Reflector, Refractor, Hybrid and Dobsonain Telescopes - Each has certain advantages for the beginner.
Something strange and wonderful happens when we look into the night sky. It can make us feel tiny, but at the same time, surprisingly powerful. In a word: Awestruck.
Few experiences magnify this emotion like observing through a first-class telescope. But owning a truly great ‘scope – and figuring out where to point it – was out of most consumer's reach until quite recently.
Now, thanks to digitally-driven manufacturing, and low-cost onboard microelectronics, telescopes of very high quality and amazing capability have become affordable. And a lot of startling star-stuff out there is now within range.
There are four basic telescope types that are good for beginners: Reflector, Refractor, Hybrid and Dobsonian. Let's take look at a first-rate example of each:
Reflector Telescopes: Celestron NexStar 130SLT Review
Among the best reflector telescopes for beginners, Celestron's NexStar 130SLT boasts big aperture, respectable optics and easy set-up with the Sky Align Go-To computer.
Refractor Telescope: Meade StarNavigator 102 Review
Low maintenance, excellent optical quality, a fine Go-To computer and the capability of daytime use for targets on Earth persuaded our reviewers to name Meade's StarNavigator 102 the best refracting telescope for beginners of 2012.
Hybrid Telescope: Celestron NexStar 4SE Review
Compact size, innovative light-path and beefy mount got our reviewers' attention. Celestron's NexStar 4SE is one of the best hybrid telescopes for beginners, with a database of 40,000 celestial objects and daytime spotting scope capability.
Dobsonian Telescope: Orion StarBlast6i Review
Big light-gulping aperture and simple intuitive operation give Orion's StarBlast 6i a strong edge among low-price Dobsonian telescopes for neo-astronomers. There are no motors to drive it but the "IntelliScope" computer helps you find targets.
Our review team has chosen a best-of-breed from each beginner telescope type. You can also compare 18 different telescopes with our top ten telescope picks for beginners interactive chart. [And, yes, they are available in our SPACE.com Store .]
Which one is right for you?
To decide which type you might want; think about where you live, where you might go, and how you’ll be observing. All four will work for the night sky. But, if you intend to also bird-watch – or people–watch! – you’ll probably want either a Refractor or a Hybrid, because the image you’ll see can be “right-side-up” and easy to track when it moves.
Also, think about maintenance. Refractors and Hybrids are closed tubes; they accumulate little dust on the optics. Reflectors and Dobsonians do take in a little dirt. But, they’re easy enough to clean. And, because air can easily circulate through, they adapt (“equilibrate”) to changing temperatures faster. That’s important to keep image distortion low.
Reflectors and Dobsonians also require that you manually “collimate” their mirrors from time to time. That’s not hard to do, but you still have to do it. Hybrids rarely need collimation. And Refractors never do.
Aperture means “opening.” In telescope-speak, it refers to the size (diameter) of the useable part of the main mirror or primary lens. If all else is equal, wider aperture gives you sharper focus and brighter images. A telescope’s main job is actually not to magnify, but to funnel photons into your eyeball so your brain can assemble a picture. So, basically, bigger is better.
All the beginner telescopes we’ll show you have simple on-board computers to help you point at celestial targets. These will save you time and effort. You won’t have to learn how to read star charts right away, or struggle to find objects in the ever-changing night sky. But these units do require that you set them up properly to track accurately.
Some astronomers will disagree with our choice to include such “go-to” computers in the beginner category. They believe you’d be better off buying “more telescope” for the price, and spending time learning how to use starcharts.
We hear and respect that viewpoint. In a perfect world, you COULD devote long hours to learning the sky prior to observing. But we believe you’ll be more likely to invest that study-time after you’ve had some early successes experiencing the wonders of the cosmos.
For a quick start, dive into these four short articles and videos on best examples of telescope types for beginners:
If you’d like a deeply detailed look into this rewarding hobby, please read my colleague Joe Rao’s extensive article: “Telescopes - What You Must Know.”
And, if you just want to see the detailed specs of each one, click through these: