Are you looking for a gift to give (or to get)? Here are the best telescopes under $300.
You'll find many telescope reviewers, this author included, warning you not to buy a "department store telescope." These instruments are usually terrible fakes, with flimsy construction and horrifically bad optics. They will have pictures on the box of celestial sights you can possibly see with the garbage "instruments" inside. They will disintegrate into junk in a few months, even if you handle them carefully.
But now that physical department stores have become endangered species, the threat of awful, shoddy telescopes has gone away, right? Wrong! If anything, the problem has gotten worse. The online shopping universe is full of telescopic swindles and "gotchas." If you're buying a gift, presumably you care about the recipient. Your best bet is to buy from reputable telescope makers. Let us offer a few suggestions:
Astronomers Without Borders OneSky 130
- Reflector / AltAz "Rock and Roll" Turntable
- Best gift under $200 and helps developing nations
Every skywatcher should have access to one of these extraordinary telescopes. Without a doubt, it's the best telescope value we have seen at any price. More than half of your purchase dollars go directly to funding science programs in developing nations. Win. Win. Win.
Under a sufficiently dark sky, this telescope's 5.1 inches (13 centimeters) of aperture — very big for the price — will reveal the unexpectedly extensive width of the Andromeda galaxy. You will love exploring the moon on any clear night, except when it's a full moon (too bright and "flat" to observe). And many objects between and beyond are in range of this novel tabletop reflector.
As with many scopes in this price range, you get two eyepieces. The wider-field 25 mm gives you about 26x magnification; the higher-power 10 mm drives the OneSky to almost 66x, letting you see the landscapes of the moon, subtle color in Jupiter's cloud bands and the changing Mars polar cap at certain seasons of its orbit.
The best trick of this scope is that it packs down small. Employing a clever tube-and-truss strategy, the OneSky pops from a compact, 15-inch-long (38 cm) parcel to its nearly 26-inch (66 cm) working focal length. And the "rocker arm" style altitude/azimuth turntable mount has a sturdy built-in handle. At just 14 lbs. (6.4 kg), it's a "grab and go" telescope that fits easily on the seat of a compact car and sets up, ready for fieldwork, in seconds. It's an easy-to-use telescope, but should you get stuck, there are ample answers on trustworthy online astronomy hobby forums.
If you give a OneSky scope as a gift, you're actually giving two presents. When you purchase the OneSky, about half of your money goes to support science education in developing nations. Celestron, the maker of the OneSky, supplies the telescope at its actual manufacturing cost to the nonprofit Astronomers Without Borders (AWB). You will be empowering young astronomers around the planet, even as you are bathing your own eyes in glorious starlight.
(Outside the United States, the OneSky is sold as the nearly identical SkyWatcher Heritage 130, but you won't be supporting AWB.)
Best Gift for Kids — Under $100
Orion FunScope 76mm
- Reflector/Tabletop Altitude-Azimuth
Each of us develops differently. But most of us will go through a childhood stage where we become coordinated enough to work a telescope without frustration yet remain sufficiently open-minded to joyfully unearth what the instrument can show us in the night sky. For some of us, that jubilant discovery phase never ends. For kids just entering that "sweet spot," Orion Telescopes offers this portable, 76-mm, tabletop Newtonian that they call the FunScope. And it truly is fun.The challenge: Find a brainy-but-fun gift for a 5- to 10-year-old who likes outdoorsy stuff and spend no more than $100.
Two included eyepieces and a Barlow lens yield magnifications of 15x, 30x, 50x and 100x. That's an excellent range to take the young astronomer from Earth's moon to Jupiter's four moons and further on to Saturn's rings — all from their backyard or urban rooftop. At 3 lbs. 11 ounces (1.6 kg) and under 15 inches (38 cm) long, FunScope is lightweight and compact enough to travel to the campsite or other out-of-town dark-sky locations. But it's big enough in aperture for the user to spot bright galaxies, star clusters and nebulas, if an adult can help the fledgling observer know where to look. A red-dot star-finder is included to help point the telescope.
Just make sure there will be a table or other flat horizontal surface at the skywatching site; this 'scope does not come with a tripod.
