Since the early 17th century, telescopes have been used to observe stars, planets, and celestial bodies light-years from Earth. A telescope uses a magnifying lens or curved mirror to gather and focus the light from the nighttime sky to enable your naked eye to see distant stars and planets through the eyepiece.
Tracking and charting the movements of the stars and planets in the night sky through the lens of a telescope is not only a great hobby, but it also can be a serious scientific endeavor. The best telescope for home use depends on your plans for the telescope, where you plan to use it, and your level of experience, ranging from beginner to amateur to semi-professional astronomer.
We’ve compiled a list of the best telescopes available in their respective categories based on product efficacy and overall value.
- BEST OVERALL: Celestron NexStar 8SE Telescope
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Gskyer Astronomical Refracting Telescope
- BEST FOR BEGINNERS: Zhumell Portable Altazimuth Reflector Telescope
- BEST PORTABLE: Celestron Portable Refractor Telescope
- BEST OPTICS: Celestron NexStar Evolution Telescope
- BEST FOR ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY: Celestron AstroMaster Newtonian Telescope
Types of Telescopes
The three main types of telescopes are refractor, reflector, and compound. The telescope that’s best for you depends on how you plan to use it.
One of the most common types of telescopes, refractor telescopes are the versions typically featured in popular media. At the front of the telescope, a lens known as an “aperture” directs light through the scope to a mirror into the eyepiece. Because this style of telescope doesn’t invert the image before it reaches the eye, users can view objects both in the sky and on Earth. However, to view very faint objects in the sky, a reflector or compound telescope typically works better than this type of telescope.
Reflector telescopes don’t use a lens; instead, their two mirrors gather and direct the light from the night sky. This process inverts the image, which makes viewing objects on Earth difficult. However, this method helps focus and provide additional clarity to objects that would appear faint in a refractor telescope. No lens means that dust and dirt may get into the internal components. Users should plan to clean the telescope regularly and store it in an appropriate location.
Compound, or catadioptric, telescopes combine refractor and reflector telescopes into one highly accurate product. Instead of two mirrors or a mirror and a lens, the compound telescope contains two mirrors and one lens. The path that the light travels through the telescope tube is inverted, but it then reverts to an upright orientation before passing through the eyepiece, which means users can view objects in the sky and on Earth. The increased magnification along the tube helps improve the telescope’s strength and clarity. However, compound telescopes typically cost more than refractor or reflector telescopes.
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Telescope
Before buying a telescope for stargazing, keep in mind these important shopping considerations to help narrow your choice.
How you plan to use your new telescope is an important factor to consider. Whether you plan to view live, view live and record, or practice astrophotography, consider the different strengths of the various telescopes and mounts.
- Live viewing is simply looking through the telescope without worrying about videos or photography; almost any telescope works for this purpose. However, for strengths beyond that of the human eye, adequate magnification requires a minimum 70-mm aperture size. If you plan to move your telescope to multiple locations during your stargazing expeditions, you probably should consider its portability as well.
- Live viewing and recording is when you look through a telescope and use your phone (or another device) to record your session. This isn’t a new practice, but it’s much more popular now since almost everyone has a smartphone. To record, look for a telescope with a smartphone mount, which allows you to mount the phone to the telescope, so the video and image aren’t distorted by movement.
- Astrophotography, essentially the photography of astronomical objects, began almost 200 years ago in 1840, when the first photograph of an astronomical object was taken. For astrophotography, the ideal telescope includes an equatorial mount with slow motion or motorized controls to track specific celestial bodies as they move across the nighttime sky. Telescopes with electronically programmable “GoTo” features are available, but they cost more.
While experience level shouldn’t be a factor that prevents anyone from jumping into astronomy, keep it in mind as you choose a telescope. The best telescope isn’t the most powerful; instead, it’s the one that you will use the most.
- Beginners (and most children) are often attracted to telescopes that are far too complex—and expensive—for their skill level. Rather than investing in an expensive instrument before knowing if they’ll enjoy the hobby, beginners typically benefit from a smaller, more affordable telescope with an aperture no smaller than 70 mm. They should look for a straightforward model with an easily adjustable mount, so they can spend more time looking up at the sky than trying to figure out how to use their equipment.
- Amateur astronomers may have a few years of experience in observing the stars and planets, but they may not be ready to dive into more advanced telescopes. At this level of experience, amateurs may want to begin exploring astrophotography or at least invest in an equatorial mount or a GoTo mount for their telescope, which allows users to move quickly between objects in the sky.
- Experienced astronomers, having observed the night sky for years, will likely invest in a powerful telescope with complex features, such as an electronic touchpad to program coordinates into the telescope and mount. However, experienced astronomers and astronomy hobbyists alike may have one or more telescopes with varying strengths and weaknesses.
