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Do you need a compact, lightweight, portable telescope?
As is often said of cameras, "The best one is the one you have with you." For a telescope, that means the one that's small enough to roll with you, wherever you roam. Whether you're on a safari in the Outback, or camped out in a studio apartment in the city, small is beautiful as long as your view through the eyepiece is huge.
You stand a better chance of seeing the deep sights of the universe by taking a small telescope to a very-dark-sky location than by keeping a not-very-portable larger scope at home under light-polluted, smoggy skies.
Whether you travel or are simply storage-space-challenged (or both), our editors have selected the best "grab-and-go" telescopes for you:
Celestron Regal M2 100ED – "Spotting Scope"
- Refractor (tripod sold separately)
- Clearest and sharpest "grab-and-go" compact telescope
Spotting scopes are a breed unto themselves. Generally used by hunters, marksmen and markswomen, animal-spotters and birders, they are made for portability.
Now, Celestron has come to market with a spotting scope that is excellent for "grab-and-go" astronomy as well. The Regal M2 100ED can pull a lifetime of visual memories into its 19.25-inch (48.9 centimeters), 4.6s-lb. (2.1 kg) frame. The M2's body is cast of lightweight magnesium alloy, stronger than aluminum. And its detented, rotating tripod mount lets you set the whole instrument at the most comfortable viewing angle.
Optically, spotting scopes tend to be like one half of binoculars on steroids. The M2’s 100mm (4-inch) aperture is large, even for a spotting scope. But it's perfect as an astronomical refractor that's still compact enough to take with you. That big front objective lens is cast of exceptional quality "ED" glass. The "ED" stands for "extra-low dispersion," which gives you the precise hues of planets, with reduced chromatic aberration (false colors) around the edges. These optics also give you tack-sharp stars and a deep contrast range to pick out fine detail in nebulas.
But that big lens is heavy compared to the rest of the rig. So Celestron has thoughtfully provided a balance plate. This keeps the scope's mass even atop a tripod. You attach this plate to your tripod (purchased separately) and slide the scope along the slotted portion of the plate until the balance feels right. Then, simply tighten the locking ring. Two cautionary notes: 1) The slide may not give enough clearance for tripods with quick-release blocks. 2) Be careful when rotating the scope as the slide can dig into the rubber coating on the tube and leave an ugly scratch.
At the back of the scope, unscrew the protective guard to reveal the eyepiece. It has a twist-out eyecup. This works to block out extraneous light. It’s especially important for eyeglass wearers. And if you're nearsighted, this helps you dial in the right amount of eye-relief distance for best focus. The M2's stock eyepiece is not specifically designed for astronomy. But the scope is designed to accommodate standard 1.25-inch astronomical eyepieces. You'll need to purchase these separately.
Zoom and focus are fast. You can continuously vary the magnification from 22x up to 67x. The smooth dual focuser has concentric coarse and fine adjustment knobs.
Up front, near the 100mm (4-inch) objective lens, you'll find a slide-out sun hood guarding the optics from unwanted light and protecting it from water. As temperatures change at night, that hood does double duty as a dew shield.
Astronomers don't come out only at night. If you're a birder or a people-watcher (think: sports) you'll like the sharp resolution and excellent color accuracy of this instrument. I was able to read a typical street sign from more than a mile away across a river.
This spotter hasn't yet caught on with many long-gun shooting clubs, but we think it might. The M2's maximum zoom of 67x can resolve small-caliber marks on faraway targets. (For example, .22-caliber ammo hits at 175 yards, or 160 meters).
Astronomical telescopes tend to be delicate. This one, because it's designed as a spotting scope, is more rugged. It's rubberized for shock and sealed for water resistance. The nitrogen-purged tube is less likely to fog up internally, and will form less dew on its optics, than a similarly size refractor telescope meant for the astronomy-only user.
You will need to buy an appropriate tripod; make sure it slides down to short length for travel. It needs to be fairly heavy so it doesn't wiggle in the wind, jiggling your view. And you'll want to pay attention to the type of mount; we recommend a paddle-handle locking altitude/azimuth rig.
Are you a "digiscoper?" That's someone who shoots their digital camera through a spotting scope. Birders and other animal-watchers often like to do this. The Regal M2 is compatible with a large number of point-and-shoot cameras. Celestron offers a universal camera adapter to facilitate such "afocal" photography (purchased separately). As with any digiscope setup, you do have to be careful about vignetting; that black area surrounding a circular image in the center of your picture. You can also attach your SLR camera to the M2 using the included T-adapter step ring, added to the eyepiece.
The M2 comes with a water-resistant soft case you can sling over your shoulder. It is light green ballistic nylon on the outside with a layer of shock-foam padding inside. You can operate the scope in this case but it isn't as well designed for accessibility as the case accompanying the Levenhuk Blaze spotting scope (reviewed below).
