(Telescopes for the Beginning Amateur Astronomer)

By Chuck Hawks

I first made this list when a personal friend, Rocky, who had long been interested in owning an astronomical telescope, finally decided to take the plunge and purchase his first scope. Since I am no longer a telescope dealer myself, I simply did some research online at the manufacturers' web sites to see what models were currently available and filtered the result, based on my own experience, to create the list you will find below. Since there is no telescope dealer near where he lives, whatever scope Rocky eventually chose would probably have to be purchased online, anyway.

Most of the astronomical scopes touted specifically for the beginner are so limited in either quality or capability (or both) that they will quickly be abandoned or replaced. Such telescopes are a poor investment. If you are reading this article because you are ready to move up from such a scope, you know what I mean.

I have tried to pick reasonably versatile, yet portable, telescopes of the "intermediate" type that would fall within what I consider the medium price class. (Well, okay, Questar and Tele Vue scopes are high-priced, but those listed below are the models they recommend for beginner/intermediate astronomers.) These are actually far better for the beginning or novice amateur astronomer than a department store telescope. I have included refractors between 76mm (3") and 102mm (4") of clear aperture and allowed CATS as large as 150mm (6"), due to their more compact external dimensions. Note that 6" CAT's are generally considered "advanced" telescopes, but because their German Equatorial mounts operate exactly like a similarly mounted 4" or 5" telescope and are no more difficult to use, I have included a couple of them here.

Rocky has plenty of storage space, so overall size was not a consideration, except as it affects portability. Like most of us, Rocky will have to take his telescope to a dark sky site to use it. If, for you, space is at a premium, you will probably find catadioptric scopes between 90mm and 127mm particularly attractive.

Although Newtonian type reflectors usually give the most light grasp for the dollar spent, I recommend refractors or catadioptric scopes with closed optical tubes and I use them exclusively myself. They are much easier to care for and keep clean. In addition, they are easier to transport and do not need the constant collimation required by Newtonian reflectors. I knew that Rocky would be dissatisfied with a telescope that was poorly made, required constant maintenance, or did not give good optical performance. I therefore tried to stay with recognized and widely available brands that have been around for a while. In this case, Celestron, Stellarvue, Tele Vue, Questar, Orion and Vixen. I also included a few used/discontinued telescopes that are a very good value if you can find one in good condition at a fair price. Obviously, earlier versions of all the telescopes listed below may be found on the used market at considerable savings.

Pay particular attention to the mount supplied with a telescope. The telescope and mount are a system that is only as good as its weakest link. Beginners tend to under-buy when it comes to mounts. They do not yet know that if a mount looks about right for a given telescope, it is probably too small. The mount must dominate the size and weight of the telescope if it is to provide a stable viewing platform. In this regard, Celestron's CG-4 German Equatorial Mount is the "gold standard" for small telescopes.

Computerized (often called "Go To") mounts are touted for beginners, but most of the more experienced astronomers I know don't have much use for them. They add a whole layer of complexity to what is often already a confusing hobby for the beginner and can be extremely frustrating to set-up and align. When they work correctly, the beginner doesn't learn the night sky nearly as fast as if he or she were "star-hopping" with a manual mount to locate objects in the night sky, thus denying them a major part of the enjoyment of amateur astronomy. While there are go-to mounted scopes on the list that follows for those who demand them, they are not my first recommendation.

Finally, I added some of the most common and necessary accessories, which I knew he would need almost immediately. The short list below is the result and, if you are contemplating purchasing your first telescope, I hope you find it helpful.

Celestron Omni XLT 102 Telescope
Omni XLT 102 w/CG-4 mount. Courtesy of Celestron International.

Focal length
Focal ratio
Supplied mount

Celestron telescopes:
Omni XLT 102 1000mm 102mm (4") f/9.8 Achromatic Refractor CG-4 Ger. Eq.
Omni XLT 102ED 900mm 102mm (4") f/8.8 ED Refractor CG-4 Ger. Eq.
Omni XLT 127 1250mm 127mm (5") f/9.8 Schmidt-Cassegrain CG-4 Ger. Eq.
NexStar 4 SE 1325mm 102mm (4") f/13 Maksutov-Cassegrain Go-To Alt-Az Fork
NexStar 5 SE 1250mm 127mm (5") f/9.8 Schmidt-Cassegrain Go-To Alt-Az Fork
C6-SGT 1500mm 150mm (6") f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain CG-5 Go-To Ger. Eq.
C6-A-XLT Optical Tube 1500mm 150mm (6") f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain None; use CG-4 or CG-5

Orion telescopes:
SkyView Pro 80ED 600mm 80mm (3.15") f/7.5 ED Refractor SkyView Pro Ger. Eq.
SkyView Pro 100ED 900mm 100mm (4") f/9 ED Refractor SkyView Pro Ger. Eq.
SkyView Pro 150mm 1800mm 150mm (6") f/12 Maksutov-Cassegrain SkyView Pro Ger. Eq.
StarMax 127 EQ 1540mm 127mm (5") f/12.1 Maksutov-Cassegrain AstroView Ger. Eq.