Kids will be totally safe at night with the basic FunScope (~$70) — there's no target in the night sky bright enough to cause severe eye damage with a small reflector like this one. But we still recommend stepping up to the (about $90) Kids Kit that bundles the FunScope with a Moon Filter and other items.
As the moon approaches its full phase, the reflected sunlight becomes too bright for your eye to see features like smaller craters, individual mountains and the snake-like rilles (grooves) that run along parts of the lunar surface. The Moon Filter easily screws on to the back of either eyepiece and simply darkens the view. That will transform a 2-second painful glance at a too-bright blob into many minutes of comfortable observing time, as your happy astronomer cruises the fascinating "magnificent desolation" of the lunar landscape.
The Kids Kit also includes a moon map with 260 labeled features; a "Star Target Planisphere," which is a color-printed movable-dial chart that helps you locate astronomical objects; and a 48-page "Exploring the Cosmos" book for cloudy nights of learning and daydreaming about the universe.
Easiest to Set Up and Use
Meade StarPro 70mm
The best gifts are instantly appreciated for what they do NOT do, which is make the receiver work hard before they can enjoy the present. That's an all-too-frequent error made by well-intentioned givers of telescopes. A lot of 'scopes are complicated to put together and hard to use, but this isn't one of them. Meade's StarPro AZ 70-mm refractor is quick to set up and easy to use.
Refractors are the most intuitive of optical designs, because they're basically a light funnel. Point the big end at the sky and the little end at your eye. A spyglass: something so simple that every drunken pirate knew how to use one.
When operating a telescope in the daytime, you expect your target to appear just as it does to your eye but magnified, right side up and not reversed left to right. Meade makes sure the StraPro delivers this by including an "Erect-Image Diagonal" to fit between optical tube and eyepiece. This small, image-correcting box also bends the optical path to make for more comfortable viewing when pointing at objects lying at higher angles in the sky.
For simplicity of setup (and low cost), Meade puts this StarPro on the most basic of mounts: up-down/left-right, technically called altitude/azimuth. Again, it's instinctual. Two easily attached stalks with big knobs provide precision "slow-motion" control. They let you guide the telescope across the sky, keeping your target centered with fingertip twists that your body has understood since you were about 18 months old.
Make sure your intended recipient has room for the 'scope and a means of transporting it. When fully assembled, this rig measures 25 x 55 x 29 inches (63.5 x 139.7 x 737 cm) and weighs 8.5 lbs. (3.8 kg).
If the beneficiary of your generosity wants to take snapshots of what they see through their new telescope, they'll find that Meade has provided a smartphone adapter. This accessory fits up to the eyepiece and clamps the phone securely to hold its camera lens in place. This is technically called "afocal photography." It will let the user take shots of any bright object. The adapter will fit all smartphones except the very largest "phablets." (Some protective cases may be too bulky.)
The StarPro delivers a decent image for its price of around $130. But there are several reasons why some 70-mm refractors cost nine times more. This is an "achromatic" telescope, which, in practice, means users may notice some colored artifacts such as a magenta or green ring around the moon or a visibly round planet like Jupiter. With a focal ratio of f/10, it's not a very "fast" telescope, making it harder to see dim, fuzzy objects in the deep sky — they just won't have a lot of contrast. But the StarPro 70 AZ touches enough of the bases to be a sincerely appreciated and long-remembered gift.
Best for Understanding the Sky
Levenhuk Skyline 130 x 900 EQ
- Reflector / Equatorial / Tripod
How does a telescope costing nearly $300 qualify as "inexpensive"? When it has a lot to offer for the money:
Levenhuk puts an archetypal 5-inch (13 cm) Newtonian reflector on a classic equatorial mount with long shaft controls for traditional guiding across the universe. There is nothing automated or computer-assisted about this rig. And that's good. Here's why:
Everything about this telescope is a learning experience. In setting it up, you'll feel some important astronomy history come alive in your hands. In 1668, Isaac Newton placed a flat secondary mirror over a concave primary mirror at the bottom of a tube and forever changed the way people see the sky. The Levenhuk Skyline 130 x 900 is just a little larger than Newton's desktop telescope and its direct descendant.
