Is A Cheap Telescope Worth It? Under $100 – Astronomer Explains

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It’s a common practice when you want to try a new hobby that, you won’t spend too much at the beginning. You don’t know if you are going to enjoy it, and the initial investment is where you want to save some money.

If you are interested in astronomy and want to buy your first telescope, you should not cheap out on the initial investment. A cheap telescope is not worth it, and I would not take one even for free. A cheap telescope means a cheap experience that could destroy your interest in astronomy.

On the other hand, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to buy a good telescope. In this article, I’m going to explain what a cheap worthless telescope is and what is the minimum amount of money you should expect to spend on a good beginner telescope. 

I will also give you some recommendations on buying your first telescope.

What is a cheap telescope?

You can quickly tell if the telescope is in the cheap category when the price is usually below $100. You will also find bold claims of insane magnification capabilities of the telescope on the box.

This is typical marketing for cheap telescopes. If it is too good to be true, stay away from the purchase. These telescopes are built with cheap materials like plastic.

In many cases, the optical elements are not even made with glass. And if they are, the quality of such elements as eyepiece or lens is poor. You would be better off with decent binoculars instead.

The mounts these telescopes have are wobbly and unstable. Useless with any magnification. Remember that the mount or tripod is sometimes more important than the telescope itself.

When you use high magnification with the telescope, you need a stable sturdy mount. So if you touch the telescope or you need to focus the object in the eyepiece, it will not shake indefinitely. 

All these problems result in a more complicated and frustrating experience than with a little more expensive telescope.

Cheap Telescope

How much can you see with a cheap telescope?

Don’t expect to see much with a cheap telescope. If you want to see galaxies and nebulae, I have to disappoint you. With a cheap telescope, it’s almost impossible.

Under the truly dark skies in the rural area, you might see them, but you can see some nebulae there with your naked eye too. In this case, it is still better to use a good pair of binoculars instead of a cheap telescope.

The only object you can see with a cheap telescope that will satisfy your hunger for astronomy is the moon. The moon is big and bright, and it won’t be a problem for any telescope type. But don’t expect amazing and high-quality details in the eyepiece. 

You can also use a cheap telescope during the day for terrestrial objects or for spying on your neighbors 🙂

Can cheap telescopes see planets?

Planets are a bit of a problem for cheap telescopes. If you ask me if you can see them, I would say yes. But this is also true without the telescope.

The biggest and closest planets in our solar system are like the brightest stars on the night skies, and you can see them with the naked eye.

You need high magnification to see the surface details of the planets, and there is a problem. Using a high magnification with a cheap telescope and wobbly mount is a humongous task. First of all, focusing will be a challenge, and second, the image will not drop your jaws. 

There are also limitations on the magnification you can use. Every telescope has something called the highest useful magnification. You can’t go past that because it is not possible to focus, and the image will be blurry if you go above the highest useful magnification.

It’s a very simple formula: 50 or 60 times the telescope’s aperture in inches or 2 times the aperture in millimeters. Aperture is the diameter of the telescope lens or mirror.

So let’s say that your cheap telescope has an aperture of 50mm. The highest useful magnification here is only 100x. This is not enough for observing the planets. You should read my article on what magnification you need to see planets.

The biggest planet is Jupiter. With a cheap telescope and 100x magnification, you will see it only as a slightly bigger star with no details. The cloud bands and the big red spot is not visible in that magnification.

Can you see Saturn with a cheap telescope?

Saturn is a little bit different compared to Jupiter. It is smaller but has famous rings, so theoretically it should be a better experience. 

You can resolve the rings of Saturn with a minimum magnification of 30x, but it will not be a separate structure. Just like a small disk with a thin line extending from the sides.

Saturn 200x Magnification

Even with the 100x magnification, you can’t expect miracles with Saturn. If you want to see the rings as a separate structure and resolve the Cassini division, you need much higher magnification.

How much do you have to pay for a good telescope?

So how much should you expect to pay for a good telescope? My advice to anyone asking this question is something around $200. Not much from $100, right?

The $200 telescope is usually 10 times better than $100, so it is definitely worth investing $100 more and buying a good starting telescope.

On the other hand, even if you have a budget, you don’t need to spend more. The reason is that there is a specific purpose for each telescope type. So you should start with a basic $200 telescope and learn what excites you.

Do you want to do astrophotography later? Or would you like to do planetary imaging? Maybe you enjoy only visual astronomy with a big manual telescope or portable smaller GoTo telescope that you can take on the camping trip.

There are so many different options, so don’t go overboard with the initial investment, and please don’t cheap out as well. You will buy a more expensive telescope specific to your needs down the road, but you need to experience the hobby first to know what you want from a telescope.

Is a cheap used telescope a good idea?

The other option is to go to a used market. I recommend this option only if you are looking for a manual telescope without electronics. You could find real gems and amazing telescopes for $100 on the used market.

Telescopes don’t lose value over the years too much. In my experience, I once sold one of my GoTo telescopes for a higher price than I paid 3 years ago. 

Just be careful on the used market and check the optics carefully, and try the mount if it is stable. Usually, astronomers take great care of their telescopes. But a dent in the optics or a dirty mirror is a problem for the telescope. So be cautious.

Which is the best affordable telescope?

Now here are my recommendations. The best telescope for the money you can buy is the Dobsonian telescope. Dobsonians are very easy to use because they have a simple design that is not expensive to manufacture.

Dobsonian telescopes don’t use conventional tripod mounts. They use the Dobsonian mount popularized by John Dobson in 1965. The result is that you can have a bigger telescope for less money.

An example is Zhumell Z114 Portable Altazimuth Reflector Telescope. The cost is around $200 with an aperture of 114mm. Amazing little scope for beginners or even kids.

Also, you can check my recent article about What can you see with a 70mm telescope? It was the first telescope I bought, and I was pretty happy with it.

If you really only have $100 and there is no chance you could spend more than that, at least have a look at Orion FunScope 76mm TableTop Reflector Telescope

Again, don’t expect much, but if I had only $100 to spend and plan to use it just for fun and occasional moon observation, I would buy this telescope for sure.

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