The purpose of this article is to give you a framework within which to budget for your first telescope. I will give examples based on price ranges and point out what going to the next price class will get you. I will also bring out key considerations like size and weight, so you can get a scope that you can handle and enjoy.
I have offered a list of the first telescope packages that can deliver a good experience, ranging in price from $100 to $1500. These scopes range from 70 mm in aperture to 250 mm in aperture. You can spend more, but this seems like a good range in the context of this article.
If you ask me how much the cheapest telescope costs, I’d tell you to stay away from that $99 telescope you see in the big box store or the discount department store. The box may have pretty pictures and a claim of 500 power, but you will be disappointed. That is not a good telescope. In many cases, it is barely a toy. Everything in the package is cheap. In addition, 500X is not achievable with a small scope due to atmospheric conditions. So, if you see one of those, walk away!
Just like with any other product, you get what you pay for, so the higher the cost, the more capable and higher quality you get. You can get started for under $200. Once your budget moves into the $500+ range, you are getting into very capable telescopes. And if you can afford $700 or more, the scopes become powerful and feature-rich. In fact, we recommend an 8-inch dobsonian for most beginners, and the best in that category, the Apertura AD8, costs around $700.
I should point out that, as a result of the global pandemic, prices have risen quite a bit and many telescopes are in short supply. A telescope that was sold for $400 two years ago might be $600 today, so the prices you see may differ somewhat from what is being referenced in this article. But we do try our best to keep this article up-to-date.
Also note that, if you find you like astronomy, your first telescope will likely not be your last. Telescopes are tools, and it is not unusual to have more than one. So, don’t worry that the telescope you buy today will be thrown away when you decide to upgrade. Many people who have been involved in astronomy for a long time have two types of telescopes.
- Small grab and go/travel scope – typically 70 mm to 130 mm aperture
- Larger aperture scope – typically 150 mm or larger
You can start in either category. That first investment can have a very long and useful life if you find you really like astronomy.
What Can You See With a Telescope?
You will hear people say that a given telescope might be better for the Moon and planets. Another telescope might be better for deep space objects, or DSOs. In my opinion, you don’t need to worry about this too much for your first telescope. However, if you are focused on one particular type of target, just let the people know who may be helping you.
The Moon and the bright planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, are usually people’s first targets. You can see them with the naked eye, so they are easy to find. However, they are not always in the sky. They move around the Sun at different rates than the Earth, so sometimes they are in the sky and sometimes they are not.
The nice thing about the Moon and bright planets is that you don’t need a very large scope to see and enjoy them. I usually suggest 100 mm or larger for a first scope so that brighter deep sky objects can also be enjoyed.
Deep sky objects, or DSOs, include open clusters, globular clusters, galaxies, nebulae, and double stars. The larger the aperture of your scope and the darker the sky, the better these will look in your telescope. There are thousands of DSOs to enjoy.
While there are a lot of DSOs that can be seen with a 100 mm telescope, far more can be seen with a larger aperture scope. For deep sky objects, telescopes of 150 mm (6 inches) or larger are common, with starting prices under $400. Naturally, these work very well on the Moon and other planets too.
You can view the sun with any telescope, but you MUST have a solar filter on the scope that covers the entire opening on the front of the scope. Never use a solar filter that attaches to the eyepiece. Pointing your telescope at the sun without the proper filter will damage your eye. Again, you don’t need a large scope to view the Sun, even though some solar-focused telescopes exist. Even 60 mm telescopes can be used for the Sun, and the bigger scopes work way better.
Cost Of Telescopes and The Capabilities
All the packages I have suggested include an optical tube assembly (the telescope), a mount, a finder of some kind, and typically one to three eyepieces. Some also include a Barlow lens, which doubles the power of any eyepiece. They also adhere to the industry’s standard eyepiece sizes of 1.25” or 2”. This way, over time, you can add more eyepieces or filters to expand what you can do with the telescope. And the added eyepieces do not have to be the same brand as the telescope.
