2016 Telescope Gift Guide

Welcome to our 2016 Telescope Gift Guide!

This article was a collaboration between Jon Groubert with his Light Polluted Astronomy blog and Sorin (aka the Soggy Astronomer). Jon has been an active contributor answering reader questions for quite a while here on Soggy Astronomer, particularly with suggestions on good telescopes to get started with, so we decided to collaborate to bring you this gift guide.

If you are buying a telescope for yourself or a loved one this holiday, there’s one piece of advice to get you started: Find your local astronomy club, and go out to a star party! Public Star Parties are a great way to see first hand a variety of different telescopes, and get a better sense for size and how you use different models.

Don’t know the difference between a refractor and a reflector? Start with the article, How To Avoid The Agony When Buying Your First Telescope, then come back to this article for discussion of specific models.

Affiliate Links: If you do find this site helpful and are looking to purchase some of the products mentioned, you might consider doing so through the links on this site to Orion Telescopes or B&H Photo Video. Some (but not all) of the links to telescopes below are affiliate links. If you happen to make a purchase through one of these links, the merchant will give us a small commission to help support this website. This doesn’t cost you as the purchaser any more to do, and is much appreciated!

Here are our suggestions for telescopes this holiday:

Telescopes for Kids

It’s great that you want to buy a telescope for your kid! First off, please avoid anything you see in Walmart, Target, or any other big box department store. Most of these are little more than toys that quickly lead to frustration and disappointment. How can you tell? If it advertises magnification (something like 300x, 400x, etc) on the box, just walk away. ANY telescope can be given darn near any magnification multiplier, and any telescope advertised this way falls into that category of a toy vs. a real astronomical instrument.

Why shouldn’t you buy a toy telescope? Because they have such shaky, unsteady mounts, that about the only thing they are good for looking at is the moon. While cool, this also gets old, and these toy telescopes quickly make their way to a dusty corner of the garage, to be sold off at a garage sale as soon as summer comes along. Do yourself and your future scientist a favor, and invest a little more in a tool that will be worth pulling out again and again, because there is always more to see.

What telescopes do we recommend for kids? Here are two of our budget friendly favorites that you can read more about below:

A Cheaper Option: Binoculars

If you don’t want to spend that much to get a telescope, consider a pair of binoculars instead.  Good binoculars can be bought for well under $100; even under $50.  Stay away from binoculars with “ruby red” coatings on the lenses, as these are the hallmark of poor quality.  Otherwise almost any 7×50, 8×50, or 10×50 binoculars will be good for astronomy – even ones you find at thrift shops and garage sales.  If you are purchasing binoculars in person, make sure to have a look through them at the farthest object around.  Do this to make sure that the view through each eyepiece is aligned with the other one and merge together to form one image.  

Any pair of binoculars can be used not only for stargazing, but also for terrestrial viewing as well.  When buying binoculars, don’t go too high in either the magnification (the first number) or the aperture (the second number).  You won’t be able to hold the binoculars steady enough if the magnification is too high (more than 10x), and you won’t be able to hold the binoculars for very long if they’re too heavy (larger than about 60mm).  Binoculars greater than about 12×60 will need to be put on a tripod to use easily.  

If you already own a tall (about 70 inches) camera tripod, and you want to get a pair of larger binoculars, take a look at the Celestron SkyMaster 15×70 binoculars ($56).  If you don’t have a tripod, instead of buying both a pair of binoculars and a tripod, for only a little bit more money, you can buy one of our recommended entry level telescopes instead.  

 

Telescopes Under $250

Astronomers Without Borders One Sky ($200)

awb_telescope_lrgThe AWB One Sky is a mini-dobsonian truss design telescope.  This truss design means that the scope is collapsible down to just fourteen inches long, so that it can easily be put into your carry-on bag.  At 130mm, it offers significant aperture that will let you get beyond just the moon and planets so you can start to see some of the brighter DSOs (deep space objects), including many star clusters, some nebulae, and a few galaxies.  

Who it’s good for: Anyone starting out that doesn’t want to spend a lot of money, but wants a telescope capable of viewing more than the moon.

