When trying to pick the best telescope for your stargazing needs, the first step should always be choosing a type of telescope. Think of it like choosing a car: you don’t hop right into which make & model you want first, do you? Most people decide they want a minivan, for example, because they have to carpool and drive the kids to practices, a truck because they have to haul stuff around all the time. Similarly, it is vital that you decide what general type of telescope fits your needs, and go from there. BUT, before we get into the various types of telescopes, I want to give you a quick word of caution about what NOT to buy, no matter what:
- Never buy a telescope that is under $150, unless you have no problem with it not working
- Never buy a telescope from a department store or toy store (see above)
- Do NOT buy a telescope based on its zooming power (Most outrageous zoom claims come with bad scopes)
Ok, now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the major types of telescopes:
The easiest way to tell if a telescope is a reflector is if it uses mirrors instead of lenses. The mirrors are used to reflect incoming light, then focus it for you to view it. Many times these scopes are referred to as “Newtonian Reflectors”, so do not be confused by the extra terminology. Though they are usually cheaper than Refractor telescopes, reflectors tend to take more ‘fiddling around’ to make them work properly than refractors.
The key element to refractors is lenses. The lenses refract the light, as opposed to reflecting it like the mirrors in Reflectors. (That makes it easy to remember, doesn’t it?) The light converges from the objective lens to a focal point and is then magnified for viewing.
Refractors are favored by many, as they tend to be more reliable and are smaller & more portable than Reflectors. However, as mentioned above, they are also almost always more expensive.
There are two major varieties of Refractors that you might run across: Apochromatic and non-Apochromatic. Here’s the deal: NON-Apochromatic means JUNK. These are the department/toy store scopes you know to avoid…
Catadioptric telescopes use both lenses and mirrors. A combination of lenses and mirrors is used to reflect and guide the light to be magnified for your viewing pleasure. They tend to provide excellent viewing abilities, they look cool, and of course, this means they cost more than Reflectors & Refractors. Catadioptrics come in two main categories: Schmidt and Maksutov. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. (Feel free to do a search on this site for the scope you have in mind of a specific type, or search for Maksutov/Schmidt, and you’ll find a list of reviews of all the scopes I have reviewed of that type!)
The best thing to do when choosing a telescope is to decide beforehand which type appeals to your needs most, then come up with a budget. Once you know what kind you want and how much you can spend, do some browsing around this site, read some reviews, compare some scopes, and you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for in no time!