When selecting a new telescope, one of the most important features is the size of the aperture. The aperture, the diameter of the telescope’s lens or mirror, is also known as the “objective.” The larger the size of the aperture, the clearer that faint objects will appear through the telescope.
The aperture size usually appears near the focuser at the front of the tube or on the product description or manufacturer’s website. The size of the aperture is measured in millimeters, but it may sometimes be displayed in inches, with 1 inch equaling 25.4 mm. To ensure a view of the sky that’s an adequate improvement over the naked eye, select a telescope with at least a 70-mm (2.8-inch) aperture.
Because the magnification of a telescope increases with a change of its eyepiece, its specific magnification capability isn’t as important as most people think. However, even with very high magnification, objects will remain dim and blurry. To solve this issue, magnification needs to increase along with the size of the aperture.
As the size of the telescope aperture gets bigger, the amount of light that can be collected and clearly viewed also increases, so dim and blurry objects become clear. Most users find a useful magnification is about 20x to 50x per inch of aperture. In ideal viewing conditions, this means that a 4-inch or 101.6-mm scope only gets about 200x useful magnification. A 6-inch or 152.4-mm scope could reach up to 300x. Keep in mind that light pollution, smog pollution, cloud coverage, humidity, and many other factors affect viewing conditions.
Avoid telescopes that boast of extremely high magnification levels, such as 600x. They may magnify the light in the sky by 600x, but the resulting image in the eyepiece is indecipherable because, without an appropriate aperture, the light isn’t focused. For a true 600x magnification, telescopes need at least a 12-inch or 304.8-mm aperture.
The eyepiece, an integral part of a telescope, can completely change the view of the sky. Eyepiece measurements, which normally appear in millimeters or inches, range greatly in size. To ensure the eyepiece has an appropriate magnification for the telescope, compare the size of the eyepiece to the focal length of the telescope.
Focal length divided by eyepiece size results in total magnification. For example, a telescope with a 500-mm focal length and a 25-mm eyepiece provides a magnification of 20x. Those who must wear their glasses while viewing through a telescope should look for an eyepiece with a significant distance between the eye and the eyepiece lens, which is known as “eye relief.” The extra length improves comfort and ease of use while wearing corrective lenses.
Telescope mounts come in three main types: altazimuth, equatorial, and motorized.
- Altazimuth mounts are simple systems that move vertically in an up-and-down motion or horizontally in a side-to-side movement. Use these mounts with a standing tripod or as a tabletop telescope.
- Equatorial mounts, a more complicated style of telescope mount, must be aligned with the Earth’s axis. Once the mount is aligned, the scope follows objects in the sky as they move, which makes equatorial mounts especially useful for astrophotography, because the object remains centered as it moves.
- Motorized mounts operate automatically when the user selects an astronomical object or the coordinates of the object. Coordinates for astronomical objects are based on ascension and declination. These mounts cost more, but they can save the time that otherwise would be spent manually moving and setting the telescope.
Size and Portability
Before you buy a new telescope, consider where you want to use it and how you plan to transport it. Having a telescope that’s too small to properly see anything probably is a waste of money, but a telescope that’s too big to move easily is a bigger waste. Many people find they set up a bulky telescope only once or twice, then leave it to gather dust because it’s too much effort to set up and haul around.
Instead, select a telescope with at least a 70-mm aperture to ensure a clear view of astronomical objects through the eyepiece. Once you find an acceptable aperture, increase the size to your desired level, keeping in mind that you must move it and store it. Moreover, you want to consider whether it will fit in your car. For a clear view, users sometimes transport their telescope far from the light pollution caused by city lights.
Some additional features may come with the telescope or telescope mount, including a carrying case, smartphone mount, or a GoTo feature.
- Carrying cases keep a telescope safe during storage or transport to a new viewing site and back home again. Cases are constructed with a range of materials, from simple padded nylon to hard plastic shells with durable interior padding.
- Smartphone mounts, small accessories that can be added to a telescope, take pictures or record videos of the stars, planets, and other astronomical bodies.
- A GoTo is a compact onboard computer that attaches to a motorized mount. The computer usually comes preloaded with information about the night sky and the celestial bodies. Selecting a star, planet, galaxy, or another astronomical object directs the motorized mount to automatically locate the chosen object.
Our Top Picks
With a nod toward quality, features, and price, the list that follows should help you find the best telescope for your needs.
This compound telescope has a wide 203-mm aperture and a long 2032-mm focal length that allows viewers to see the night sky with crystal clarity at 81x magnification through its included 25-mm eyepiece. The telescope mount is fully automated, allowing users to keep their focus on the sky, not on manually maneuvering the telescope into the perfect position.