Pros:

  • Compact, collapsible, and easy to use tabletop dobsonian.
  • Proceeds support Astronomers Without Borders, a non-profit educational organization
  • Significant aperture for the price
  • Perfect scope to take away with you camping.
  • Includes two eyepieces, 10mm and 25mm.

Cons:

  • Available in the US only (internationally, the same telescope is sold by SkyWatcher as the Heritage 130P)
  • Truss design requires collimation
  • Will need a Barlow lens ($33) to reach the higher magnifications it’s capable of, and you might want to purchase another eyepiece or two
  • Small size means that it requires a sturdy surface to put it on, like a high bar stool or table.

Also consider:

Meade Infinity 102 ($209)

meade_209006_infinity_102mm_altazimuth_refractor_1403627713000_1061426The Meade Infinity 102 is a 4-inch refractor telescope.  As opposed to the AWB One Sky, it  comes complete with a tripod mount, and a full complement of 3 Kellner eyepieces, as well as a Barlow lens.  This means that it will be able to show you a wide range of magnifications.  However, because it is an achromatic refractor, views of brighter objects, like the moon and planets, and some brighter stars, will have a purplish halo around them, called chromatic aberration.  Some find this more or less objectionable than others.  

Who it’s good for: Anyone looking for a good ‘grab and go’ telescope. Also a good first telescope for the kids.

Pros:

  • Complete telescope package in one purchase – the telescope, three eyepieces, and a Barlow lens
  • Comes complete with a decent mount as well
  • Many prefer the pinpoint views that refractors provide over reflectors
  • Good aperture for the price.
  • Because the Infinity 102 is a refractor, will not need to be collimated

Cons:

  • Chromatic aberration
  • Comes with Kellner eyepieces, which are decent, but not quite as sharp as Plossl eyepieces (which come with all of the other scopes discussed in this article)

 

Telescopes $250 – $500

Sky-Watcher 6″ Dobsonian ($259)

sky_watcher_s11600_6_traditional_dobsonian_1430853679000_1141699The Sky-Watcher 6″ is a full-sized dobsonian telescope.  So, as opposed to the AWB One Sky (above), this scope has a mount that rests directly on the ground, and the eyepiece is up to four feet off of the ground, better positioned to view through.  The additional aperture over the 5-inch/130 mm telescopes will let you see DSOs a little better and allow you to reach higher magnifications on the moon and planets to see more detail.  

Who it’s good for: Someone more serious about astronomy. People who live in a place away from city lights, or plan to travel to a place with dark skies.

Pros:

  • Great starter scope for kids
  • Significant aperture at a great price
  • Rock-solid and easy-to-use dob mount
  • Includes 25mm and 10mm Plossl Eyepieces

Cons:

  • Might leave you wanting for more aperture and regretting that you didn’t buy the 8-inch dob instead (see below)
  • Single-speed focuser
  • Like any newtonian reflector, will need to be collimated periodically

Sky-Watcher 8″ Dobsonian ($355)

This 8-inch dob is the next step up from the 4, 5, and 6-inch scopes.  The additional aperture lets you see literally hundreds of DSOs during each season of the year.  Because of this, for many, it is a lifetime telescope.  Many astronomers hang onto their 8” Dob even after buying larger instruments, since it is a good compromise between aperture and bulk, and relatively easy to set up for impromptu stargazing sessions.

Who it’s good for: Someone more serious about astronomy. People who live in a place away from city lights, or plan to travel to a place with dark skies.

Pros:

  • Best bang for the buck in what is still a relatively compact package
  • 8 inches of aperture collects significantly more light than 4, 5, and 6 inch telescopes and really opens up the sky to many more DSOs
  • Includes 25mm and 10mm Plossl Eyepieces

Cons:

  • Like any newtonian reflector, will need to be collimated periodically
  • Dobs of this size can be a little bulky and awkward for children or smaller-framed adults.