Questar telescopes:
Questar Standard 3.5 1280mm 89mm (3.5") f/14.4 Maksutov-Cassegrain Motorized EQ Fork

Sky-Watcher (Synta Optical) telescopes:
Pro 80ED APO 600mm 80mm (3.15") f/7.5 ED Refractor None, use CG-4 Ger. Eq. or equivalent
Pro 100ED APO 900mm 100mm (4") f/9 ED Refractor None, use CG-4 Ger. Eq. or equivalent
Maksutov-Cassegrain BK127MAKNEQ3 1540mm 127mm (5") f/12.1 Maksutov-Cassegrain EQ-3 Ger. Eq.
Signature Series BK150MAKSP 1800mm 150mm (6") f/12 Maksutov-Cassegrain None, use EQ-5 Ger. Eq. or equivalent

Stellarvue telescopes:
SV80ED Basic 560mm 80mm (3.15") f/7 ED Refractor None; use M1 or M2 (AZ)
SV80ED Raptor 560mm 80mm (3.15") f/7 ED Refractor None; use M1 or M2 (AZ)
SV102ED 710mm 102mm (4") f/7 ED Refractor None; use M2 (AZ)

Tele Vue telescopes:
Tele Vue-76 480mm 76mm (3") f/6.3 ED Refractor None; use Tele-Pod Mount (AZ)
Tele Vue-85 600mm 85mm (3.4") f/7 ED Refractor None; use Panoramic Mount (AZ)

Vixen telescopes:
A80Mf 910mm 80mm (3.15") f/11.4 Achromatic Refractor Vixen Porta II (AZ)
ED80Sf 600mm 80mm (3.15") f/7.5 ED Refractor None; use Porta II (AZ) or GP2 (Ger. EQ)
VMC95L 1045mm 95mm (3.7") f/11 Modified Cassegrain Mini-Porta (AZ)
ED100Sf 900mm 100mm (4") f/9 ED Refractor None; use GP2 (Ger. EQ)
VMC110L 1035mm 110mm (4.33") f/9.4 Modified Cassegrain Porta II (AZ) or SkyPod (go-to)

Used and Discontinued telescopes:
Celestron FirstScope 80 900mm 80mm (3.15") f/11.3 Achromatic Refractor AZ w/slow-motion controls
Celestron FirstScope 80EQ 900mm 80mm (3.15") f/11.3 Achromatic Refractor Ger. Eq.
Celestron C-90 Astro 1000mm 90mm (3.5") f/11.1 Maksutov-Cassegrain Motorized EQ Fork
Celestron C-5 1250mm 127mm (5") f/9.8 Schmidt-Cassegrain Motorized EQ Fork
Bosch & Lomb Criterion 4000 1200mm 102mm (4") f/11.8 Schmidt-Cassegrain Motorized EQ Fork

Basic Accessories:

Celestron accessories:

Omni Plossl Eyepieces
X-Cel Eyepieces
Ultima LX Eyepieces
Axiom LX Eyepieces
Celestron 8-24mm Zoom Eyepiece
Polar Alignment Scope for CG-4 Mount
Star Pointer Finderscope Kit (red dot)
Laser Finderscope Kit (green projection laser)
Moon filter (1.25")
LPR Filter (1.25")
Star Chart

Orion accessories:

Sirius Plossl Eyepieces
Edge-On Eyepieces
MegaView UW Eyepieces
Right Angle, Correct-Image Finderscopes (6x30, 9x50)
EZ Finder Deluxe (Red Dot)
EZ Finder II (Red Dot)
Neutral Density Moon Filter (1.25")
LPR Filter (1.25")
DeepMap 600 Folding Star Chart
Star Target Planisphere

Questar accessories:

Astro Pier (Standing - 54" tall mount base for Questar 3.5" scope)
Tri-Stand Short Pier (Seated - 41" tall mount base for Questar 3.5" scope)
Set of Two Eyepieces with Standard Case
Set of Three Eyepieces with Standard Case
Set of Six Eyepieces with Standard Case
Brandon Eyepieces
Optical Glass Filters (1.25")
Solar filter, full aperture, for 3.5

Stellarvue accessories:

FMC Eyepieces
Power Booster Set (1.25" Eyepiece and Barlow lens)
F2 Deluxe Red Dot Finder
F1001 Red Dot Finder
Moon filter (1.25")
Mount Handle

Tele Vue accessories:

Plossl Eyepieces
Radian Eyepieces
Panoptic Eyepieces
Nagler 6 Eyepieces
Star Beam Red Dot Finder
Qwik-Point Illuminated Finder
Tele-Pod Mount (Alt-Az)
Panoramic Mount (Alt-Az)

Vixen accessories:

NLP Eyepiece Kit with fanny pack
NLP Series (Plossl) Eyepieces (1.25")
NLV Series Eyepieces (1.25")
LVW Series Eyepieces (1.25")
8-24mm Click-Stop Zoom Eyepiece (1.25")
Eyepiece fanny pack
Moon filter (1.25")


All 1.25" oculars, regardless of brand, fit all 1.25" star diagonals. At a minimum, you will need to buy two additional oculars (32mm Plossl and 8-24mm zoom for starters), star chart, moon filter and a flashlight with a red lens. (The Pelican MityLite flashlight kit is inexpensive and widely distributed.) If you must view from the confines of a city, a light pollution reduction (LPR) filter is recommended. Orion has a large selection of economical padded cases for telescopes and tripods to help protect your investment.

Most telescopes come with straight, inverted image finderscopes that are hard to use. Celestron, Orion, Tele Vue and Stellarvue offer Red Dot finders that will make it much easier to aim your telescope. Another option is a green projection laser finder/pointer. In a conventional right angle, correct image finder, Orion offers 6x30 and 9x50 models at a good price. Mounting both a red dot and a correct image finder on your telescope is the optimum set-up.

A good binocular in the 7x35mm to 10x50mm range can be very useful for locating objects in the night sky. Celestron, Nikon, Vixen, Leupold and others offer suitable binoculars.

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Copyright 1999, 2010 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.