Aperture: Diameter of the primary mirror or lens, which allows a telescope to collect light.
Field of view: Area of sky visible through the eyepiece.
Focal length: A telescope's tube length. Short focal lengths offer a wide field of view and a small image.
Focal ratio: Also known as the telescope's speed. Small focal ratios provide lower magnifications, wide field of view and a brighter image.
Magnification: Relationship between the telescope's optical system and the eyepiece.
For the uninitiated, choosing a beginners' telescope can be a confusing affair — especially when you're bombarded with jargon. Space.com is here to make the search simpler for you.
First, a little primer on telescopes. Simply put, these instruments are categorized into two major optical kinds: reflectors and refractors. Reflectors, or reflecting telescopes, use an internal primary and smaller, secondary mirror to focus the light into the eyepiece in order to create an image. Meanwhile, refractors, or refracting telescopes, make use of lenses to focus the light into the eyepiece. In other words, reflectors reflect light, while refractors tend to bend — or refract — it. Some instruments make the most of mirrors and lenses, they're known as Maksutov-Cassegrains, Schmidt-Cassegrains or catadioptric telescopes
Generally speaking, refractors are great for views of the solar system and bright deep-sky objects, while reflectors are light guzzlers, so are better placed for capturing faint galaxies and faint nebulas.
If you're after painless, quick access to the universe, here's Space.com's selection of the very best telescope for beginners from top manufacturers Celestron, Meade Instruments, Orion and Sky-Watcher.
Celestron has found a very clever way to give you much more telescope for your money. But you need to be comfortable with digital devices: meet the Astro Fi, an instrument that boasts cutting-edge technology and a very good amount of support for those just starting out in sky-watching.
Supplied with everything beginners need for great tours of the night sky, including 10 mm and 25 mm eyepieces (for magnifications of 132x and 53x), a smartphone adapter to dabble in basic astrophotography and a red dot finder, the Astro Fi is an excellent piece of kit for the price. What’s more, the overall build is of a good quality, especially given the sturdy aluminum tripod.
The Astro Fi 102’s optics provide good views of the moon and is able to pick out the planets with ease. In our experience, pleasing views of Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are achieved through the four-inch aperture as well as breathtaking sights of the rugged, chalky terrain of our moon. Beginners — and even the whole family — will be delighted with what the Astro Fi 102 is able to reveal. The Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31) is also a pleasant sight, with its disk coming into view when playing with the magnification.
The attractive aspect about the Astro Fi 102 is the SkyAlign technology for simple alignment. Aligning your instrument is essential before you begin your observations as it reveals your orientation relative to the night sky and, with this information, the Astro Fi 102 is able to slew to your desired target at the touch of a button.
The button in this case is your smartphone: skywatchers just need to download the Celestron SkyPortal app (downloadable from Apple's App Store and Google Play), which in our experience is quite intuitive and pick three bright stars to assist with the alignment procedure. The beauty of the Astro Fi 102 is that you don’t need to know anything about the night sky to enjoy it, but it does serve as a tool in learning your way around it.
If you’re unsure of what to observe on your first night, then the Celestron SkyPortal app recommends objects for you. A great feature that's useful for beginners.
The development of the smartphone has revolutionized how we interact with technology, and Celestron’s Starsense series of beginners telescopes take full advantage of that. The Celestron Starsense Explorer DX owes its ingenious design and ease of use to the Starsense app, combined with the magic of GPS.
Ordinarily, a GoTo telescope user would have to align their telescope on one or two bright stars for the onboard computer to figure out what direction it’s pointing in. This could be a bit daunting for newcomers to the hobby who just want to start observing amazing celestial wonders, without getting bogged down in the setting up but Celestron’s StarSense technology ingeniously does all of the calibration and aligning for you in a matter of minutes.
Once you have downloaded the StarSense app onto your device, it will display a simulated view of the night sky along with menus from which to select objects (such as the planets or galaxies) to observe. Once you choose your target, screen arrows are displayed, directing you to nudge the telescope in the direction of your chosen object. Once it's in your instrument's field of view, the app will issue an alert — all you have to do is look through the eyepiece.
Celestron’s Starsense Explorer range includes a 4.5-inch aperture Newtonian and a 4-inch refractor, but for better light-grasping views, the Celestron Starsense Explorer DX 130AZ, which boasts an aperture of 5.11 inches, is the model to go for.
The Celestron Starsense Explorer DX 130AZ does come with two eyepieces, a 25 mm and 10 mm, which will provide magnifications of 26x and 65x, but as with all mass-produced budget telescopes, we recommend purchasing additional bespoke accessories to make the most of this instrument's optical system.
The supplied mount also isn’t particularly heavy duty, and the lack of a motor drive means you have to make the effort to push the telescope around the sky rather than let it drive itself, but as a beginner's telescope with integrated smartphone technology, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an instrument as good and easy to use for the price.
With its long tube, Meade Instruments' Infinity 102 AZ has the look of a classic refractor — simple to use and assemble, it's a no-frills telescope for those who are happy to learn their way around the night sky without the aid of technology.
The telescope is attached to a single arm alt-azimuth mount and features slow-motion control cables that enable fine movements — from left to right as well as up and down — during navigation. There’s no more need for sweeping past an object, and jerky movements are banished when centring a chosen target in the eyepiece. Control is as smooth as velvet.