The equatorial (EQ) mount is not intuitive. You place it on the tripod, and it seems a little like a gun. You learn that you need to aim that mount at a point above one on Earth's poles. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere (and most people do), that means pointing to Polaris, the North Star. You set the angle of the mount based on your latitude.
You'll notice that the EQ mount will allow spinning motion around two axes: the height above the northern horizon, and the degree of twirl to the east or west. Now visualize the sky spinning above you. If you freeze the sky in your mind, you will suddenly feel the Earth rotating, with you and everyone you know on it — and all of this before you even look through the eyepiece!
To keep the big optical tube poised on the sky, you need a counterweight. There will be an ideal position for that weight, along its shaft, that will balance the tube.
And as you attach the two long shafts of the control knobs to the two gear assemblies that spin the scope, you'll comprehend how to gently shepherd your powerful scope to counteract the spin of your planet. It's a heady experience.
As if that weren't enough, a dark-sky location will reward you for your hard work in assembling the scope. You'll get mind-expanding views of Andromeda and other galaxies, crystal-chandelier-like star clusters, star-birth regions like the Great Orion Nebula and, closer to home, the seven other planets in our solar system.
But you'll only find these treasures if you learn how to star hop, from objects you know to ones you want to meet. Happy learning!
Levenhuk Skyline 120 x 1000 EQ
- Reflector / Equatorial / Tripod
If your budget is tight, you can have most of the fun of Levenhuk's Skyline 130 for about $100 less, by stepping down to the Skyline 120 x 1000. It's a fine first instrument for anyone who really wants to learn about telescopes and how they relate to the universe. But it’s not for the very young, or for anyone in a hurry.
Astronomy is mostly about capturing light and this Skyline's 4.7- inch (114 mm) aperture grabs a lot of photons for the price. This is a classic manually guided Newtonian telescope in concept and construction. A nearly identical telescope could have been manufactured 100 years ago. That's both good and bad: The design is well proven and it's edifying to use but working it around the sky can feel clunky at first. Unlike a (more intuitive) altitude-azimuth mount, this equatorial mount requires that you zigzag your way to a target. It is definitely not a telescope for the impatient. The Skyline Newtonian is quite useful — forcing you to truly learn traditional skywatching techniques— but it's anachronistic in a world of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth-driven "go-to" telescopes.
The counterweight, that lump of metal that balances the mass of the optical tube, is a bit smaller on this scope than the one on its big sister. But it still hurts when you bump into it in the dark.
In operation, the process of pointing this telescope at your chosen object is not direct and not intuitive; you'll have to aim it in the general direction of the object, and then hunt around the sky by means of many turns on the so-called slow-motion controls (the knobs on stalks). The EQ mounts on the scope are very "analog" devices and can be frustrating for those born into our increasingly digital world.
But if you are buying for a curious learner, an EQ mount telescope is an excellent, experiential way to learn how celestial mechanics operates. Building and aligning the Skyline gives you a gut-level feel for how the Earth rotates and revolves with respect to the stars. You can also buy add-on electric "clock-drive" motors to keep such telescopes tracking (constantly pointed), once they have been aligned on an object. Adding such motors would enable you to take advantage of this telescope's built-in screw mount to attach a small camera. This mount is a standard "¼-20 UNC" threaded stud built onto the forward ring that holds the optical tube. Adding motors would enable you to take wide-angle time exposures of the star field.
Assembling this scope for the first time is a bit challenging. But don't blame Levenhuk: Every similar Newtonian on a light-duty EQ mount (e.g., Orion Starblast and Meade's Polaris) will be just as demanding. With patience — and a bit of reading — the Skyline reflector can be setup and working in under 30 minutes, even if you're a first-timer. And it's a good way to learn your way around the mount, which you'll need to have in muscle memory in the dark.
Reflector telescopes like this will need to be collimated(essentially "tuning" the optics for optimum performance to produce the most accurate shapes of objects) from time to time; it's another way the Skyline can teach you a useful skill. As I removed the telescope from the box, I noticed one of the three screws holding the primary mirror had been driven extremely tight — perhaps for shipping safety — resulting in stretched (nonpoint source) star images. Back these screws off just a tad to let the internal rubber pads work so the mirror can change shape as the temperature shifts.