Our Editors' Choice of last year, the Pentax PF-80ED-A, is still a good choice. But Celestron's Regal M2 100ED boasts 125 percent larger aperture, balances better on your tripod and costs about $300 less.
Editors' Budget Choice:
Levenhuk Blaze 90 Spotting Scope
- Refractor / Small Tripod
- Most cost-effective "grab-and-go" compact telescope
Levenhuk's Blaze 90 Spotting Scope lets you pack 3.5 inches (9 cm) of starlight-snagging aperture into your go-anywhere bag. For about one-fifth the cost of Celestron's M2 100ED, you can get about three-quarters the thrill if you buy the Levenhuk. It will add 5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg) to your checked baggage.
It's not really meant for astronomy. You can't, for example, pop standard 1.25-inch telescope eyepieces into it. But we found we can observe with it quite well. The best telescope is the one you have with you. And the Blaze likes to travel!
One skywatching disappointment: the moon. Without the ability to use astronomy eyepieces, you can't attach a moon-darkening filter anywhere in the optical path. Once it gets 10 degrees above the horizon, our moon is too bright to be viewed with an unfiltered telescope.
Cast of the very common BK-7 borosilicate glass, the Blaze 90 won't be quite as clear as the Regal M2 (reviewed above). But we guess you'd only notice the difference in a rigorous side-by-side test.
Like many spotting scopes, you zoom by rotating a ring at the eyepiece: clockwise to zoom out, counterclockwise to zoom in. Targets in the sky get noticeably darker as you zoom in, but that's completely expected. The zoom range is specced 30x through 90x. [Curiously, though, the zoom-ring graphics read the range as 25x – 75x. We believe this to be a manufacturing holdover from previous models.]
The focuser is very precise. It takes a lot of time because the focus range is quite large. But objects in the sky are at "infinity" distance. So for astronomy you won't spend so much time dialing focus. You will need to refocus after you zoom.
You can alter the position angle of the eyepiece. It's easy to do by simply loosening a locking screw and rotating the tube. But you probably won't do that at night unless you intend to be observing one object for a long time.
There's a serviceable shield at the front to keep spurious light out of your view field. Just pull it out gently and you're in business.
The Blaze 90 comes in a very nice field pouch of ballistic nylon. It will certainly keep the dirt and scuffs off the tube but it doesn't have a thick shock-protection layer built-in. The scope is fully serviceable while in the pouch, including an exposed tripod mount point.
There are protective hoods at both ends: one for the large front objective lens and the other to nest the eyepiece. Both of these protective hoods use Velcro closures and both are "captive"; you won't lose them in the field. The Velcro pads are not sewn in precisely the right spot to insure completely error-free attachment, but they'll work if you're careful.
A hard plastic screw-on cup further protects the eyepiece. This is very nice to have and will protect your eyepiece from a multitude of handling sins.
A separate large protective flap opens to reveal the focus knob.
The included tripod is small. The miniature-mounting knob will be difficult to tighten on cold nights with numb fingers. It's not really beefy enough for the mass of the scope and it's made of inferior cheap materials. We managed to strip the threads of the pan/tilt compression lock in about 15 minutes of use. But it is light enough to carry anywhere.
If placed on terrain, this little tripod would put a level scope's eyepiece 12.5 inches off the ground. This is a workable height if you're using the Blaze for traditional shot-spotting, or for animal-blind work where you are lying down. But it's not anywhere close to correct for any astronomy, except maybe a moonrise. So you'll need to buy a tall tripod that is sturdy enough for the massive Blaze. A light-duty camera tripod won't work.
The Blaze is excellent for daytime nature work. It can't focus closer than about 33 feet (10 meters), but you'd probably scare any animal closer than that.
It you want to attach your camera, be sure to buy Levenhuk's M42 T-ring adapter.
For a More Traditional Approach:
Orion ShortTube 80-A
- Refractor (mount and tripod sold separately
- Best for standard astronomy
The Orion ShortTube 80-A is like the Toyota Camry of telescopes. It's an economy choice that can get you almost anywhere in relative comfort. It's well built, with few indulgences. And there are many, many of them out there.
The "A" stands for "astronomy." While you certainly can (and should!) use this excellent scope for animal watching or sports, Orion has specially coated the optics, and given this model a precisely engineered focuser mechanism, for observing the sky. The 80mm medium-fast f/5 optical path pulls in wide star-fields. You'll want to invest in neutral density (gray) "Moon Filter" to watch Earth's companion, which will be too bright in the unfiltered eyepiece.