Celestron NexStar 4SE ($450)

1462399155000_img_624074This is the first computerized Go-To telescope on the list, and is a really good entry level telescope if you want something that you can orient to the sky, and have the telescope locate and move itself to objects for you. Go-To telescopes like this also track objects as they move with the sky, so you don’t need to constantly adjust the position of the telescope for long looks at any object. The Maksutov-Cassegrain (Mak) and Schmidt-Cassegrain (SCT) telescopes that generally make up this Go-To category are very compact instruments with a long focal length.  (A notable exception to this is the 130SLT, a short focal length newtonian scope, discussed below.)  The 4SE is good for smaller deep sky objects, but it makes it impossible to view all of larger objects like the Andromeda Galaxy or The Pleiades in a single view.

Who it’s good for: People comfortable with technology AND reading the manual. People who have already learned the constellations, or who are not interested in learning to star hop, but instead prefer to spend their time looking at specific objects.

Pros:

  • When setup properly, very accurate at pointing to dim deep sky objects.
  • Very compact, lightweight, but powerful package; will show you great detail on the moon and planets.  Recommended for people observing from light-polluted areas who are usually going to be looking mainly at the moon and planets.
  • Go-To telescope that locates dim objects for you, and then tracks the sky to keep them in view.
  • Includes a “best of the sky” feature to suggest objects to see on any given night.
  • Because the 4SE is a Maksutov design scope, will not need to collimated.

Cons:

  • Can only be used through the keypad interface; cannot be moved manually. (Bring extra batteries.)
  • Because it’s a long-focal length scope, it has a narrow field of view that will not let you see a small handful of the very largest DSOs all in one view.

Alternate Choice: Celestron NexStar 130SLT ($400)

celestron_31145_nexstar_130_slt_5_1_130mm_1414703212000_370208This is another computerized and motorized scope.  The 130SLT is a short-focal length newtonian reflector, meaning that it is light and easy to transport, and offers wide-field views.    

Pros:

  • Same computerized pros as the 4SE, plus
  • Additional aperture over the 4SE will let you go a little deeper in terms of seeing some more DSOs (star clusters, nebulae, galaxies)
  • Because it’s a short focal length scope, allows for much wider field views
  • Can use two-inch eyepieces for even greater and wider field views

Cons:

  • As opposed to the 4SE, needs to be collimated periodically
  • Will need a Barlow lens ($33) to reach the higher magnifications it’s capable of.
  • Mount is not quite as sturdy as the 4SE.

 

Telescopes $500 to $1000

Celestron NexStar 6SE ($699 sale price) & 8SE ($999 sale price)

nexstar_8seThe Celestron NexStar SE series are Go-To computerized telescopes that you command through a keypad. Optically speaking, the 6SE and 8SE are both Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes, and will provide wonderful sharp views. They are very compact instruments with a long focal length. This is good for smaller deep sky objects, but it makes it impossible to view all of larger objects like the Andromeda Galaxy or The Pleiades in a single view.

We highly recommend adding a dew shield to any Mak or SCT telescope to prevent the front lens from collecting dew or frost, and cutting your evening’s observing short.

Who it’s good for: People comfortable with technology AND reading the manual. People who have already learned the constellations, or who are not interested in learning to star hop, but instead prefer to spend their time looking at specific objects.  People who are pretty sure they’re committed to the hobby of astronomy.  

Pros:

  • When setup properly, very accurate at pointing to dim deep sky objects.
  • Very compact but powerful package.
  • Can be a lifetime telescope. The mount, while robust, is just like a car, with motors and computer that will eventually wear out.

Cons:

  • Can only be used through the keypad interface, cannot be moved manually. (Bring extra batteries.)
  • Narrow field of view
  • Comes with just one eyepiece (25mm Plossl)

Orion Intelliscope XT8i ($660)

The Orion Intelliscope falls in between the Go-To scope, like the Celestron NexStar line described above, and a regular dobsonian scope, which is neither motorized nor computerized.  The Intelliscope is a compromise between the two: you move it like a regular dob – you are the motor – but it has a computer that guides you towards the object you punch into the handset with a “hot and cold” system.  This is commonly called a “Push-To” system. The handset effectively tells you, through numbers, how far away from the object the telescope is pointed in two axes, altitude and azimuth.  You move the scope up and down, left and right, until both numbers zero out, meaning that the scope is pointing at the object.  

