Science

Best telescopes for beginners 2021: Top budget-friendly picks for viewing the planets, galaxies and more

Telescope glossary

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 the best telescope for a beginner can be a confusing affair — especially when you’re bombarded with jargon. Space.com is here to make the search simpler for you.

Before you choose the best beginners telescope that’s right for you, here’s a little primer: 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. Refractors are generally the cheaper option, allowing you to pick up an instrument that’s affordable and with a decent-sized aperture.

There’s also the option to save a little bit of money on your beginners telescope, so if you’re considering your options then we have a selection of articles on the best deals you can snap up right now. Check out today’s offers from top manufacturers Celestron, Meade Instruments, Orion and Sky-Watcher. 

  • If you’re not quite ready for a telescope, here’s our choice of the best binoculars
  • Looking for a telescope for a young skywatcher? Check out the best telescopes for kids
  • If you’re shopping around or are considering an upgrade on your current instrument, read our best telescopes guide

Best telescopes for beginners 2021

(Image credit: Celestron)

1. Celestron Astro Fi 102

Computerized mount for easy night-sky navigation

Optical design: Maksutov-Cassegrain | Mount type: Computerized alt-azimuth single fork arm | Aperture: 4.02″ (102 mm) | Focal length: 52.17″ (1,325 mm) | Highest useful magnification: 241x | Lowest useful magnification: 15x | Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm | Weight: 16 lbs. (7.25 kg)

No tools required for assembly 

Controlled via smartphone/tablet

Database recommends targets

Needs app to function

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 skywatching. 

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.

(Image credit: Celestron)

2. Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 130AZ

GPS enabled and good solar system and deep-sky views

Optical design: Newtonian reflector | Mount type: Alt-azimuth | Aperture: 5.11″ (130 mm) | Focal length: 25.59″ (650 mm) | Highest useful magnification: 307x | Lowest useful magnification: 19x | Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm | Weight: 18 lbs. (8.16 kg)

Easy to assemble and align

Suggests targets to observe

Good intro to astrophotography

No motor drive

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 130AZ 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.

(Image credit: Celestron)

3. Celestron AstroMaster 102AZ

Lightweight and easy to assemble for a “grab and go” experience

Optical design: Refractor | Mount type: Alt-azimuth | Aperture: 4.02″ (102 mm) | Focal length: 2.98″ (660 mm) | Highest useful magnification: 204x | Lowest useful magnification: 14x | Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm & 20 mm | Weight: 14.1 lbs. (6.4 kg)

Adjustable tripod

Easy to assemble

Very portable

Color fringing around bright targets

In its appearance, the Celestron AstroMaster 102AZ has the look of a classic refractor. It’s a no-frills telescope for those who are happy to learn their way around the night sky without the aid of technology. What’s more, this particular instrument is easy to assemble and use, making it a must for beginners.

The telescope is attached to a single arm alt-azimuth mount and features a slow-motion control for fine movements — from left to right as well as up and down — during navigation. Sweeping the night sky, we found that locking onto a target is simple with the Celestron AstroMaster 102AZ using the panning handle. There is no slippage and our chosen object remained in the center of the field of view.

A waning gibbous moon was visible using our observations. While the cratered surface could be seen in exquisite clarity and contrast, there is a degree of blue-purple fringing around the lunar limb. The same could be said when observing planets like Jupiter and Saturn, however, with the stunning views of the atmospheric bands and the Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings, this minor flaw in this portable refractor’s optics is soon forgotten. 

Like most beginner telescopes, the AstroMaster 102AZ is fully equipped for a successful night under the stars. As well as a good quality mount, skywatchers are treated to a StarPointer red dot finder for star hopping, an erect image star diagonal for comfortable viewing, Starry Night software as well as a 10 mm and 20 mm eyepiece. The duo will offer magnifications of 66x and 33x, which is ample for observing the solar system and a selection of bright deep-sky targets.

The Celestron AstroMaster is also available in apertures of 2.76 inches (70 mm), 2.99 inches (76 mm), 3.15 inches (80 mm), 3.14 inches (90 mm) 4.48 inches (114 mm) and 5.11 inches (130 mm), but for a budget-friendly telescope that’s able to observe a wider variety of targets, the AstroMaster 102AZ is highly recommended.  

