Skywatch: Your guide to buying a telescope for holiday giving

Over the years of writing this column and putting on astronomy and stargazing presentations, I’ve received inquiries from many nice folks about purchasing a telescope for themselves or that special someone. I’m often asked to recommend a “not all that expensive” scope. That’s always tough for me because I’m not sure what their definition of “expensive” is, so I have to ask them for a specific price range. Since this is the big gift-giving season, I want to help as many of you as possible find the best telescope for the best price, depending on who you’re buying it for. Maybe it’s you! As with anything, you get what you pay for. I want you to buy right and not just buy cheap. I don’t want your telescope gift to wind up in what I call the closet of no return.

My strongest recommendation is to avoid telescopes at retail stores and general shopping websites. Nothing against any of them, but there are a lot of junky scopes that find their way onto their shelves and websites. In my opinion, the best brands of telescopes are Orion and Celestron. They both have excellent websites that you can purchase from directly or that can direct you to a brick-and-mortar dealer.

Before I get too specific, I want to emphasize that the primary mission of your telescope is to gather as much light as possible. While magnification is essential, the light-gathering ability is much more critical to a telescope’s main job: to allow you to see far away objects too faint to be seen with the naked eye as clearly as possible. Galileo said it best: telescopes “reveal the invisible.” Magnification, or “power,” is controlled by which eyepiece you use and the scope’s focal length. Most telescopes come with two or three eyepieces. Usually, 100- to 200-power magnification is the most you’ll ever need for most celestial targets. Higher-magnification eyepieces can be helpful with planets and the moon but are not necessary.

There are three basic types of telescopes: reflectors, refractors, and Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes. There are also spin-offs of each type of telescope.

Refractor telescopes gather light with the objective lens, where light enters the front of the telescope, and the eyepiece is on the other end. The wider that lens is, the more light-gathering ability you’ll have. The minimum you will want is a 60mm refractor, meaning it has a 60mm objective lens. When shopping for a refractor. The diameter of the objective lens defines the size.

Reflector telescopes are formally known as Newtonian Reflectors since they were invented by none other than Isaac Newton in the 17th century. Reflectors gather light with a concave parabolic mirror inside the end of an open tube. The image collected by the primary mirror in the back of the scope bounces to the other end of the telescope tube to a smaller flat mirror. That smaller mirror is at an angle that reflects the image to the outside of the tube to the eyepiece. Undoubtedly, you get a lot of bang for your buck with reflectors, but the downside is that they are generally big and bulky. The larger the primary mirror in the scope, the more light you can collect and the clearer the image. Mirror diameters range anywhere from three inches for young kids to over 30 inches for fanatics. When shopping for a reflector, the mirror diameter defines the size. Honestly, I think an eight-inch reflector is probably the biggest you’d want to go with. Anything larger is going to be beastly. Many reflectors are referred to as Dobsonian scopes. These are easy to operate because the mounts operate very simply; up and down and back and forth.

Schmidt-Cassegrain scopes are reflectors with greatly refined optics that make them much smaller and much more portable. Unlike reflectors, the eyepiece is in the rear of the scope. They are more expensive but are more compact and portable than most reflector telescopes. Another huge advantage is that almost all Schmidt-Cassegrain scopes have motorized drive systems that keep up with the Earth’s rotation. That allows you to track whatever you’re looking at through your scope as it moves along in the sky, keeping your target in the field of vision. Many also have “go-to” systems that automatically point your telescope at any celestial telescope target in the sky. These systems have at least 30,000 to 40,000 telescope targets in their databases. This is a huge time saver for locating celestial objects, especially in areas with light pollution. Because of the compact optics and the technology, these are more expensive telescopes, but if you can afford them, they are worth it. You can get a smaller Schmidt-Cassegrain with a four-inch diameter mirror for around $700, but honestly, I think the smallest you should go is a six-inch diameter for about $1,100.

Here are my specific recommendations, from the most miniature telescope to the largest for casual stargazers. Like anything else, though, there are many telescopes in between.

FirstScope Signature Series from Celestron Telescopes

1. FirstScope Signature Series from Celestron Telescopes: designed for kids about 8 to 10. Pure Dobsonian scope, but it’s similar, with a small mirror.


Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Scope

2. Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Scope: For teens through adults. It has an 8-inch diameter mirror. $400

Celestron NexStar 6SE

3. Celestron NexStar 6SE: This Schmidt-Cassegrain type has a fully automated GoTo mount with a database of 40,000-plus celestial objects that automatically locates and tracks the objects for you. Just type in the celestial target you want to see, and it will electronically slew the telescope right to it and then follow it across the sky! I have this scope, and I love it. $1,100


4. Celestron Nextstar 8SE: A larger version of NextStar 6E with a larger diameter mirror and a longer focal length that will enhance the magnification. $1,600

You can certainly order these scopes through the websites provided. Still, I recommend that, especially with the Celestron NextStar telescopes, that you buy from a specialized telescope dealership that can give good personal advice and help with your purchase. You can browse for one, but personally I recommend Starizona in Tucson, Ariz.:

I’ve been doing business with them for years, and their service and advice can’t be beat, both before and after the sale. You can certainly order a scope from them online, but I recommend that you call them ahead of time. If you’re ever in the Tucson area, stop in and see them.

I’m often asked about deep-space celestial photography. It’s possible to do some limited photography with the moon and maybe some bright planets holding your cellphone up to the eyepiece of the telescope. For really serious astrophotography, you need Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes with their motorized tracking. I highly recommend you check out the Hyperstar lens available through Starizona in Tucson, Arizona. Hyperstar can fit on most Schmidt-Cassegrain scopes.

To be brutally honest with you, celestial photography requires a significant investment in money and time. Take it from me: It can be a really steep learning curve. However, there’s a super cool smart telescope that can take celestial photos in color of the moon, sun, and deep space objects. It’s the ZWO SeeStar S50 for only $500. It’s less than a cubic foot in size and weighs less than five pounds. It’s simply amazing. Using simple software you control on your smartphone or iPad, the Seestar S50 will direct itself to the celestial target of your choice. Then it will begin wirelessly projecting the image of that target on your phone or pad in a process called live stacking. As the sub-exposures build in, the picture gets clearer and clearer and is in color! You have to see it to believe it! You can store and share your photos with all your friends. Check it out on the Starizona website at ZWO Seestar S50 — Starizona.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at

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