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How Do I Choose the Best Amateur Telescope?

By Bobby R. Goldsmith
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are several factors to consider when choosing the best amateur telescope. There are two primary types: the refractor and the reflector. The primary concern will be where you plan to use the telescope the most, as ambient light levels are an important concern. Also, your level of interest and expected use of the telescope needs to be considered. If you plan to use it often and are an avid amateur astronomer, you will want to consider a reflector, which may be your best choice for casual use.

A refractor telescope is the most common and is what most people think of when they consider what a telescope is. A refractor is a long tube with several lenses that gather light and increase visual range for the viewer. You point the refractor at what you want to look at and look through the eye piece, with your entire line of sight traveling straight through the telescope. Refractors are commonly sold in department stores, hobby and craft stores, as well as in higher end optical equipment stores. The quality varies greatly and often corresponds with the retail price of the amateur telescope.

Refractors often produce odd, chromatic distortions to the celestial bodies that you are attempting to view, as the design lends itself to a hazing effect that is exacerbated by ambient light and the Earth's atmosphere. The level and nature of the hazing effect depends upon the quality and arrangement of optics used in the refractor's construction. An inexpensive refracting amateur telescope will usually include a dense and noticeable hazing effect, but for casual users wanting to see stars, the moon, or the rings of Saturn, the effect will not diminish the experience.

A reflecting telescope has a more sophisticated design compared to the refracting telescope. For the amateur telescope buyer, a high quality reflector telescope can be purchased for less than an equivalent quality refractor telescope, though low quality refractor telescopes are still the least expensive alternative. A reflector features a much larger barrel that gathers light through a lens. The lens bounces the image off of a set of mirrors and is reflected to the eye piece. The viewing experience may be awkward for a backyard astronomer unaccustomed to the design, as you look down through the eye piece, while the telescope is pointed upward.

While budget is a consideration in choosing the best amateur telescope, you need to consider your own level of interest in astronomy. Spending a considerable amount on a high-quality reflector telescope that you will only use once or twice is not a good choice. Likewise, a cheap refractor with a sub-par performance can greatly impede a burgeoning interest in backyard astronomy. The choice ultimately comes down to your level of interest and where you plan to use the telescope the most.

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