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Looking to see the Milky Way galaxy up close? Telescopes will help you zoom in on other planets and stars in our solar system, but when it comes to actually buying one, there's not only a lot to consider (cost, aperture, lens, distance, etc.), but also a lot of information to digest (like how do they work and what should you be looking for?).
Here’s the 101 you need to know to get started: Telescopes collect light from the night sky through a lens or mirror; the larger its diameter, or aperture, measured in millimeters (mm), the more you can see.
There are three general telescope designs for focusing that light into an image. The first is that refractors can pass the light through an objective lens that bends it back to the eyepiece (the second lens) and creates a targeted focus point. The second is the reflector design, which uses two mirrors: light bounces off the curved mirror in the back of the telescope and then is reflected by a second, flat mirror in the middle of the tube to the eyepiece. There's also a third design that mixes a lens with two mirrors.
It’s important to note that magnification really isn’t the primary measurement to consider in your first telescope. Instead, look for a large, light gobbling aperture and long focal length—that's the distance measured in millimeters from the lens or mirror to the point where the telescope is in focus. Magnification and field of view is determined by the eyepiece, and your telescope will come with one or more interchangeable eyepieces adding power or increasing field of view.
So which type of telescope is right for you? We found the best telescopes on the market to help you find your fit.
Best Overall: Orion StarBlast 4.5-Inch Astro Reflector Telescope
Discovering the wonders of the night sky alongside a child is a rewarding approach to astronomy, but it requires the right telescope. On one hand, you don’t want expensive glass that the youngster may damage. On the other hand, standing outside all night straining to see the moon’s Sea of Tranquility through a low quality kiddie telescope ends in frustration for everybody. Orion’s FunScope Astro Dazzle 4.5 Reflector Telescope Kit checks off all of the child-friendly features: a sturdy, rolled-steel tube, a simple altazimuth (two-axis) mount and an Orion EZ Finder red-dot sight. But this is no toy. The 114mm-aperture parabolic mirror collects a ton of light, and a 500 mm focal length widens the field of view enough to enjoy lunar and planetary viewing. The kit includes two Kellner eyepieces; pop on the 25 mm for 20 times magnification and the 10mm on for 50 times. Also included are Orion’s MoonMap 260, which guides young astronomers through the geography of Earth’s only natural satellite, as well as Starry Night astronomy software so your kid can study up on space during computer time.
Best Budget: Meade Instruments Polaris 70mm Aperture, Portable Backyard Refracting Astronomy Telescope for Beginners
Meade Instruments’ Polaris 70mm is the best refractor telescope that gives everything the beginner needs for under a Benjamin. Three included eyepieces provide low, medium and high magnification, with a red dot finder to help you pick out and focus on the heavens. A stable tripod is included, and the user-friendly equatorial mount makes it easy for even novice astronomers to track planets and stars throughout the night. Refractors require the lowest maintenance, and are the most durable telescopes on the market (and the Polaris line is definitely a solid build, so newbies don’t have to worry about damaging it while honing their stargazing skills).
Best for Little Kids: Educational Insights GeoSafari Jr. My First Telescope
Set their sights high from a young age with this talking telescope from Educational Insights. Designed for children as young as age five, this talking telescope is a great way to introduce them to space, science, and scientific tools.
It comes with 20 slides that feature colorful pictures and realistic sounds of space and animals as well as 200 facts and questions to help them learn about them as they go. The telescope, which has 3x magnification, can also be detached and taken outside to explore real-world versions of the same. While it’s not going to provide any views of the solar system, it’s a great way to set the stage for exploration and inquisition.
The microscope runs on four AA batteries (not included), and it has two game modes that quiz them on how much they’ve learned. Customers say it’s a fun way for kids to learn, and adults might learn a thing or two as well. It also comes with a headphone jack so kids can play with it with it quietly too. Overall, customers say it’s well made and kids can’t get enough of it.