Who it’s good for: People observing from more light-polluted skies who need a hand locating objects in the sky.  People who are pretty sure they’re committed to the hobby of astronomy.  

Pros:

  • Same pros as the Skywatcher 8″ Dob, above, plus:
  • When setup properly, can accurately help you to point to dim deep sky objects.
  • Big savings vs. a motorized scope.
  • Can be used either with the computer’s assistance (requiring batteries) or manually, without the computer to assist you.

Cons:

  • Requires occasional collimation.
  • Dobs of this size can be a little bulky and awkward for children or smaller-framed adults.

Sky-Watcher 10″ Truss Dobsonian ($699)

sky_watcher_s11720_10_dobsonian_telescope_1379430579000_735539This is a larger aperture dobsonian that has the benefit of a collapsable truss design, making it a little more portable.  They gather significantly more light than the 8-inch scope, but they’re also significantly larger, the size of small water heaters.  

Who it’s good for: An intermediate user who already has some experience with a smaller scope and is committed to astronomy as a hobby.  People who can lift and move a heavier scope (not recommended for children 12 or under).  

Pros:

  • Same pros as the Sky-Watcher 8″ Dob.
  • Allows you to more fully explore dim deep sky objects.
  • Collapsable design improves portability.

Cons:  

  • Same cons as the Sky-Watcher 8″ Dob.
  • Greater weight than their 8-inch counterparts.

 

Eyepieces/Accessories/Books

For the astronomer in your life who already has a telescope, but doesn’t have everything, how about the gift of an eyepiece?  Obviously, before buying an eyepiece, look through their eyepiece case (while they’re not around, of course) to make sure they don’t have the one you’re buying them.  

Eyepieces go across the spectrum in terms of pricing, but one eyepiece that most astronomers don’t already own is a zoom eyepiece.  Zoom eyepieces are handy to have in your eyepiece case, especially for showing DSOs to friends and neighbors who have popped over.  Zooms work a little counterintuitively; at their lowest magnification, they show their narrowest field of view; as the magnification increases, the field of view opens up wider.  (Field of view relates to the size of the patch of the sky you can see through the telescope.)  

Celestron 8-24mm Zoom eyepiece ($60)

The 8-24mm range in magnification means that it goes from a relatively lower magnification all the way up to three times that magnification.  The field of view at the lower end of magnification is a little bit small at 40 degrees, but opens up to 60 degrees at the higher magnifications. (Soggy uses this eyepiece for public outreach viewing, and it produces quite satisfying and sharp images across the whole zoom range for the price.)

Also consider:

Baader Hyperion 8-24mm Zoom eyepiece, Mark III ($290)

If money is no object, the Baader Zoom is a significant improvement over the Celestron zoom.  The Baader operates over the same magnifications as the Celestron, but it has significantly wider fields of view at both ends of the magnification spectrum.  It starts at 50 degrees at 24mm (about the same as a Plossl eyepiece, the kind that comes stock with most scopes) to 68 degrees at the top end, 8mm (the same as a premium eyepiece).  The Baader also has click stops as you move through the focal length/magnification settings, allowing you to know the precise focal length/magnification you’re observing at without having to look away from the object.  

The Cambridge Photographic Moon Atlas ($47)

Yes, looking at the moon is fun, but looking at any astronomical object is much more interesting when you know what you’re looking at.  In addition to containing a section on the origin and evolution of the moon, this atlas has numerous detailed high-resolution photographs of the moon taken from earth, with special emphasis, of course, on the various and numerous prominent craters.  But it also contains a number of other interesting objects, including mountain ranges and rimas (fractures in the surface) that you might otherwise not see or look for.  

Orion Variable Polarizing Filter ($30)

The moon is the brightest object in the night sky.  Sometimes, looking at it through a telescope, it can almost be too bright – especially at or near full moon.  Some telescopes come with moon filters, but they are fixed in the amount of light they permit through, such as 25% or 13%.  Since you’ve just bought a moon atlas to better understand what you’re seeing on the moon, how about buying a filter to better be able to see the detail in those objects?  A polarizing filter is infinitely variable between 1% and 40% light transmission, so you can tone the view down to exactly where you want it to get the most amount of contrast and detail, no matter how bright the moon is.  (Jon is a “lunatic”, and this filter helps him see all the moon detail his telescope is capable of delivering.)  