This price class includes entry-level refractor telescopes of 50 to 80 mm of aperture, reflector telescopes with 76 to 114 mm of aperture, and a few entry-level Maksutov Cassegrains with 60mm aperture. Most of the telescopes in this price group can be called as hobby-killer telescopes. Below are the telescopes that we have chosen out of the 70+ options available in this price group:
- Orion SpaceProbe II 76 EQ Reflector
- Zhumell Z100 Tabletop Dobsonian Reflector
- Orion SkyScanner 100 Tabletop Dobsonian Reflector
- SarBlue Mak60 Maksutov Cassegrain with Dobsonian Mount
- Zhumell Z114 Tabletop Dobsonian Reflector
- Orion StarBlast 4.5 EQ Reflector
An aperture is a measure of how much light the telescope can gather, and that is what telescopes are all about. The greater the aperture, the more you can see and the greater you can magnify the image.
- Refractors have a lens in the front that gathers the light. This is what most people think of when you say “telescope” because of how it looks. They are simple to use, portable, and virtually maintenance-free.
- A reflector, or Newtonian, has a mirror in the back that gathers the light. They are also simple to use, but most will require a periodic tune-up, called collimation. It is a simple procedure that you can perform yourself with a little practice. Some stand on a tripod, and some are tabletop telescopes that are small and compact. As the name suggests, the tabletop packages will require a sturdy table or stool.
With reflectors, you tend to get more aperture for your money because mirrors are less expensive to manufacture than lenses. Hence, almost all our recommendations in this price range are reflectors. However, both designs are popular, but keep your defences up when you make a choice in this price category.
Telescopes in this category will show you the Moon, Saturn and its rings, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Jupiter’s great red spot, and the 4 bright moons of Jupiter. They will also show you brighter DSOs such as star clusters. The darker the location you can observe from, the better things will look.
$200 – $400
If you can budget in this range, what you typically get is more aperture, which is good. The best value telescopes in this range are still tabletop reflector telescopes.
- Zhumell Z130 Tabletop Dobsonian Telescope
- Sky-Watcher Heritage 130p Tabletop Dobsonian Telescopes
- Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Tabletop Dobsonian Telescopes
With a manual, non-computerized scope, you have to find your targets yourself. Using paper charts or apps, you plot out a course to “star hop” to your target. Once you find it, you then track it by nudging the scope every minute or so to keep the target in view.
Celestron has introduced a new class of telescopes that provide computer assistance to help you find things in the sky. This is the Celestron StarSense Explorer series. I was able to include two of these in this price range. You will see other ones in the next price range.
- Celestron StarSense Explorer LT 80AZ Smartphone App-Enabled Telescope
- Popular Science Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 100AZ Refractor
These are PushTo type packages, which means the StarSense Explorer application will show you, on the smartphone screen, which way to move the scope to find your target, but you move the scope. There are no motors in a PushTo system. However, this overcomes the challenge of having to find things on your own. I have worked with these systems and they are very easy to use and work well.
Similar to the first price category, telescopes in this category will show you the Moon, Saturn and its rings, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Jupiter’s great red spot, and the 4 bright moons of Jupiter. However, because they have more aperture and, thus, more light-gathering ability, they will show you more detail. They will also show you fainter deep sky objects, such as star clusters, globular clusters, galaxies, and nebulas. And they will show them in more detail. The greater aperture will also allow you to apply more magnification to the image, as compared to the smaller scopes.
$400 to $700
In this range, you typically get better aperture, better quality mount and either more or better quality eyepieces. This category includes computerized scopes in the 90 mm to 130 mm range. It also includes many manual Dobsonian scopes, and two computerized Dobsonian scopes from SkyWatcher, all of which are great value. You basically get a lot more aperture for the money with the Dobsonian mounted scopes.
