Telescope recommendations, by Dan Caton

Many people ask me what kind of telescope they should buy and are often disappointed to find that there are not good, cheap telescopes worth owning. There simply is no "nickel cigar" when it comes to telescopes (or cigars!).

The discount-store models usually are a refractor with a main lens about two inches (50mm) in diameter. They provide eyepieces that will provide a couple of different magnifications, usually one of them providing too high a magnification to actually be useful.

What you really want is the most diameter that you can afford--three or four inches is a sort of minimum to consider. That will rule out cheap refractors (those with lenses as the main optical element), leaving us with reflectors that use mirrors to collect and direct the light. The reason you want a large mirror is that it will collect more light (giving brighter images) and will provide more detail in the object being viewed.

A big problem that dooms many cheap telescopes to the basement or closet is that they are difficult to use to actually find anything faint in the sky. You will be able to find the moon and bright planets and stars but faint objects will elude your efforts and prove frustrating. This has been solved with the newer generation of telescopes that have computer-controlled pointing and tracking--so-called "GoTo" telescopes.

My current recommendation is the Meade ETX-90AT which has an aperture of 90mm (almost 4 inches) and computer control. Yes, it's four hundred bucks but it will not disappoint you. Beware their cheaper($230) ETX-80--this is little more than half a large binocular with computer control. Spend the difference to get the 90.

A similar telescope made by Meade's only real competitor, Celestron, is the Nexstar 4 SE. We have used Celestrons at ASU for 25 years. Again, beware their cheaper models without computer control.

These can be purchased at some camera and hobby shops but the best deals are found online, such as at, or at, where you will also find reviews. They are also sold at Discover stores found in some large malls, but again beware the price. Usually these stores do not have qualified personnel that will be able to provide any more help than you will get by buying online. If you can find a local astronomy club you can get some help from fellow amateur stargazers.

If these prices scare you or you are buying the scope for a child or spouse of uncertain interest in the stars, consider starting with a good pair of binoculars--8 x 50 or larger. You can get a decent pair for about $100. If these get the stargazer hooked then you can move on to a telescope later. If not, at least you have a pair of binoculars you can use for other activities.