The computerized mount is preloaded with information to allow viewers to browse and select from more than 40,000 celestial objects. Once an object is selected, the mount automatically adjusts its position to locate the celestial object in seconds. Both the tripod and telescope come apart easily to allow easy packing and transportation.
When purchasing a beginner or child’s starter telescope, many consumers don’t want to spend a lot. The Gskyer Telescope is an affordable option, but it features a 70-mm aperture, 400-mm focal length, 40x maximum magnification, and two eyepieces: 10 mm and 25 mm. The 25-mm eyepiece provides a lower 16x magnification.
The refracting telescope, which sits in an altazimuth tripod, also comes with a 3x Barlow lens that extends the focal length of the telescope to increase its magnification ability. When the Barlow lens is installed, the focal length increases to 476mm, giving the telescope a maximum magnification of 48x (10mm) or 19x (25mm). The telescope also has a smartphone adapter with a wireless camera remote, so you don’t have to be near your phone or the telescope to capture images.
The Zhumell Portable Altazimuth Reflector Telescope is a great option for anyone looking to get into amateur astronomy. The entire telescope and base sit on a table, so the first few observation outings can be as simple as setting up the telescope in the backyard. The base of the telescope is on a lazy Susan-style base that provides horizontal control. Higher up on the mount, controls appear to direct the vertical direction of the telescope for full altazimuth control.
The telescope has a focal length of 456 mm and a 114-mm aperture that ensures clarity at magnifications of up to 46x with the included 10-mm eyepiece. If you use the 17-mm eyepiece, the magnification level drops to 27. This product’s small size means that it is easy to pick it up and carry it wherever you go without worrying about packing it in a bag or case.
Those who take their telescope wherever they go or who regularly set up observation sites at several different locations need a lightweight, portable product like the Celestron 70mm Travel Scope. The refractor telescope lets viewers look at the sky or toward ground objects. It comes with a tripod, two eyepieces, and a travel backpack to safely store and carry the telescope and all its parts.
This telescope has a 70-mm aperture, 400-mm focal length, and, with the included 10-mm eyepiece, 40x-maximum magnification capability. Use the 20-mm eyepiece to lower the magnification level to 20x. The lightweight tripod contains a basic, manual altazimuth system for directing the view of the telescope, making it quick and easy to set up.
For a high-quality telescope with outstanding optical clarity and magnification, the Celestron NexStar Evolution Telescope may fit the bill. This compound telescope has a computerized GoTo mount for automatically locating celestial objects. It also provides programmed access to more than 120,000 deep sky and solar system objects, which users can view through the 235-mm aperture. Its 2350-mm focal length allows up to 181x magnification with the included 13-mm eyepiece.
The telescope also comes with a 40-mm eyepiece for closer objects because it provides only a 59x magnification. The entire mount is powered with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that gives up to 10 hours of observation time before a recharge. However, if the power goes out, it doesn’t mean the night is over. The mount’s manual clutches adapt to a regular altazimuth mount to extend viewing time.
When getting started in astrophotography or when astronomy is your long-time passion, you may want a telescope with impressive aperture size, magnification, and an equatorial mount that lets you track the natural movement of the celestial bodies as you photograph them. The Celestron AstroMaster 114EQ is an excellent option that comes with several premium features, including a wide 114-mm aperture and 1000-mm focal length.
This reflector telescope comes with two eyepieces to provide 50x magnification with the 20-mm eyepiece or 100x with the 10-mm eyepiece. The telescope sits on an equatorial mount that has two slow-motion control knobs to manually track astronomical objects across the sky. However, keep in mind that equatorial mounts are more difficult to set up than altazimuth mounts, and they must be aligned with the Earth’s axis.
FAQ About Your New Telescope
Before investing in a new telescope, take a look at these frequently asked questions and answers.
Q. What type of telescope should I buy?
Base your decision on your skills, experience, and plans for the telescope. If you need a telescope for astrophotography, you may want a product with an equatorial mount, so you can track the movement of the celestial bodies. If it’s for live viewing, you probably want to start with a simple telescope before moving onto a more complex model. Experienced hobby astronomers likely already have specific characteristics in mind when they’re looking to upgrade or replace their current telescope.
Q. How size telescope do I need?
While you can choose almost any-size telescope, consider not only your plans for the telescope but how much it weighs. Portable telescopes can be transported to optimum viewing locations. You also can find smaller table-top telescopes to position in your backyard for stationary observation of some celestial bodies.
The choice is yours, but don’t purchase a telescope that you can’t move easily, unless a permanent location is available to set it up, so it won’t be exposed to the elements.
Q. How far can a telescope “see”?
Your telescope’s range depends on the model you choose, your geographic location, and the clarity of the sky. For instance, the Hubble telescope has recorded images more than 10 billion light years away. The average telescope provides a view of celestial bodies 1 million light-years away.