What is the best telescope I can purchase new for less than $500?
November 10, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

I want to buy a telescope. Price range < $500. I know a thing or two about astronomy, but not much about telescopes.

I have read many of the past AskMeFi threads concerning buying a telescope. I think it warrants a revisit considering much of the technology seems to have come down in price in the last 5 years. I am in the market for a telescope sub $500. I am looking for specific suggestions of make and model, and also for more general characteristics to look for (ie. relecting vs. refracting vs. Dobsonian, eyepieces, and mounts).

A few relevant data points:

I already have sufficient binoculars that I can use for astronomy, so I would appreciate that suggestions are for telescopes only.

I have a very, very dark sky where I live with minimal light pollution.

I took an astronomy class ~10 years ago where we used motorized Meade telescopes that were programmed with a star database and could, with some forethought and effort on the user’s part, track to specific objects in the sky. I do like this technology, but don’t know if it exists in my price range.

I do not want to buy a used telescope.

I welcome other helpful suggestions of books and websites. There is no local astronomy club within 100 miles of where I live.
posted by tr0ubley to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Here you go. I would absolutely go with a Dobsonian, especially since you have dark skies. These types of telescopes are known as "light buckets", so you'll get a lot of bang for your buck looking at everything from planets to galaxies and star clusters. Once you get a little more money then you can start investing in better eyepieces. If you can stretch your budget I'd try to move up to 10 inches, since where I'm at that just starts to bring in some of the cooler galaxies with averted vision, but an 8 inch should work for you.

The starfinder technology and trackers are overrated in my opinion (unless you actually have a need for it or are doing astrophotography). Astronomy is a lot more intimate when you're starhopping. It's kind of like driving Route 66 in a convertible vs. driving in an SUV decked out with GPS displays and amenities.
posted by crapmatic at 12:09 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dobsonians take a certain amount of time to cool down to ambient temperature and they are also a pain to carry to and from a car but if you have a shed and a backyard viewing spot, they're the best way to go. The views in a good 12" are the dictionary definition of awesome.

The best accessory you can buy to go with a dobsonian is a wide angle eyepiece such as a Nagler. The wide field of viewmeans you don't have to keep nudging the telescope nearly as much.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:42 PM on November 10, 2010

I was going to recommend the same scope as crapmatic. A bit bulky but dead easy to use. And you can improve it over time by buying other eyepieces or barlow lens.
posted by beowulf573 at 12:56 PM on November 10, 2010

You don't mention what you want to observe. That has some bearing on what kind of scope to get (e.g., don't get a Maksutov-Cassegrain if you want wide-field views of HII regions).

A Dobsonian gives you the best bang for the buck in terms of aperture, so if you don't mind forgoing the computerized go-to functions you'll do well there. I have two computerized mounts and they can be fiddly to the point of frustration -- and also require power.

Orion has a 10-inch Dob for $500.

If you must have a go-to scope, may I suggest raising your budget to $600 for a Celestron NexStar 5 SE, which has a $100 rebate right now that lowers the price to $599. I have one and can vouch for it. (The NexStar 4's optics aren't as good, apparently. Not sure what I think about the NexStar SLT series, or other go-to scopes that use, e.g., a 130mm reflector or achromatic refractor; I'd definitely get a Dob instead of those.)

Yes, Naglers are awesome -- I have a 16mm Type 5 -- but can cost more than the scope itself. Beware: amateur astronomers are now raving about Ethoses, which are apparently even more awesome and scary-expensive. Having said that, cheaper wide-field eyepieces (I have a Meade 30mm) are definitely, um, cheaper. You definitely get what you pay for in eyepieces.

Cool-down time is also an issue with catadioptrics (especially Maksutovs). I'm not sure whether that has a bearing on which optical configuration to get.
posted by mcwetboy at 12:59 PM on November 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for the excellent suggestions so far. I will add that I would be fine with a large and bulky telescope, since I only envision using it from my yard. I am not interested in astrophotography, but starfinder technology does have a certain allure for me in not spending too much time finding objects of interest.
posted by tr0ubley at 1:08 PM on November 10, 2010

Seconding the Dobsonian rec.

A little terminology: a "reflector" is a scope that uses mirrors in the primary light path; a "refractor" is a scope that uses lenses in the primary light path. There are some scopes that use both. Within the class of "reflectors," "Newtonians" are the most common reflector telescopes; "Dobsonians" are Newtonian reflectors on an inexpensive, high-performance mount.

The entire point of a Dobsonian telescope is to get the greatest possible aperture, thus the greatest possible light-gathering capability, for the lowest possible money. Dobson himself employed plywood, salvaged nautical portholes, and plumbing parts to build his scopes. Since you list a $500 budget, you're a prime candidate for a Dob.

