If there’s one thing that’s certain about astronomy, it’s that it’s incredibly fun for kids and potentially engrossing for adults. The human interest in the night sky and the boundless expanse of space is just as limitless as the number of celestial objects out there. But astronomy is also a hobby that requires some prerequisite equipment — most famously, a telescope.
But even a casual glance at the search results for “telescope prices” will tell you that these are pieces of equipment whose price can vary wildly. Indeed, you can find telescopes for 50 bucks and you can find those that go for thousands of dollars. So, the question is — where do you start? And do you need to spend a fortune on an expensive telescope right away?
Here’s whether cheap telescopes are worth it
Cheap telescopes are never worth it below $100. They’re prone to serious optical or design flaws, and often lack proper support, warranties, and quality control. $150-$200 is the lowest price point worth buying. However, at closer to $500, you’ll find marked improvements that are worth paying for if possible.
In other words, there’s a nice little golden middle where telescopes aren’t prohibitively expensive, but they still give you enough value for your money.
But what exactly does that entail, and what’s so bad about cheaper ones, anyway?
Understanding what your money gets you
So, first and foremost — what are the cheapest telescopes out there? Generally, if you take a look at your average department store; you’ll find that there are models that go for $50. And if you’re making your purchase during the Black Friday or Christmas shopping sprees — these can go even cheaper, for as much as half of that price!
Let’s say that your child, or a nephew or niece, show interest in astronomy, and you want to get them something to set them on a path of rising interest in the field. It’s completely logical to think that getting them the cheapest possible telescope is a sound idea. After all, children switch interests all the time, and their attention spans aren’t long. Who knows if they’re even going to be interested in astrophotography or astronomy a couple of weeks from now?
With that in mind, you may want to invest as little as possible into your gift of a telescope. But that often proves counterproductive. In reality, these ultra-cheap telescopes are so low-quality and unusable that someone you buy it for is bound to lose interest pretty quickly. They’re fun toys, perhaps, but unfortunately not much more than that.
While wasting perhaps $50 on this kind of telescope is a bummer, here’s the good news: a hundred bucks can already get you something far better and more acceptable. We’ll share some suggestions farther down.
Before moving onto the cheap telescopes that are actually worth your time — we’ll explain why the lowest possible prices won’t give you anything you can work with. If you examine a telescope that goes for between thirty and fifty dollars — you’ll find that the imagery that you get from them is nothing like what’s advertised on the box. The images of celestial objects that you believe that you’re getting would require literally thousands of dollars of equipment to see, and even more photography equipment to capture. So, don’t trust the box advertisements for cheap telescopes for a second.
When you take a look inside the box of the cheapest telescopes, you can pretty much expect one generic package — the telescope itself, the tripod, the finder scope, and the diagonal. Now, this is where you’ll start noticing that you’re dealing with a cheap telescope.
First of all, the tripod will be made of aluminum with plastic joints — and it will feel incredibly flimsy. Trust us, the last thing you want is to feel like your tripod is about to break down beneath the telescope all the time. Also, you can see that these telescopes are intended for kids — even when fully stretched, the tripod won’t be very high off the ground.
The finder scopes in these telescopes are also laughably bad; mostly because they’re smaller than the biggest writing pens out there. You can’t really see anything through them. Technically, you can — but there’s no real magnification beyond what you’d get with a simple hollow tube. And just like most of the telescope — these scopes and eyepieces are made with incredibly cheap plastic that seems like it’s prone to breaking right out of the box.
Also, the eyepieces are another huge problem with cheap department store telescopes. Generally, if a mid-range or expensive telescope comes with eyepieces that you’re not happy with — you can simply buy better ones separately and be done with it. However, that’s not the case here; cheap telescopes don’t have upgradeable parts. And sure, you might think that you’re not looking to invest hundreds of dollars into telescope eyepieces. But when you take a look at the market, you’ll find that high-quality entry-level eyepieces won’t set you back more than $40.
So, we’re not talking about spending too much money — and yet, you can still expect a reasonable level of quality that’s light-years (sometimes quite literally) ahead of these department store parts. And let’s not forget that the same is true for the tripods that are so wobbly and flimsy that even getting a reasonably clear image of the moon is next to impossible.
