Explore the solar system and view distant planets up close with the best telescopes to buy
The best telescopes open up the night sky in ways that even a good set of binoculars cannot match. Using a telescope on a dark clear night can provide you with amazing views of the moon and planets as your gaze hops from star to star and you see some fascinating deep-sky objects up close, including star clusters, nebulae and galaxies. Sure, what you’ll see won’t resemble the pictures coming back from the Hubble Space Telescope, but there’s still something magical about seeing these things live with your own eyes.
Fortunately, you don’t have to have a massive budget to buy a decent entry-level telescope, and higher-end telescopes with better mounts and optics are also getting more affordable. What’s more, computerised mounts and smartphone apps are making amateur astronomy more accessible. There are still plenty of low-quality telescopes out there, though, particularly at the cheap end, so it’s worth reading up to make sure that you make the right choice
How to choose the best telescope for you
What types of telescope are there?
Telescopes come in two basic types: reflectors and refractors. A reflector telescope uses a large parabolic mirror to harvest and reflect the incoming light to another mirror, which in turn reflects that light into the eyepiece. A refractor uses one or more lenses to do the same job.
What are the key differences between the two?
Both types have their strengths: refractors are sealed, which means dirt can’t get in and you can get a sharper image, particularly of bright, near-sky objects such as the moon or planets. However, they’re more likely to suffer from chromatic aberration, where bright objects – such as a star – appear surrounded by a halo of different colours.
Reflectors don’t have this problem, but the mirrors may need to be manually adjusted, and unless you have a special eyepiece, the view will be upside down. While reflectors are generally better for viewing deep-sky objects (galaxies, nebulae and the rest), they may not offer such clear, bright views of nearer objects and planets.
Are there any other types I should know about?
There are three varieties of reflectors:
- Cassegrain reflectors add a curved secondary mirror to the classic design, which means they’re more compact.
- Schmidt-Cassegrain, or Maksutov-Cassegrain, reflectors place a thin lens over the front of the telescope to combine the advantages of a reflector and a refractor.
- Finally, Dobsonian reflectors use the standard Newtonian design, but in a larger form with a heavy rotating mount at the base. The design is easy and cheap to manufacture, even with a larger aperture mirror, so Dobsonian reflectors tend to give you a lot of telescope for your money.
Do I need to spend a lot on a good telescope?
Not necessarily. If you shop carefully, do your research and are realistic in your aspirations, you can pick up a starter telescope for around £100. You won’t get amazing close-up views of Jupiter or Saturn, but you’ll still get a good look at the planets and brighter celestial objects.
That should be enough to stoke interest in astronomy and make the effort feel incredibly worthwhile. You can find beginner-level telescopes for over £1,000, but you need to think long and hard about whether it’s worth the investment. You might be better off starting with a good mid-range scope with a GoTo mount and upgrading later once you’ve exhausted its potential. That could take some time.
Why is aperture size so important when choosing a telescope?
One crucial factor when choosing a telescope is aperture size. The larger the aperture of the primary lens or mirror, the more light the telescope can harvest, and the more objects and detail you’ll be able to see.
This is the big advantage of reflector telescopes: it’s much easier and cheaper to make a bigger mirror than a bigger lens. If you’ve got a choice between a refractor with an 80mm objective lens and a reflector with a 114mm mirror, the reflector will – in most cases – give you better views of a wider range of celestial stuff. Move up to a 130mm or 150mm mirror and the differences only grow.
Does the mount matter?
Most entry-level and mid-range telescopes come with a bundled mount, but the quality varies enormously. A good mount will give you stable views even at high magnifications; with a wobbly one, it may be hard to keep far-off objects in the frame.
If you have that problem, you can always splash out on a better mount. These come in two basic types:
- An alt-azimuth (“alt-az”) mount has two axes of movement: up and down (altitude) and left and right (azimuth). It’s a simple system, but it has a downside: as the world turns, you’ll need to keep adjusting both the azimuth and altitude to keep what you’re trying to look at in view. This isn’t a problem for ordinary viewing, but it makes things difficult if you’re trying to track an object or photograph it.