I own a 4" automated refractor telescope and an 1950's era Edmund Scientific 6" Newtonian that I converted to a homemade Dobsonian mount. I can have the Dobsonian pointed at an object within about 90 seconds of deciding to get the telescope out. The automated scope never gets used because it's a 5-10 minute setup process. A friend with a 10" computerized Schmidt-Cassegrain is jealous of my 6" Dobsonian.

One reason NOT to buy a Dob is if you wanted to do astrophotography or anything else that required tracking objects across the sky.

You don't have to build a Dob yourself - everybody offers Dobsonian scopes now. But a lot of the big companies use small-diameter rods for the altitude bearings in their entry-level scopes. These bearings tend not to perform as well as the bigger bearings you see on homebuilt scopes or higher-priced Dobsonians. (One of the design principles of Dobsonian scopes is to use large-diameter bearings to reduce "stiction" so you can point the telescope easily and have it stay where you put it. This is a real joy, and it allows Dobs to stay cheap while competing with very expensive mounts. It can be achieved by DIY'ers using cheap PVC plumbing parts, furniture glides and old vinyl records.)

If you can afford $600, I'd look at the Meade 10" LightBridge, which has a nice set of bearings on it and breaks down for transport. If the $500 is a hard limit, I'd look at the $500 Orion SkyQuest 10". There are doubtless many other decent candidates, but at your price point these two manufacturers are the biggest players.

Both of those scopes come with 2" focusers, which allow you to use either 2" or 1.25" eyepieces; they both come with a good general-purpose eyepiece (though the Orion comes with a 1.25" eyepiece and the Meade with a 2"). In each case, the supplied eyepiece has a ~25mm focal length, which will get you roughly 50x magnification and good brightness and contrast.

Eyepieces can easily cost more than $500 all by themselves. Meade, Orion and OPT make good mid-range eyepeice sets in 1.25" diameter for various price points; that's probably your best value, though you lose a lot of light using the smaller diameter eyepieces. Look for Plössl-type eyepieces for good quality at affordable prices. (On preview... I'm too cheap for Naglers, but they are phenomenal.)

One other thing I'll throw out there: you can build a scope yourself with purchased optics. This site offers parts kits for DIY telescope builders - their basic 8" F6 kit is $300, and you can expect to spend another $50ish for materials to build it up.

Good luck!
posted by richyoung at 1:24 PM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have that $500 10" Orion Dobsonian, and I love it. It's too much for one person to lug around though, and it needs to be removed from its base for moving. Orion's basic LED sight is sufficient in most cases, but I quickly decided the one eyepiece included with the scope (a 25mm that gives 48x on a 1200mm primary) wasn't enough flexibility. I bought a $130 kit of filters and eyepieces that range from 4mm to 32mm, plus a 2x Barlow. I've learned: that's telescope ownership. There's always one more accessory you gotta have.
posted by rlk at 4:23 PM on November 10, 2010

I would forego the starfinder technology for now. To take advantage of a dark sky, you'll want a large aperture dobsonian and none of the ones in your price bracket will offer computerized tracking.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:49 PM on November 10, 2010

Check out "Star Ware: The Amateur Astronomer's Guide to Choosing, Buying, and Using Telescopes and Accessories" by Philip S. Harrington. It is a couple of years old but has quite a bit of good info on selection criteria and other information.
posted by royboy at 1:56 PM on November 11, 2010

Response by poster: The unanimity of the answers is striking - and it has convinced me to purchase the 8" Orion Skyquest Dobsonian if I scrimp, or the 10" if I splurge. Thanks for all of the helpful suggestions.
posted by tr0ubley at 2:32 PM on November 11, 2010

A Dob is remarkably easy to build even for a relative n00b. I did, with no experience at all. This lets you put all your money into the optics, where it counts. A big cardboard or wooden tube on a stand is pretty simple and non-time-consuming (I kept track of the cost and time, but I think I lost the file I had that in).
posted by DU at 5:45 PM on November 11, 2010

2nding DU. A great book is Build Your Own Telescope by Richard Berry. I built a 6" dobsonian with it and it taught me a lot about general planning that I've been able to apply to many other home improvements. Memail me if you'd like to hear a couple of customizations that I found useful.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:26 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also check out Astronomy Hacks, which has a few hacks specifically for Dobs.

Star Ware is worth having, too, to get a general sense of the market in one location. Alternatively, there's The Backyard Astronomer's Guide.
posted by mcwetboy at 6:48 AM on November 12, 2010

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