You'll need a few other extras. Start by selecting a good camera-style tripod. Orion recommends its heavy-duty model tripod and head (about $160). This tripod folds down to a length of 34 inches (86 cm), which is not quite as small as we would like for travel. It is, however, wonderfully sturdy.
The Orion 80-A comes with a 90-degree mirror "star" diagonal for astronomy. If you also intend to use your Orion ShortTube 80-A for daytime terrestrial viewing (animals, people, boats, etc.), be sure to configure it with Orion's "correct image diagonal" ($57) and "correct image finder scope" ($100). These will show you the world as it is, rather than reversed left to right or upside down, or both, as with some types of astronomical telescopes. If you'd like help selecting accessories, Orion's Live Chat messaging app is brilliant. We've found that being in near real-time contact with a very knowledgeable customer service rep — one who is not all about the "hard sell" — is very reassuring.
Depending on the tripod you pick, your ShortTube 80 rig will weigh about 9 to 14 lbs. (4 to 6 kg). But it could be small enough to fit into your carry-on bag, so it won't tip your checked baggage into the extra-fee zone. We know a couple of world-class eclipse chasers whose go-to "grab and go" is the Orion ShortTube 80-A. Why not join them out there?
A Computerized Choice:
Celestron NexStar 4SE
- Catadioptric / AltAz / Tripod / Go-To
- Most fully featured Go-To portable
Up to this point, our compact "go scope" choices have all been refractors. But there's another way to squash down the photon-gathering power of a larger telescope into a smaller size: Fold the light path.
Celestron's NexStar 4SE is a hybrid of reflector and refractor — a "catadioptric" telescope. Specifically, it's a Maksutov-Cassegrain, a brilliant design that reduces a few of the inherent problems of both refractors (color anomalies) and reflectors (deviation from flatness). On the other hand, having both lenses and mirrors in the mix steals more than a few photons from the star party.
You look through a hole in the primary mirror and out through the front "corrector plate," so the 4SE can be used as a daytime spotting scope. Just make sure you get an "erect image" diagonal for your eyepiece (and maybe an "image erecting" finder scope). It's a little clunky, but it works. With an appropriate adapter, it will work beautifully as a telephoto lens for your DSLR or mirrorless camera.
To make a compact telescope, optics engineers are compelled to reduce the aperture. But, at just over 4 inches (10 cm), the NexStar 4SE's radiation-reaping opening isn't tiny.
The 4SE is the only one of our "travelers' scopes" to carry an onboard computer, Celestron's battle-tested SkyAlign system. It's not a fully automated setup, but it's not hard to get the scope and mount aligned and tracking on the sky. Then, you can take advantage of SkyAlign's 40,000-object database. Theoretically, your view won't rise to the level of the more expensive "Hobbyist and Learner" models reviewed elsewhere on Space.com. But you might find yourself in a faraway dark-sky location to which you could not have transported a bigger telescope, so you might end up with a more memorable experience, thanks to the smaller telescope.
This small scope is a compressed bundle of performance. [Read our Full Review of the Hybrid Celestron NexStar 4SE]
Editors' Choice for Young Travelers:
Celestron TravelScope 60 – National Park Edition
- Refractor / AltAz Tripod
- Least costly for night-sky and daytime Earth views
Don't have much to spend? Have hardly any room? There's still a solution: At the opposite end of the cost curve from the superb Celestron Regal M2 100ED, you'll find the economic Celestron TravelScope 60 NPF. Everything about this package is small; yes, unfortunately, that means the telescope's 2.36-inch (6 cm) aperture is a bit puny. But when fully rigged, it can still manage 140x magnification.
This little spotting-scope-style refractor comes in its own backpack. It's ready to travel: You get a collapsible tripod, a finder scope, two eyepieces (20 mm and 8 mm), a lunar filter (a must!), an image-erecting diagonal (a must!), a 3x Barlow lens "supercharger," a compass and a mini LED flashlight on a carabiner. You even get a free download of a National Parks guidebook. That's a whole lot of instrument for less than $85.
The whole kit, including its backpack, weighs only 3.8 lbs. (1.7 kg). Yes, everything about this kit, including the price, is lightweight. Yes, the thin aluminum tripod trembles in the wind. Yes, the aperture is small and consequently light-limited. No, the lenses and coatings are not laboratory grade. But all the essentials are here. And, if your TravelScope 60 NPF gets damaged out there in the wild, the loss will be more of a "Darn it" than an "Oh, $#@*!" moment.
The TravelScope is also a great starter scope for kids. You and your child could each be out there enjoying the sky or nature in the daytime. And you'd each have an instrument of your own. No need to worry about junior damaging or dropping your more sophisticated (expensive) instrument.
There is one final thing to consider about compact travel telescopes: Your most portable scope might just be a great set of binoculars. Read our guide: How to Choose Binoculars for Astronomy and Skywatching.