Though the sensational images coming from the high-grade science gear in orbit and on Earth are tough to beat, using your own telescope remains one of the best ways to connect with the cosmos. Nothing quite beats seeing the cloud belts of Jupiter, or the dust lanes in the Andromeda galaxy, with your own eyes.
Feeding that impulse is easier than ever. Amateur astronomy equipment is remarkable these days, thanks to inexpensive robotic telescopes and high-grade optics that deliver crystal-clear views. There are also popular astronomy apps available for tablets and smartphones, allowing users to choose a target, tap the screen and watch the telescope zero in, all by itself.
When choosing a robotic telescope, there are a few simple rules. First, aperture always wins. The wider the lens or mirror built into the instrument, the brighter and more detailed views will be – though of course larger telescopes cost more. Beginners will enjoy smaller instruments – say, a 90mm refractor – and even advanced amateurs appreciate their portability, but you might get “aperture fever” very quickly, and want to upgrade to an 8- or 10in telescope. When you’re hooked, you’re hooked.
And urbanites shouldn’t despair that their neighbourhoods are flooded with artificial glow. Though light pollution is rampant, having virtually erased the Milky Way for most of us, many popular celestial targets, including Earth's moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and the Orion Nebula can be enjoyed in light-polluted skies. You may even be able to discern galaxies and dimmer nebula, with some work. Astronomy also makes a good excuse for a field trip out of town. Just pack up your scope and head for darker pastures.
First, however, you have to gear up. Here are six telescopes that should provide effortless exploration for years to come.
Celestron Cosmos 90GT WiFi Telescope
Wi-fi is in everything these days, and telescopes have received the message. When this compact, affordable 90mm refractor debuted earlier this year, it was the world’s first completely wireless computerised telescope. Simply connect your Apple iOS or Android device, hold it up in the sky and use the custom Celestron app to find targets you wish to investigate, and then tap on the screen to send the scope in the desired direction. No struggling with cables in the dark, and no need for an onboard GPS in the telescope – your own device tells the instrument where it’s sitting on the planet. The 90GT comes with two eyepieces for wide-angle and zoom-in views. ($400; celestron.com)
Celestron NexStar Evolution 6
If aperture fever grabs you, consider Celestron’s step up from the 90GT, the Evolution 6. Also wi-fi-equipped, this telescope uses a 6in mirror-and-lens system to maximise light-grasp. The extra acreage grabs more detail out of dimmer objects, such as nebulae and faint galaxies. It’s the first consumer telescope to use a built-in lithium-ion battery, so there’s no need to run power cables or carry extra batteries, given this will run for up to 10 hours on a single charge. If you start dabbling in astrophotography, you’ll appreciate the steadier, more advanced tracking this scope brings. ($1,200; celestron.com)
Orion StarSeeker III 130mm GoTo Reflector Telescope
Orion’s 5in reflector uses two mirrors to magnify the sky, and its short focal length brings greater expanses of cosmic real estate into view. The telescope’s hand controller lets a user tour highlights visible on any given night, and its optics are sharp enough to pull in astounding detail on lunar craters or the moons of Jupiter. Care to share the excitement? Attach your smartphone to the eyepiece (via Orion’s optional accessory) and fire off some Instagram-worthy imagery. ($500; telescope.com)
iOptron SmartStar Cube-E R80
This entry-level telescope is ultra-compact and portable – and ultra-affordable. The 80mm refractor may not produce images on a par with bigger scopes, but it will still capture the major jewels beautifully. The rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter, clouds of Mars and hundreds of nebulae and globular clusters are within this scope’s reach. Plus, the crisp LCD screen on the hand controller, along with the well-organised menus, make it one of the most intuitive interfaces of any telescope, irrespective of price. ($315, ioptron.com)
Sky-Watcher ProED 80mm on AllView Mount
Though also with 80mm of aperture, this scope features a boost in optical quality and mount versatility. The glass in this refractor is apochromatic, meaning it minimises distortion and colour flaws to nearly imperceptible levels. The result is a beautiful, crisp image, and thanks to the tracking capabilities of the mount, there is plenty of room for experimentation with DSLR astrophotography. That mount, by the way, has a few additional tricks up its sleeve: pop off the scope and use it as a motorised panning mount for terrestrial videography, time-lapse photography or long-exposure DSLR imaging of the night sky using one of your own camera lenses. ($900, skywatcherusa.com)
Obsession Telescopes 12.5-inch Dobsonian
OK, if you want to truly blow your mind and those of everyone in your immediate vicinity, roll out this enormous, 12.5in-aperture telescope. Its gigantic, precision-ground and coated mirror will make the faintest galaxies spring to life, and will make Jupiter seem right next door. The simple beauty of the Dobsonian design is in the mount – you can hand-guide it easily, or deploy the optional ServoCAT computerised go-to system. ($6,700 with GoTo system, obsessiontelescopes.com)
Or, skip the computer control and go old-school astro...
As fun as it can be to watch your telescope slew automatically to Saturn, over-reliance on go-to technology can slow your learning process, just as using GPS at all times limits your ability to learn routes on the road. A simple manual telescope on an alt-az mount – that is, one that moves only side to side and up and down – may be all you need. A few things to keep in mind:
- You’re the computer. To find your way, snag a star map and a daily guide to celestial highlights. Buy a planisphere – a “star wheel” that shows where the constellations are on any given night (skymaps.com has good ones)—and go to Sky and Telescope magazine’s daily highlight page to see what’s worth seeking out that particular night. Also, use a red-dot finder to help you aim the telescopes. These small, inexpensive devices are simply open cylinders with a glass disk embedded within, onto which a red LED dot is projected. Align the finder on terrestrial items first – distant lampposts and such – and then aim for the heavens.
- Low magnification is best. If you’re not tracking with the computer, objects will drift out of the field of view quickly as the Earth rotates. Use lower power – anywhere from 10x to 50x – to help targets stay in view longer. Low power also facilitates the finding of targets in the first place. If you want to zoom in tight, a tracking scope may be your best bet.
- Some mounts slow a stargazer down. Many inexpensive telescopes are packaged on complicated German equatorial mounts – gangly contraptions with counterweights hanging from them. These mounts, while fun to look at, require meticulous alignment and offer little benefit unless they are motorised, or if there’s a more experienced gazer in the vicinity. Stick with alt-az mounts.
- Choose your weapon. Non-computerised scopes are simpler and less expensive. Each of the manufacturers above manufacture non-computerised variants of their telescopes, from 3in-aperture refractors up to 16in monsters – or larger. Once you get the hang of where things hang in the sky, any of these will provide eye-opening views.
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