Annals of the Deep Sky ($25 each)

Almost forty years ago, an eccentric genius named Robert Burnham put together a comprehensive three-volume observing guide covering every constellation in the sky, and the most prominent DSOs, stars, and double stars in each.  Called Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, it is still in print today (and each of the three volumes is available used for about $4 each), and is still a valuable reference to be read on those cloudy nights when you can’t be out observing.   However, in the years since its original publication, some of the information in it is outdated or has been superseded.  

Enter a brand new observing guide, the Annals of the Deep Sky.  More than just an update to Burnham’s, it is intended to be not only a complete survey of the most important DSOs in each constellation, but to also provide the background information as to why those DSOs are interesting and what they tell us about the universe.  The authors are also incorporating into the series the latest developments in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, as well as astronomical exploration and discovery.  

When complete, this new set will represent a titanic leap in the amount of information and material gathered in one place, a thoroughly in-depth guide to our entire universe.  Currently the first four volumes are available out of what is anticipated to be approximately 15-20 volumes when completed – an eventual total of about 6,000 pages.  

Turn Left at Orion ($25) and Nightwatch ($21)

These two books are great introductory texts, both for beginners and intermediate astronomers, too.  Turn Left at Orion gives detailed area maps and starhopping techniques for users of non-computerized scopes so as to be able to find all of the Messier objects, and a few other worthy DSOs to look at as well.  Nightwatch gives more of an overview of astronomy in general, and telescopes in particular, as well as some of the more interesting sights in the sky.  However, if you get one of these two books, don’t get the other, as they do tend to overlap somewhat.  

Also consider:

Dew Shields

For any Mak or SCT type telescope that has a large front lens element (including all of the NexStar scopes discussed above), you’ll want to add a dew shield. As the night progresses, dew tends to form on the glass at the front of these scopes, with the obvious result of fogging up the view.  Even if you live in a fairly dry climate, the dew shield also helps to block any stray light from entering the telescope, improving the viewing by boosting the contrast between the DSO and the night sky. Well worth an extra $20-30, or you can make your own for less. Here is the shield for the C6 and C8.

Astrophotography

This article really focuses on telescopes for visual use, and pretty much ignores astrophotography (AP). It’s possible to take basic pictures through any telescope simply by holding a compact camera or smartphone camera up to the eyepiece.  However, this only works for bright objects like the moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. If you want to get deeper into astrophotography, here are a few recommendations.

Cameras

I highly recommend doing AP with a DSLR camera. For one thing, many people already interested in photography have a DSLR already, so there’s no extra investment on the camera front to do AP. Second, DSLRs are much simpler to use for AP than dedicated astro cameras, which require a laptop and a mess of cords to operate. (A DSLR can be driven by a laptop, but can also be driven with a simple intervalometer – a much easier setup.)

For specific DSLR recommendations, see the Soggy Astronomer article, The Best DSLR Cameras for Astrophotography.

Telescopes for Astrophotography

I’m going to pull a bait and switch here and recommend a camera lens instead of a telescope. What??? Why??? Simple: You can start doing Astrophotography with a DSLR and any camera lens you already have. No, you aren’t going to get close up photos of the moon or planets with your stock 18-55mm kit lens. You can, however, get some nice images of the milky way and constellations, and even make out various nebulae and galaxies.

Really want to do deep sky imaging of galaxies and nebulae? OK, first, get a good Go-To equatorial (EQ) mount. Expect to spend at least $800 for the mount and tripod, up to $2000 or more for higher end options. Some good lower cost options are:

ioptron_cem25Why an EQ mount? The sky moves and rotates around us, and an Alt-Az mount on telescopes like dobsonians and the Celestron NexStar doesn’t account for this rotation, which is along the Earth’s axis. EQ mounts are setup in orientation to the Earth’s axis, so as the Earth rotates (or as we see it, the sky rotates around us) the EQ mount tracks that same rotation. This allows you to get those long-exposure photos of the night sky without the stars looking more like streaks (with no tracking) or potatoes (with an Alt-Az tracking mount).