- The solution is an equatorial mount, in which one of the adjustment axes (the “right ascension”) is set to match the angle of the earth’s rotation; the other, the “declination”, runs perpendicular to it. Once you’ve found what you want to look at, you only need to adjust the right ascension to keep it in view as the earth turns.
It’s also possible to buy mounts with computerised motors. The simplest drive the right ascension for you, making it easier to track celestial objects – and take photos, if that’s your bag.
More complex “GoTo” mounts work with a dedicated handset or a companion smartphone app to first align your telescope and then point it at whatever object you want to view. The major manufacturers now have their own Wi-Fi-enabled, app-controlled mounts, and these are getting easier to use, making astronomy much more accessible to those who struggle with star charts and deep-sky navigation. You’ll pay more for the telescope – and some would argue that it’s better to learn how to find objects the old-fashioned way – but it can help you get a lot more from it.
What other features should I look out for?
All telescopes come with one or more eyepieces. These, along with the focal length of the telescope itself, determine the overall level of magnification you’ll see. Most entry-level to mid-range telescopes will come with two eyepieces, usually one in the 7mm to 10mm range and one in the 20mm to 25mm range. That gives you a good low-magnification eyepiece for general use, and a higher-magnification eyepiece when you want to get in closer.
The eyepieces bundled with a beginner telescope tend to be fairly basic Kellner-design eyepieces, which might not show your telescope at its best. If you can afford it, it might be worth splashing out an extra £30 or so on a budget Plossl eyepiece – it can mean the difference between a great, clear view and a view spoiled by ghost images, blurry areas or coloured fringes.
Telescopes also come bundled with other accessories, such as a star-pointer or red-dot finder to help you get objects in the view, and astronomy books or software to help you get moving. Perhaps the most useful, though, is a 2x Barlow lens. This attaches to your eyepiece and instantly doubles the magnification, giving you even more choice and power, right out of the box. If you don’t get a Barlow bundled in, consider one as an easy upgrade later.
Like every industry, the optics and telescope manufacturing industry is going through turbulent times and some of the major manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand. This makes it very difficult to recommend models and guarantee they’ll stay in stock, and with some popular telescopes you may need to preorder and wait a week or two.
On balance, we’d say waiting is worth it. For one thing, they’re popular because they’re decent instruments at an affordable price. For another, there are now some cheap telescope manufacturers putting out low-quality telescopes with poor optics, weak mounts and third-rate eyepieces, and nothing puts people off astronomy faster than a bad experience with rubbish kit.
How we test telescopes
We test telescopes over a period of around two weeks, examining models whenever there’s a clear sky and, where possible, testing two or more telescopes at the same time. We set up each telescope on the supplied mount using any bundled eyepieces and barlow lenses, and view a range of planets, stars and deep-sky objects to get an idea of the telescope’s light-gathering capabilities and clarity. We also take a good look at the moon, using a filter if conditions are too bright, to see how well the telescope can resolve detail at closer range. While we test, we note how easy it is to control and move the telescope and assess the stability of the mount. We also evaluate any computer control systems or smart features, to see whether they make viewing easier for novice and intermediate astronomers.
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The best telescopes you can buy in 2023
1. Celestron Travelscope 70 Telescope Kit: Best travel telescope
Price when reviewed: £85 | Check price at Amazon The Celestron Travelscope hasn’t got the light-gathering power of some more expensive models, but it’s an extremely portable and versatile telescope.
With a 70mm aperture and 10mm and 20mm eyepieces, you can still get decent views of the moon and the planets, plus the brighter clusters and nebulae.
The best part is that the telescope and (rather flimsy) tripod pack up into a lightweight rucksack, with the whole shebang weighing well under 3kg – so if you live in the city, you can easily take it out of town to somewhere with an unobstructed view and seriously dark skies.
It’s a good, very affordable option for novice astronomers; if you want to get slightly more ambitious, an extra fiver gets you a kit with an additional eyepiece and a 2x Barlow lens.
Key specs – Type: 70mm refractor, Mount: Alt-az mount on photographic tripod; Eyepieces supplied: 10mm (40x), 20mm (20x); Extras: Finder, Sky X – First Light Edition software, custom backpack
2. Celestron StarSense Explorer LT 114AZ: Best telescope with companion app
Price when reviewed: £229 | Check price at WeXCelestron’s entry-level telescopes have one unique, must-have feature. Install the StarSense smartphone app, slide your phone into the built-in cradle mounting and – with a spot of adjustment and configuration – you can use the app to guide your tour around the cosmos.
