How would you like to explore the birthplaces of stars, giant clusters with millions of members, and even other galaxies, all from your own home? It's all possible with the right telescope. A telescope is an essential tool for the budding deep-sky explorer, offering a much greater light grasp than the unaided eye, and more flexibility than a pair of binoculars. But telescopes come in a variety of designs and sizes, so what should you consider for the best deep-sky views?
The number one factor in determining the relative deep-sky performance of any two telescopes is the aperture of the objective. Larger apertures collect more light and result in fainter objects becoming visible in the field. In general, mirrors are less expensive than lenses, so reflecting-type telescopes tend to offer more bang-for-your-buck when it comes to deep space views.
For astrophotography, highly corrected fast optics are more important, as well as sturdy and accurate mounts that can track the sky. Computerized mounts are a must for imagers, and they have advantages for visual observers too. If you're new to the deep sky, consider a telescope that helps you to find these faint objects, which don't pop out as readily as the planets or bright stars. It could be a push-to system, which tells you how hot or cold you are, or a fully-fledged go-to system that steers itself to your preferred target. Here are some of the best telescopes for deep space exploration and photography.
Best for portability
This telescope is a firm favorite among beginners looking for a highly portable start in deep-sky observation. Despite its diminutive size and light weight, the Heritage-114P Virtuoso isn't lacking in features. It offers the full Newtonian reflector experience with the added benefit of being able to automatically counteract the rotation of the Earth and track the sky. With the mount's AA battery or DC-powered motors switched on, you can smoothly slew across the sky using the built-in controls, and then keep your object of interest steadily within the field of view.
The Virtuoso tabletop Dobsonian mount can be upgraded at any time with the addition of Sky-Watcher's Synscan GoTo handset. This can find more than 40,000 objects in the sky for you — particularly useful for tracking down those very faint sights that don't readily jump out in the field of view. With a 4.5-inch primary mirror, the Heritage-114P is on the smaller side for a Newtonian reflector, but it is great value within this affordable price range and provides surprisingly bright views of diffuse targets like nebulae and galaxies. Unfortunately, the included red-dot finder isn't optimal for hunting down deep-sky objects, but the telescope's smooth slewing controls will ensure you can hop to them using nearby field stars.
Best for: tabletop performance
Astronomers generally agree that the deep sky starts to come to life in a telescope with at least six inches of aperture. Orion has delivered this in a tabletop format with their StarBlast 6i, which is capable of resolving stars in brighter globular clusters as well as the structures of planetary nebulae. The supplied eyepieces provide good starting points for exploring a range of deep-sky objects, including large emission nebulae (like the Orion Nebula at 30x) and compact clouds (like the Ring Nebula at 75x.) The included red dot finder is a slight drawback to the overall package, but thankfully it uses a standard dovetail mounting shoe and can be upgraded to an optical finder at any time.
The StarBlast 6i's unique selling point is its intelligent push-to Dobsonian mount, which is not only compact and sturdy, but capable of helping you navigate the stars to find more than 14,000 objects. With built-in encoders and a handset using just a single 9v battery, it tells you how to manually slew the telescope to find whatever you're looking for. It's great for learning your way around the sky, offering an experience that's both easy and rewarding at the same time. The mount also includes a well-thought-out eyepiece rack to keep your eyepieces organized and protected from knocks or drops in the dark.
Best for: Value for money
It's often surprising to calculate the increase in light grasp between two telescope apertures. An eight-inch mirror is only 33% wider than a six-inch, but it collects a whopping 77% more light, resulting in much brighter images at the eyepiece. Sky-Watcher's Skyliner-200P is hands down the most affordable way to enjoy deep sky astronomy at this standard, with a system that's light on flashy features. Its basic Dobsonian mount can't find or track objects in the sky for you, but with smooth mechanics, you'll have no trouble doing this by hand the old-fashioned way. The 50mm finder — a small telescope in its own right — is ideally suited to finding and centering objects of interest before investigating them with the sizable main mirror.
The telescope also features a dual-size focuser, which can accept 2" eyepieces — a must for anyone seeking the most immersive deep-sky views. 2" eyepieces can achieve wider fields of view at lower magnifications for some truly spectacular vistas. While it's somewhat bulky at nearly 24 kg, the Skyliner-200P has a fairly small footprint of about 54cm, fitting neatly into tight storage spaces when parked vertically. It can be set up and packed away quickly and conveniently when compared to other models in its size bracket. It's a superb value proposition for those on a budget looking to do serious deep-sky work. If you can double your budget, it might be worth considering the Flextube Synscan Go-To version of the same telescope — both have excellent optics.