(Image credit: Sky-Watcher)

4. Sky-Watcher Skyliner 200P

Picks out faint galaxies and nebulas with ease

Optical design: Reflector | Mount type: Dobsonian | Aperture: 7.87″ (200 mm) | Focal length: 47.24″ (1200 mm) | Highest useful magnification: 406x | Lowest useful magnification: 29x | Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm | Weight: 58.64 lbs. (26.6 kg)

Picks out faint galaxies easily

Collapsible, so very portable

Built to last

Requires frequent mirror adjustment 

Quite heavy

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.  
 

(Image credit: Celestron )

5. Celestron Inspire 100AZ

Very good views of planets, stars, galaxies, stars and nebulas

Optical design: Refractor | Mount type: Alt-azimuth | Aperture: 3.94″ (100 mm) | Focal length: 25.98″ (660 mm) | Highest useful magnification: 241x | Lowest useful magnification: 15x | Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm | Weight: 20 lbs. (9.07 kg)

Great range of accessories

Easy to assemble

Good intro to astrophotography

Slight false color in optics

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.
 

(Image credit: Orion)

6. Orion StarBlast II 4.5 EQ

Good overall build, with clear and crisp wide-angle views

Optical design: Reflector | Mount type: Equatorial | Aperture: 4.5″ (114.3 mm) | Focal length: 17.72″ (450 mm) | Highest useful magnification: 228x | Lowest useful magnification: 16x | Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm & 2x Barlow lens | Weight: 20.72 lbs. (9.4 kg)

Very good overall build

Handy add-ons included

Good optics

Mount could be a struggle for some beginners

Tripod needs an upgrade

The Orion StarBlast II 4.5 is an all-arounder for those hunting for an all-inclusive piece of kit. Be warned though: the equatorial mount can take a bit of getting used to compared to the simpler alt-azimuth and the computerized telescopes on the market. We recommend having a play with the setup during the day to get used to the counterbalance and fine-tuning controls. The overall build is very good, but the “lightweight” tripod could do with an upgrade.

The telescope is simple to assemble, we’d go as far as saying intuitive, but a manual is supplied for those who feel that they need more guidance. Included with the mount, tripod and optical tube assembly, the Orion StarBlast II 4.5 is supplied with two eyepieces — a 10 mm and 25 mm, which offer magnifications of 18x and 45x — a 2x Barlow lens, Orion’s Star Target Planisphere and Telescope Observer’s Guide for planning your observations, a moon map, a red LED light to preserve your night vision and a red-dot finder. This all-inclusive reflector is a very good starter telescope at an unbeatable price.

Once you’ve mastered the mount (and we have to admit, it doesn’t take long), the Orion StarBlast II 4.5 is easy to slew from one target to the next. The red-dot finder is able to pick up some of the fainter, low magnitude stars, making star-hopping a breeze as we navigated the heavens. We didn’t suffer with an undriven instrument, although if you’re looking to try your hand at astrophotography then we recommend choosing a motor drive such as the Orion AstroTrack Drive.

With a focal ratio of f/4, the Orion StarBlast II 4.5 is a fast telescope, meaning that it offers large fields of view compared to a telescope with a longer focal length. Views are bright through shorter optical tubes and this reflector was of no exception.

Jupiter was visible in the south east during our observations, dazzling at a magnitude of -2.7. Conditions were fair, allowing us to pick out the gas giant’s atmospheric belts and largest moons. We did detect a small amount of coma, causing our images to appear as if they were “falling inwards” near the edge of the field of view. However, with this telescope in particular, we had to look hard for the distortion. It didn’t affect our views of the night sky.

Given the telescope is better suited to wide-angle objects, we turned the tube to the Pleiades (Messier 45), which dazzled in the field of view. The major member stars were pin-sharp, like white jewels. Around them, and using our peripheral vision, we were also able to pick out the Merope Nebula, a reflection nebula surrounding 4th-magnitude star, Merope. 

As with many telescopes, the Orion StarBlast II 4.5 benefits from further accessorizing, especially in the way of eyepieces to make the most of the useful magnifications. We have to say though, with this complete package, there’s plenty to keep the beginner occupied until they’re ready to upgrade.

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