Best for the Backyard: Celestron NexStar 6SE Telescope
Back in the 1970s Celestron designed a compact, user-friendly compound telescope credited for bringing astronomy to backyards across America. Their NexStar 6SE beefs up that legendary optical technology with an on-board star-tracking computer system. The 6SE’s 152mm primary mirror captures light while the massive 1,500mm focal length creates bright images. The GoTo computer locates and tracks some 40,000 celestial bodies, and SkyAlign tech will have your telescope ready for stargazing with a few taps of the keypad. The 6SE is expandable for easy software updates, and Celestron peripherals like GPS-powered SkySync, Skyris camera for astrophotography and SkyPortal WiFi module allow you to align and control the telescope with a smartphone or tablet loaded with Celestron’s SkyPortal app.
Best Instant Astronomer: Celestron SkyProdigy 130 Telescope
In 1668, British scientist Sir. Isaac Newton invented the first reflector telescope by utilizing a polished mirror to eliminate chromatic aberrations (when all wavelengths of color are not on the same focal plane) that plagued Galileo’s refractor model. Newton’s reflector design remained the foundation for Celestron’s 130mm aperture SkyProdigy, but everything else this high-tech telescope accomplishes would leave the scientist dumbfounded. SkyProdigy employs electric motors, an on-board computer and a digital camera to automatically align the telescope and determine where it is pointing. When you turn on the telescope, an internal camera takes several pictures of the sky and then the computer analyzes the photos for known stars and uses that information to triangulate its position. Once SkyProdigy is aligned, you can target some 4,000 objects with the touch of a button, no star charts required, or start the Sky Tour to view the best objects in the sky for your exact location and the time of night. That built-in camera doesn’t have an output for saving or viewing images, so add Celestron’s NexImage CMOS camera for high resolution lunar and planetary images.
Best Big-Aperture: Orion SpaceProbe 130ST Equatorial Reflector Telescope
In terms of telescope apertures, the bigger the better when it comes to the sharpness and brightness of the images you’ll see. This one from Orion has a 5.1-inch aperture that customers say provides clear views of the moon, stars, planets, Saturn’s rings and more.
It comes with an adjustable tripod and two Sirius Plossl eyepieces (25 and 10 mm). It’s also relatively lightweight (about 27 pounds) and has a 24-inch “short tube” optical tube design so it can be moved from place to place easily. It’s a bit pricier than many models suggested for kids, but customers say the quality and features make it a great choice, and that it has enough functionality that it won’t be outgrown quickly. It also includes Starry Night astronomy software, so kids can learn more about the vast universe anytime, day or night, from the computer. Customers say it does take a bit of time to set up and the instructions can be a bit challenging, but overall, it’s a great telescope that provides some amazing views and fuels kids interest in space and science.
Best for Photos: Celestron Inspire 100AZ Refractor Smartphone Adapter Built-in Refracting Telescope
It took five years for Juno to reach Jupiter and tweet that incredible picture, but with Celestron’s brand new Inspire 100AZ refractor telescope you can easily snap photos of the planet’s Great Red Spot from your own backyard and post them to social media. Just attach your smartphone to the telescope’s lens mount to take photos through an integrated imaging port. The refractor telescope boasts a big 100mm lens treated with advance coatings to maximize light collection. The 660mm focal length produces bright images, and it ships with 20mm and 10mm Kellner eyepieces for up to 66 times magnification. Each scope in Celestron’s Inspire line-up includes their SkyPortal app that guides amateur astronomers through a database of thousands of celestial bodies, including Jupiter and its Galilean moons.
Best for Travel: Pentax 80mm ED Waterproof Angled Spotting Scope
Fact: with their polished glass and exacting mirrors, telescopes don’t travel so well whether you’re checking in for a flight to Hawaii or hauling it through the Colorado backcountry. Pentax’s PF80 ED packs an 80mm aperture and 520mm focal length in a rugged shock-, water-, and fog-proof package, making it a stellar travel telescope. Better yet, Pentax warranties this little fella for life and will replace or repair it if you break it. The scope uses the same low dispersion (ED) optics utilized in its camera lenses for optimum resolution, and it can achieve up to 60 times magnification. No eyepieces are included, but it’s compatible with all standard 1 ¼ inch interchangeable telescope eyepieces, and you can mount it to your digital camera to transform it into a powerful astrophotography lens.