How Much Does a Good Telescope Cost?

The purpose of this article is to give you a framework upon which to budget for a first telescope. I will give examples based on price ranges and point out what going to the next 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, so you can enjoy it.

I have offered a list of first telescope packages that can deliver a good experience ranging in price from $75 to $1200. These scopes run from 70 mm in aperture to 250 mm in aperture. Clearly, you can spend more, but this seems a good range in the context of this article. 

If you ask me how much the cheapest telescopes costs, I’d tell you to stay away from that $49 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 in a small scope due to atmospheric conditions. So, if you see one of those, walk away!

Just like 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 $400+ range you are getting into very capable telescopes. And if you can afford $600 or more the scopes become powerful and feature rich.

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 are involved in astronomy long term 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, 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 are that you don’t need a very large scope to see and enjoy them. I usually suggest 80 mm or larger for a first scope so that brighter deep sky objects can also be enjoyed.

Deep sky objects, 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 an 80 mm telescope, far more can be seen with a larger aperture scope. For deep sky objects telescopes of 150 mm and larger are common, with starting prices under $300. Naturally, these work very well on the Moon and 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 40 mm to 60 mm telescopes can be used for the Sun and the bigger scopes work well too.

Cost Of Telescopes and The Capabilities

$75 to $200

This is the lowest budget category I would recommend. This includes entry-level packages including refractor telescopes of 70 to 90 mm of aperture. It also includes ref lector telescopes of 100 to 130 mm of aperture. 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. They are simple to use and fairly rugged and virtually maintenance free. They travel well too.

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.

With reflectors, you tend to get more aperture for your money because mirrors are less expensive to manufacture than lenses. However, both designs are popular so choose either with confidence.

They all include a finder device, usually a red dot finder, to help you point the scope. Some stand on a tripod and some are table top telescopes that are small and compact. As the name suggests, the table top packages will require a sturdy table or stool.

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, deep sky objects, such as star clusters. The darker the location you can observe from the better things will look.

  • Meade Instruments 209003 Infinity 70 AZ Refractor Telescope
  • Meade Instruments Infinity 80mm AZ Refractor Telescope
  • Meade Infinity 90mm Altazimuth Refractor Telescope
  • Orion SkyScanner 100
  • Orion StarBlast 4.5
  • Meade Lightbridege Mini 130  

$200 – $400

If you can budget in this range, what you typically get is more aperture, which is good. In addition, you typically get a better quality mount and either more or better quality eyepieces.

I have included a 6 inch/150 mm and an 8 inch/203 mm Dobsonian. Dobsonian telescopes, Dobs, are Newtonian reflectors on a floor mounted Dobsonian base. Dobs are the value king of amateur astronomy. They provide you with a very stable mount and the most aperture for the dollar. 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 on 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.

I was also able to add two computerized packages, also called GoTo scopes. Think of these like GPS in your car.

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.

With the computerized, GoTo, scopes, once you finish set-up and align 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.

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, but then you have to find the targets yourself. Give up a little aperture to include the computer and the telescope finds 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. You will hear opinions on this either way, but that is my recommendation. I have four telescopes, three of which are computerized. 

Like 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, 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 nebula. 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.

Computerized Scopes

$400 to $600

This category includes 3 computerized scopes in the 102 mm to 130 mm range. The 102 mm optical tubes on the Meade and Celestron are the same as the optical tubes on the manual scopes in the previous category. The main difference is now they are mounted on computerized mounts.

Since what you see is driven by the aperture, these scopes have similar capabilities to the scopes in the previous group but on better mounts. That usually means a more stable scope with more precise GoTo features and better tracking.

Over $600

Obviously, we can keep going higher. The most expensive package in this group is about $1200. In this group, we have two Dobsonian packages, a 10-inch manual and an 8-inch PushTo. Like the computerized GoTo scopes, the PushTo Intelliscope will help you find your targets. However, it has no motors. The handset tells you where to point the scope but you move it and you do the tracking.

Many people find the PushTo design is the best of both worlds. The PushTo computer systems cost less because there are no motors and it will help you find things. So, for the same money, you can get a larger aperture. The XT10 has more aperture but no computer. The XT8 Intelliscope has a little less aperture but adds computer assistance. So you trade aperture for computer assistance.

The two Celestron NexStar systems are 6 and 8 inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes, 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 lighter weight compact design, combined with the GoTo mount, has made these extremely popular.

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 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.

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, 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 helping you know you have a particular focus.

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 are that you don’t need a very large scope to see and enjoy them. I usually suggest 80 mm or larger for a first scope so that brighter deep sky objects can also be enjoyed.

Deep sky objects, DSOs, include open clusters, globular clusters, galaxies, nebulae, and double stars and other things. The larger the aperture of your scope the better these will look in your telescope. There are thousands of DSOs to enjoy.

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 40 mm to 60 mm telescopes can be used for the Sun, but all size scopes can be used, you just need the proper size solar filter.

Summary

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

It is always nice to work with a local store where people can help you. Many camera stores also carry astronomy equipment. Visit those local stores to get a feel for size. See if they carry one of the scopes I list above.

There are also many online sources. Some are dedicated to telescopes and astronomy. Others are more general but may offer the same packages. Here are a few examples, but of course there are many others.

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