Best for effortless automated astronomy
Today's amateur telescopes are smarter and more performant than anything on the market just a decade ago. The Evolution 8" EdgeHD from Celestron employs a widely acclaimed optical tube assembly as the basis for a very capable overall system. The StarSense camera not only aligns the telescope for you, but also connects to Celestron's SkyPortal App on your phone or tablet via the telescope's onboard WiFi. From here, you can locate and lock on to over 120,000 targets with a few taps. This is all powered by a substantial rechargeable battery built into the mount — no cables or external power supply required. Of course, all this technology comes at a cost, but if you want a home observatory that sets itself up and takes you on a tour of the sky, it's a fair price.
Compared with the Newtonian design, the Schmidt Cassegrain is expensive for its aperture, but it is extremely compact, employing two mirrors and a corrector plate to fold its long focal length into a shorter tube. The EdgeHD optics are among the best-in-class at this price point, and this tube assembly is well suited to astrophotography with the right accessories. Using a focal reducer, it can operate at f/7, and is also compatible with Hyperstar, which brings its operational focal ratio down to f/2! Celestron also sells a wedge, which converts the Altazimuth mount into an Equatorial mount, making long exposures possible. Whilst it's rather light on accessories out of the box, this telescope offers several upgrade paths to suit your ambitions.
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Best for easy deep sky imaging
Quite different from anything else on this list, the eVscope eQuinox offers a very different way to 'see' the night sky. With no eyepiece, it instead uses a camera built into its optical assembly to gather and integrate light from faint objects, producing long-exposure images that are sent to your phone via the Unistellar app. The images are certainly impressive for such a small and apparently simple telescope, but there's no way to look through it yourself. Still, if your goal is simply to take and share deep-sky photos with your friends and family, there's nothing else on the market that offers the same level of accessibility.
With its powerful sensor, the eQuinox reveals details and colors that are imperceptible to our eyes, even in the largest telescopes, and as such, it has genuine scientific potential. Unistellar users can become citizen scientists and upload data from their telescopes to support a variety of astronomical projects. It may not be very traditional, but this telescope does exactly what it sets out to do.
Best for: astrophotography
So, you want to jump into deep sky photography, capturing star clusters, nebulae and galaxies. If you're shopping on a budget, don't overlook this telescope. Pairing excellent mechanics with fast, bright optics, it's a no-nonsense astrograph — a telescope engineered with astrophotography in mind.
Of course, you can use it visually with an included extension tube, but you'll need to supply your own eyepieces. You'll also need to supply your own mount, as Orion doesn't sell this telescope as a bundle, but there are plenty of excellent computerised equatorial mounts to choose from. The Orion 6" F/4 Newtonian Astrograph also features a straight-through optical finder with a standard mounting bracket, so you can use this to attach a guide scope in the future for more accurate tracking enabling longer exposures.
Orion has thoughtfully reinforced the focuser to support the weight of a camera and filter assembly on the side of the tube, so this is suitable for any camera including a DSLR or Mirrorless body. It's compact and light, and doesn't require an enormous mount to carry it, making it a perfect option for entering the world of serious deep-sky photography.
Best for: serious deep sky observing
When it comes to seeing the incomparable beauty of the deep sky, nothing compares with the experience of looking through a giant Dobsonian telescope, although you will need a step ladder to get up to the eyepiece in many cases! Sky-Watcher's Stargate-500P is a 20" aperture colossus that brings a top-tier viewing experience to serious deep sky observers. With a truss tube design, the telescope is relatively lightweight and can be set up or taken down piece by piece by a single person in as little as 20 minutes. A fabric shroud can be stretched over the truss assembly to block stray light and protect the mirrors when in use, and with a DC plug or external powertank, the telescope can find and track objects in the sky with reasonable accuracy via Sky-Watchers Synscan computer handset.
Dual-encoder technology allows you to manually slew the telescope by hand without having to realign it, as both axes continue to record their position, so you can quickly jump from object to object with tracking enabled. It's a monster telescope that offers the ultimate deep sky viewing experience — there's nothing like the sight of a galaxy or nebula with such a large mirror under dark skies. It's probably best to start with something less complex and work your way up to this one if you catch the deep sky bug.
When it comes to telescopes that test the limits of the sky, the sky is the limit. You can experience deep space on a budget, or invest in a no-compromise giant home observatory. Be sure to consider models which prioritize aperture and light grasp, as this will be essential for picking out the faintest targets, and if you intend to enter the world of astrophotography, choose something that's going to be suitable from the beginning, even if you don't have the equipment you need yet.
A sturdy equatorial mount with built-in go-to and tracking will unlock the longest exposures, allowing you to maximize the potential of your optical tube assembly. These larger, mirror-type telescopes usually require more maintenance than their smaller, more robust lens-type counterparts, but there's nothing you can't do yourself without some practice and understanding. At times it can seem unforgiving compared to the simplicity of looking at the Moon, but the deep sky is worth the investment. Have fun exploring the wonders of the Universe!