Dobsonian telescopes, Dobs, are Newtonian reflectors on a floor-mounted Dobsonian base. Dobs are the value kings of amateur astronomy. They provide you with a very stable mount and the most aperture for the dollar.
- Apertura DT6 Dobsonian
- Orion SkyQuest XT6 Dobsonian
- Skywatcher 6” Classic Dobsonian
- Apertura AD8 Dobsonian
- Orion SkyQuest XT8 Dobsonian
- Apertura DT8 Dobsonian
However, floor-mounted Dobs can be large and somewhat heavy. If you have a garage or a shed on ground level, a Dob stored on a cart or a hand truck is a powerful tool that is easy to move around. And Dobs are extremely simple to use. If you are going to have to go up and down stairs to move your Dob, make sure you can handle the weight and potentially multiple trips.
With the computerized, GoTo, scopes, once you finish setting-up and aligning the scope, the computer will tell the motors to point the telescope at anything in the sky, and then it will track it. Alignment typically takes less than 5 minutes.
- Sky-Watcher Virtuoso GTi 150P Computerized Dobsonian
- Sky-Watcher Virtuoso GTi 130P Computerized Dobsonian
- Celestron Astro Fi 102 Mak GoTo
- Celestron Astro Fi 130MM Newtonian
The compromise with the computerized scopes is that, if you are working within a tight budget, you can get more aperture in a manual scope for the same price. If you give up some aperture to include the GoTo tracking, the telescope will find the targets for you.
If you live in a city or bright suburb where there are not a lot of stars in the sky, you may want to give preference to a computerized scope. Our recommendation here at TelescopicWatch is to go the Dobsonian way most of the time, though.
Since what you see is driven by the aperture, these scopes have similar capabilities to the scopes in the previous group but mostly better mounts. That usually means a more stable scope with more precise GoTo features and better tracking.
Obviously, we can keep going higher. The most expensive package in this group is about $1600. In this group, we have many manual Dobsonian packages and two GoTo Dobsonians.
- Apertura AD10, AD12 Dobsonians
- Zhumell Z10, Z12 Dobsonians
- Celestron StarSense Explorer 8″ and 10″ Dobsonians
The two Celestron NexStar systems are 6 and 8 inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes, or SCTs. Without getting too technical, these provide a long focal length in a very compact package. A 6” SCT weighs a lot less than a 6” Dobsonian. That light-weight, compact design, combined with the GoTo mount, has made these extremely popular.
- Celestron NexStar 6SE Schmidt-Cassegrain GoTo
- Celestron NexStar 8SE Schmidt-Cassegrain GoTo
- Celestron NexStar Evolution 6 Schmidt-Cassegrain GoTo
- Celestron NexStar Evolution 8 Schmidt-Cassegrain GoTo
Going back to the title of the article, how much does a good first telescope cost? It depends on many factors that we have discussed. And it depends on you and your budget.
Picking the right telescope is as much about you as it is about the equipment. Your situation and your budget should be important considerations when making your choice.
The telescope you buy today need not meet every possible interest forever. Telescopes are tools, so, over time, you may want to upgrade. Or you may wish to add a second or even a third to meet size, weight, or special observing needs.
Light pollution will impact the quality of what you see. The Moon, planets, open star clusters, and double stars are less affected by light pollution than galaxies, nebula, and globular clusters. A little careful planning of what you observe and where you observe can make all the difference.
The hobby of astronomy is a wonderful way to spend time with family and friends. It can be a bonding opportunity with your children and can help them further their education.
I highly recommend visiting a club in your area. Clubs can be a great source of help and information. Observing with a group of like-minded people can really enhance the experience.
Where To Buy
There are many online sources. Some are dedicated to telescopes and astronomy. Others are more general and may offer the same packages, but each comes with its own drawbacks. We’ve got a detailed article on the best places to buy telescopes online in the USA. Here are a few examples, but of course there are many others.