The focuser feels smooth, gliding along a lengthy "travel." But the surprisingly small knobs make it a little challenging to find critical focus.
Under the stars, you realize all the fiddling of setup was worth it. The Skyline 120 x 1000 makes nice round planets in their true colors. Stars are bright, convincing you these tiny sharp points are actually gigantic, naked fusion furnaces far away. Wide objects, like nebulas and the few nearby galaxies, will reveal surprising details if you have a dark sky and persistently stare using the 25 mm ("low power") eyepiece. And crescent or quarter moons are spectacular!
Levenhuk saved cost on the tripod, but we're not sure it was a wise trade-off. 'Pods with square members are more likely to bind if accidentally bent (almost sure to happen some night). And if they take a serious ding — quite likely, given the thin aluminum used — they can stop working entirely.
The accessory tray is triangular. It lacks specific cutouts for eyepieces but sports a generous 15-mm-high wall to keep your stuff contained.
Minor quibbles aside, we find the Levenhuk Skyline 120 x 1000 EQ to be a first-rate cost-conscious choice.
A Commendable Alternative:
Levenhuk Strike 80
- Refractor / AltAz Tripod
For some people, it's just not a telescope unless it's a long tube refractor. Levenhuk offers this 3-inch (8 cm) aperture refractor — not very different from old Galileo's — on a simple yoke (altitude-azimuth) mount with a rugged stainless-steel tripod.
We were impressed with the heftiness of the optical tube, and the hardware of the mount is much stronger than what you'd get in a toy store. The only parts that felt a little less than solid were at the eyepiece end of the scope.
Two eyepieces offer the standard wide field 0.8-inch (2 cm) and high-power 0.24-inch (6 mm) views. A 3x Barlow lens is included to bring the maximum magnification up to 360x. A triangular tray hangs on the height-adjustment threads to keep these lenses organized, and also stabilizes the tripod. The mirror diagonal (included) is fine for celestial work. But to use this scope on Earthly targets, you'll need to buy a separate "image erecting" device. A "red-dot" finder attached to the tube, in front of the eyepiece area, can help you find a target.
To find out where those targets lie, use the learner's kit packed in the box. This kit includes a helpful observation planning book, a 3D planetarium computer software (called Stellarium), three colorful posters (moon, sun/stars, solar system), a rotating star chart ("planisphere") and a pocket compass to get oriented.
Galileo — or, at least, the Galilean moons of Jupiter — will be shining down on you.
For Very Tight Budgets:
Celestron ExploraScope 60AZ NPF Edition
- Long Tube Refractor / AltAz Tripod
- Best gift, or hobby-entry tool, under $100
If you absolutely need to watch every penny, you can still own a telescope that is light-years beyond a typical department-store version.
Celestron's ExploraScope 60AZ is a long tube "shotgun" refractor. It's not very different from the one Galileo used to blow the doors off humanity's primitive understanding of the universe more than 400 years ago. Topography on the moon, phases of Venus, moons around Jupiter, "ears" of Saturn — if he could do it, you can, too.
The ExploraScope 60 mimics its more expensive counterparts in every system. But each of those systems is smaller, lighter and more compromised in some way. Optics are inexpensive. The tripod is made of very-light-duty aluminum, but it does have a legitimate accessory tray, which serves to lock the spreader in place. It also holds the two included eyepieces: a 3x Barlow lens, and the standard compass-plus-LED-flashlight that's included with all of Celestron's National Parks Foundation kits.
The tray will also carry your own smartphone (running Celestron's SkyPortal app for iOS or SkyPortal for Android) and any other little bits. (Might I suggest a mini Bluetooth speaker playing celestial tunes?)
The altitude azimuth mount is bare-bones, but it does have a clever slow-motion rod that lets you smoothly guide your scope as the Earth rotates. The StarPointer finder doesn't magnify, but it does pinpoint targets with an illuminated red dot.