak-Cass for short) telescope excels at higher magnification study of relatively narrow-field objects, like the Moon, planets, bright nebulas and star clusters. If you anticipate spending a large amount of time viewing the Moon and planets, a Mak-Cass should be on your short-list of candidate beginner telescopes. Like refractors, Mak-Cass telescopes can be equipped with accessories to provide a correctly oriented daytime view of birds, scenery, and wildlife.
Price is a very important factor, especially if you are just starting out as an astronomy enthusiast. You may not be certain you and your family will have a long-term interest in looking through a telescope, and therefore may not want to spend a lot on a first telescope. There are many reasonably priced, high-quality beginner's scopes that can reveal incredible wonders, while helping you define your particular viewing interest. Alternatively, if you feel your interest in amateur astronomy will last, investing in a more capable and more expensive telescope is worthwhile.
It doesn't matter if you have a large or small budget, Orion will have the right telescope for you and your family to start a rewarding hobby of stargazing together.
The Bottom Line
The question of what is the best beginner telescope depends on you and your goals in the hobby. The most important factors to consider are:
1) Aperture - A telescope's aperture, or diameter, relates to what you'll be able to see and how much detail will be observable. Essentially: the larger the aperture, the more you'll see.
2) Size and portability - The best telescope for you is the one you'll use most often. A huge, optically wonderful scope will bring little joy if it's always stuck in a closet!
3) Optical design - Depending on your goals and budget, choosing one telescope optical design over another can help simplify your ultimate decision.
4) Price - A modest investment in a telescope can provide years of family fun.