That’s why the cheapest telescopes are practically unusable as anything more than a party trick for kids. And if you want someone to actually become more interested in astronomy — this is only going to drive them away from the field completely, because they’ll think that all telescopes are frustrating; or that they simply don’t know how to use them and are doing something wrong.
So, keeping all of this in mind — what are some of the features that you should look for in a telescope?
Absolutely must-have features
Just because we’ve spent a lot of time explaining why the cheapest telescopes on the market aren’t a good choice for anyone doesn’t mean that you can’t get something of decent quality for a budget price.
So, we’ve definitely established that even if you’re buying a telescope for kids — going to a hobby or a toy store and getting one right off the nearest shelf is a bad idea. These are just flimsy laughable objects that rarely deliver the advertised features. Plus, they’re typically stocked, advertised, and sold by department stores or toy shops, not by telescope enthusiasts!
But if you take your time to do some basic research and find out about telescopes that are just a little more expensive (but still quite affordable) — you will end up with a product that’s intuitive, easy to maintain, simple to upgrade, and pleasant to use on a nightly basis.
The first thing you want to avoid is getting a totally plastic telescope. Of course, if you have a limited budget we don’t expect you to splurge for a luxury-level piece of equipment. But as you’ll see once we get into specific examples below, you can find decent electronics and mechanicals for reasonable prices if you just make a quick Google search.
One of the banes of low-quality telescopes is horrible tripods. And wobbly mounting equipment is one of the main reasons why these bargain-bin telescopes are completely unusable. So, when you’re looking for affordable telescopes — check to see if people are satisfied with their mounting first.
Make no mistake — this is just as crucial as the quality of the telescope’s optics. In fact, even if you have the best lenses in the world, bad mounting will just result in a frustrating experience all around.
If you’re not investing too much money into your telescope, it stands to reason that you’re a beginner in astronomy — or at least buying for a beginner. Considering that, you don’t want to buy a telescope that will require too much fiddling; it needs to be simple to operate and reach. That also means optics that won’t demand constant adjustment, such as collimation. You want something that can provide a decent view for a first-time user.
With a starter telescope, you’re most likely to begin using it in your home. However, if astronomy proves to be of interest to you — sooner or later, you’re going to start thinking about visiting different locations. And that’s particularly true if you live in a big city, or even just a suburban area of a metropolis; simply put, the light pollution will drive you away to some darker skies.
Keeping that in mind, you want a telescope that’s reasonably mobile — not something that you’ll have to spend a lot of time on setting up or packing up once you’re done. It needs to be easy for transportation — and let’s not forget, you need the ability to set it up when it’s completely dark without much difficulty. You can’t exactly expect many light sources in areas that are perfect for stargazing and astrophotography; if anything, you’re trying to be as far removed from light as possible!
As with any other piece of equipment, one of the main factors that you’ll want to consider while using them is — what sort of expectations do you have in terms of performance? If you’re a first-time astronomer, visual observing is probably the farthest goal to strive for. In other words, depending on where you’re stargazing from — expect to look at the brightest visible comets, some double stars, the brighter nebulas, and solar system celestial bodies like Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon.
But, at least in the beginning and with a cheap telescope — don’t start by comparing yourself with the pictures that you have marveled at in magazines. Such images come to be only after years of training on a range of incredibly expensive equipment, not to mention advanced astronomy techniques that you wouldn’t understand.
So, setting reasonable expectations is crucial — don’t expect to clearly see any deep space objects. Most of these that are even remotely visible in lower-range or mid-range telescopes will present themselves as nothing more than clouds or grayish smudges.
This isn’t so much due to the quality of the telescope itself, but more to do with the human eye and the way it processes and interacts with light. And speaking of stargazing — that’s about the only thing you can expect to do. If you want to do astrophotography, your average smartphone might be usable with a budget astronomy setup; but don’t expect DSLR or any heavier equipment to be usable with these telescopes.
Some nice-to-haves worth stretching your budget for
If you’re prepared to stretch your budget for a cheap telescope to something like $500 (OK, not so cheap anymore!), then you’ll find plenty of add-ons and features that make an amateur’s astronomer’s life a lot easier.