The app works with a mirror and your smartphone’s compass, GPS and motion sensors to work out exactly where you are and where the telescope is pointed in the night sky, then helpful arrows and crosshairs show you where to move the telescope to find your target. You can either pick celestial objects you want to see from a planetarium view, search for objects or ask the app to recommend. It’s a great way of familiarising yourself with the night sky and – provided you don’t get a super-bright moon or a cloudy night – it all works incredibly well.
We originally tested the 80mm refractor version, but that’s now nigh-on impossible to find online. Luckily, the StarSense Explorer 114LT gives you the same app and cradle, with the latter attached to a 114mm Newtonian tube, which has more light-gathering power and a slightly longer focal length. You might want to think about replacing the 10mm and 25mm Kellner eyepieces with a better Plossl eyepiece before long, but with them and the bundled 2x Barlow you can get fantastic views of the moon and good views of the planets – there’s even enough power to check out distant galaxies and nebulae.
Most importantly, you’ve got more chance of finding them as a beginner than you’ll have with most manual telescopes, without the expense and complexity of a computerised GoTo mount. That makes a StarSense Explorer an excellent entry into astronomy.
Key specs – Type: 114mm reflector; Mount: Alt az; Eyepieces supplied: 10mm (100x), 25mm (40x); Extras: StarPointer red-dot finder, built-in smartphone dock, 2x Barlow lens
3. Skywatcher Classic 200P: Best bang-for-buck telescope
Price when reviewed: £389 | Check price at First Light OpticsJohn Dobson’s 1960s telescope design made high-powered models more affordable and accessible, with Dobsonian telescopes today still delivering a classic mix of easy aiming and the best views a few hundred quid can buy. With the Classic 200P you’re getting a massive 200mm mirror at the bottom of a 1.2m tube, meaning you get 120x and 48x magnification with the 10mm and 25mm Plossl eyepieces supplied. Add a 2x Barlow lens or – better still – a good 6mm eyepiece, and you can get some amazing views.
This is a big, heavy telescope weighing in at over 26kg, but it’s solidly built, easy to use and brilliant for looking at galaxies, nebulae and deep sky objects, Jupiter and Saturn, and – with a filter to cut down brightness – the craters of the moon. This is the perfect scope for easy back-garden astronomy; you’d need to spend double or more to get a better view of the night sky.
Key specs – Type: 200mm Dobsonian reflector; Mount: Dobsonian Alt-az; Eyepieces supplied: 10mm (120x) 25mm (48x); Extras: 9 x 50mm finderscope
4. Celestron NexStar Evolution 5: Best astronomy telescope
Price when reviewed: £1,399 | Check price at Rother Valley OpticsWell-heeled beginners and keen enthusiasts should be delighted with the NexStar Evolution 5. It’s expensive for a 5in telescope, but the money buys you a fantastic, compact Schmidt-Cassegrain tube with Celestron’s StarBright XLT coatings, along with a computerised GoTo mount. You can use this with the bundled controller, but the mount also works through Wi-Fi with Celestron’s SkyPortal mobile app.
Point the telescope at three bright stars to align it, and from there you can pick out celestial objects for viewing and the telescope will point to them automatically. The app has a planetarium interface to help you tour the night sky, or you can display a list of the best objects to observe based on the current time and your location. It’s all powered by a lithium-ion battery that lasts for around ten hours.
The 5in tube and 13mm and 40mm Plossl eyepieces give you enough power to view the moon, the planets and a good range of deep-sky objects. It’s also a good bet for astrophotography, as the mount is impressively stable and accurate, even while it’s tracking.
If you’re happy to do things manually, you can save some money by going for the classic NexStar 4SE and 6SE telescopes (although these might be hard to find at the moment), but the Evolution series makes great stargazing accessible to all.
Key specs – Type: 125mm Schmidt-Cassegrain hybrid; Mount: Alt-azimuth GoTo mount; Eyepieces supplied: 40mm (31x), 13mm (96x); Extras: NexStar+ controller, StarPointer red dot finder