The Infinity 102 is fully supplied with a tripod, three eyepieces with focal lengths of 26 mm (25x), 9 mm (73x) and 6.3 mm (105x) plus a Barlow lens that can double the magnification of a given eyepiece.
A star diagonal is also included, which directs the light upwards to the eyepiece for comfortable viewing, although be careful – this accessory's weight can tip the telescope along the altitude axis, requiring the user to adjust the slow-motion control.
Also supplied is the AutoStar Suite Astronomer Edition software on a DVD, so it's a little old-fashioned compared to downloadable smartphone apps, but this will suit users uncomfortable with using advanced technology, making for a nice, simple observing experience.
The Infinity is also available in apertures of 1.97 inches (50 mm), 2.36 inches (60 mm), 2.76 inches (70 mm), 3.15 inches (80 mm) and 3.14 inches (90 mm), but for a telescope that's able to observe a wider variety of targets, the Infinity 102 is highly recommended.
Dobsonian telescopes are considered by astronomers to be observing powerhouses — huge tubes on simple alt-azimuth rocker mounts that don't require the need for a tripod — but they can often be bulky and cumbersome for travel. Sky-Watcher’s line of Skyliner Dobsonians solves problems of portability by manufacturing the tube so that it splits in two, allowing it to extend along a truss or collapse into a more compact form.
Because of their design, Dobsonian mounts can comfortably hold larger apertures, usually at far less of a cost than the equivalent tripod-mounted reflecting or refracting telescopes. The Skyliner 200P, with its 7.87-inch (200 mm) diameter aperture, is a great bargain for the price — especially given the superb views it offers thanks to its light-gulping ability: if you've ever wanted to see some of the furthest galaxies and nebulas up close, then this is the telescope for you.
There is a problem with the Skyliner 200P though, and it’s that the telescope needs frequent collimation — the process of aligning the primary and secondary mirrors, using tiny screws that hold them in place. Even a few small jolts can knock the mirrors out of alignment, so be prepared to tinker with this instrument.
The aperture size presents another issue: although the truss-tube design makes the set up more compact and portable, the tube and mount still weigh over 50 lbs. (22.7 kg) together. It’s not quite a grab ’n’ go telescope, so we advise being mindful of this before traveling to dark-sky sites.
The Skyliner 200P comes with a 10 mm (120x) eyepiece, suitable for presenting wide fields of view that can encompass entire galaxies or the full moon, and a 25 mm (48x) one for more detailed work on, say, a close up of the rugged lunar surface or the planets.
Sky-Watcher's Skyliner series also includes the larger 9.84-inch (250 mm), 11.81-inch (300 mm), 13.78-inch (350 mm) and 15.75-inch (400 mm) models, but for a beginner wanting a little bang for their buck, the 200P is a great place to start.
An excellent telescope for the beginner, the Celestron Inspire 100AZ is a good choice given the ease at which it can be set up, simplicity of use and the complete package that offers more in the way of accessories over most starter telescope bundles.
The optics are of a good enough standard to reveal some enjoyable targets in the night sky, providing fair views of the moon, planets and brighter deep-sky targets such as nebulas and galaxies.
During observations, we did detect a degree of false color and blurring in the field of view. The latter is easily resolved with a careful selection of eyepieces, so we recommend investing in further eyepieces to make the most of the Inspire 100AZ's optical system. False color, on the other hand, is to be expected in telescopes at this price point but it did not ruin our observations.
The Inspire 100AZ comes with a 90-degree erect image diagonal with a 1.25-inch fitting that makes the telescope suitable for terrestrial and celestial views, a pair of eyepieces (20 mm and 10 mm), red LED flashlight, accessory tray, StarPointer Pro finderscope and a smartphone adapter for basic astrophotography.
Many beginner telescopes are supplied with a flimsy optical finder that limits star-hopping or navigation to the brightest stars in the sky, but the Inspire 100AZ's StarPointer is a pleasant surprise — it's able to pick out faint stars under moderate light pollution for an accurate experience in finding your way around the night sky.
Orion's StarSeeker IV series makes use of WiFi technology for a fuss-free tour of the universe and, combined with ease of use, intuitive assembly and alignment, this all-inclusive computerized reflector is a very good starter telescope at an unbeatable price.
In the way of accessories, the StarSeeker IV 150 is supplied with 23 mm and 10 mm eyepieces for magnifications of 32.6x and 75x, red dot finder, handset as well as a tripod.
Download the SynScan Pro app onto your smartphone and a WiFi network will be created with the GoTo mount, allowing the skywatcher to control the telescope and access data for more than 42,000 celestial objects. For those who would rather not download the app, the handset can be used to do the same job. It is worth noting that not all of the targets in the database can be picked out by the 5.91-inch (150 mm) aperture.
The build of the telescope is reasonable and we achieved beautiful views of Jupiter, in particular, its atmospheric belts and largest moons are an impressive sight through the optical system. For fans of Saturn, the rings are a breeze to pick out with the supplied eyepieces. We recommend a selection of planetary filters to make the most of the views.
With its light-collecting ability, beginners can also enjoy sights of the lunar surface, deep-sky targets such as the Ring Nebula (Messier 57) and the Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 27) as well as a selection of galaxies to a very good optical standard. No major optical distortion or defects can be seen through the field of view.
Of course, the more you accessorize a telescope, the better the views and we recommend making use of a 2x Barlow to up the magnification of its supplied eyepieces to get even better sights of the moon's craters, mare and the remainder of its rugged terrain.