For instance, there are power cables that can connect to the lighter socket in your car; enabling you to hook up basic electronics. Also, consider getting moon filters that may dim a particularly bright Moon and make it more visible. The same goes for solar filters that enable you to observe sunspots without damaging your eyes.
Once you start going out into nature for the clearest possible stargazing, it’s also worth checking out tripod dollies for dirt and grass, which may make your viewing experience even more stable. Apart from this, getting a high-quality 40mm eyepiece won’t set you back more than $40 — and you won’t have to make use of your red dot finder as much.
The 3 cheapest telescopes we’d actually buy
When it comes to particular telescope models, there’s the OneSky Reflector Telescope created by AWB — Astronomers Without Borders (available here). This model is a bit pricey for entry-level people, but it’s pretty much the best option in our opinion.
The only thing that you’ll find lacking here once you become more experienced with your telescope is the fact that it doesn’t have a digital GPS function — which means that you will have to search for specific objects on your own instead of just entering the coordinates.
Plus, you will have to perform some basic collimation from time to time — but it’s not nearly as tedious as some models out there, and it will teach you everything you need to learn as a new astronomer in practice. In fact, most experts will agree that such a basic manual telescope is the best way to learn basic astronomy as a beginner. (By the way, we’ve covered teaching yourself astronomy in a little more detail right here.)
Another popular telescope among entry-level models is the AstroMaster series from Celestron (available here). This is definitely a name brand, meaning you don’t have to worry about the manufacturing quality all that much. And while we are talking about a basic model, beginning backyard stargazers will find its simplicity refreshing. You don’t need to do much construction to get it started.
Plus, it’s quite lightweight — meaning that you can easily take it wherever you’re planning a stargazing trip in search of darker skies. Standing at 70mm, this isn’t the biggest aperture you’ll find by far — but for less than $150, this is an excellent value that you’re getting. And while you won’t be able to spot distant nebulae and galaxies, Saturn, Jupiter, and the Moon will be clearly visible. The stand found in this is also somewhat flimsy, but still far better than department store options.
And if you’re willing to put just a bit more money into this hobby, you might also want to consider the Celestron PowerSeeker 80EQ (available here). It’s one of the better models you can get for well below $200, although some new stargazers find the equatorial mount a bit complicated.
How to make your money go farther
Of course, there are ways to stretch your budget and still do astronomy — even if you don’t want to buy a telescope at first. There are plenty of things that you can spot with nothing more than your unaided eyes, for instance.
Most people who have never dabbled in astronomy believe that a telescope is absolutely essential — but while you learn your way around the night sky, you can start with your naked eye as you gather the funds for a telescope. There are plenty of stars, galaxies, and even some planets (in certain conditions) that you can see without technological assistance.
However, you will need to read guides on naked-eye observation. We also recommend not starting with specific objects at first — but rather learning constellations. This will come in handy later on as well when you’ve got more professional equipment.
Speaking of which — there is a half-measure between purchasing a telescope and observing with the naked eye. There are plenty of high-quality binoculars that may be enough for some basic astronomical observations — you only need to do basic research in order to get the right gear. And it’ll certainly be cheaper than buying a full-fledged telescope!
Click here for our more detailed guide to the pros and cons of binoculars vs. telescopes.
Consider stargazing side gigs to pad your budget
Finally, we’ll leave you with one humble financial suggestion. If your meager budget won’t accommodate a worthwhile telescope, then don’t buy anything just yet.
The excitement of starting a new hobby (or setting someone else up for theirs) is terrific. But if even a $100-$200 purchase might break the bank, then you’re better off waiting than buying a poor, unpleasant, and uninspiring scope.
To that end, why not turn your stargazing interests in a bit of cash? It’s a little easier said than done, but we’d start with part-time work at a local planetarium (if you’re so fortunate), advocacy/tourism organization, or astronomy publication–just to name a few ideas that come to mind.
And if or when the time comes for an upgrade, read up on our general guide to buying or dive into our round-up of the best catadioptric telescopes around. They’re obviously not the only type, but they have some unique advantages that lead us to recommend them for most avid amateurs.