As to a telescope to put on that new EQ mount, here are a few suggestions in a range of budgets and uses. All of these telescopes are optical tubes with no mounts, eyepieces or other accessories unless indicated:

Orion Short Tube 80 ($109-$199)

Good inexpensive entry level refractor for both visual and astrophotography.

Pros:

  • Provides a very wide field view, suitable for large prominent nebula and galaxies.
  • The wide field of view lets you get started without worrying too much about an auto-guider and laptop setup.
  • Well-built telescope; this is not a department store toy.

Cons:

  • Will exhibit chromatic aberration (color fringing) on bright targets like the moon and planets.

Stellarvue SV80 ($1200, $1500 with FFR)

High end of the wide field refractors, for people serious about high quality images.

Pros:

  • Provides a wide field view, suitable for large prominent nebula and galaxies.
  • The wide field of view lets you get started without worrying too much about an auto-guider and laptop setup.
  • APO Triplet lens provides tack sharp stars and colors.
  • Includes a padded carry case.
  • Excellent for visual and photographic use.

Cons:

  • Cost (some might say investment).

Other Notes: I highly recommend the Stellarvue Field Flattener/Reducer designed for this telescope to deliver a wider field of view and tack sharp stars from edge to edge (about $300).

Alternate Choice: Explore Scientific 80 ED Triplet ($525 on sale)

Explore Scientific 102 ED Triplet ($750 on sale)

A larger aperture and lower cost option in the refractor space, for a good balance of quality and price. Currently 25% off during the holidays.

Pros:

  • 714mm focal length gives a relatively wide field of view, which is suitable for larger DSOs, and with a barlow, for planets and smaller DSO as well.
  • APO Triplet lens provides tack sharp stars and colors.
  • Excellent for visual and photographic use.
  • Includes a 2” diagonal for visual use.

Cons:

  • Optically a small step down from the Stellarvue telescopes, but still very good.
  • Focal Length really needs an autoguider.

Other Notes: Highly recommend the ES 2” Field Flattener designed for this telescope to deliver nice sharp stars from edge to edge (about $150).

AstroTech 6RC ($399) or AstroTech 8RC ($899)

Excellent value for long focal length for imaging planets and smaller deep sky objects.Tend to require more maintenance than refractors, and the long focal length requires an auto-guider for long exposure images.

Pros:

  • Narrow field imaging telescope, same basic optical design as the Hubble.
  • Great value.

Cons:

  • Requires an autoguider for maintaining sharp stars during long exposures due to the narrow field of view and f/8 (8RC) / f/9 (6RC) optics.
  • Requires collimation of the mirrors.
  • Recommend a higher capacity mount for long focal length telescopes. (These telescopes, plus camera and autoguider are heavy.)

Alternatives: Astro-Tech RC scopes are generally in high demand and often have a wait list. These same optical tubes are sold under several different brands, including Orion. The specific set of accessories and mount rails varies with the model, but they are all the same excellent optics.

Camera Trackers

Not ready for that level of investment? I’ve been having the most fun doing AP this past year with a simple camera tracking mount and a camera lens. No, this doesn’t work for getting the cloud bands of Jupiter, but it’s absolutely awesome for some of the larger nebulae and galaxies like Andromeda. Camera tracking mounts are accurate enough when setup properly to take several minute exposures with lenses up to 200mm focal length. You would be surprised how much there is to see in that range. It’s fantastic for capturing such wonders as the Andromeda Galaxy, the Orion Nebula, or the Pleiades cluster.

iOptron SkyTracker Pro ($299 on sale)

This is the brand new mount that is an upgrade from the very good SkyTracker I’ve been using over the past year. The Pro version is the same price as the previous model that it replaces, and seems to address all of my complaints about the old model. Price above does not include a ball head or tripod. iOptron sells a good quality ball head for $60. Look for a good photo tripod with a 20 lbs capacity.

Questions

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