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When you are buying a telescope, the budget may be the main decision-making requirement for you. I have made an article about 4 best telescopes under $200, and today I will talk about higher priced telescopes under $500. This price is already in the range where you can get a professional telescope.
It is tough to give you a straight answer and only one recommendation. It’s like asking a car dealer, what is the best car under $50 000. There are so many car manufacturers and types of cars, and I don’t know your needs and expectations from the car that it is simply impossible to pick one without knowing any specifications.
The same issue comes up if you ask me what is the best telescope under $500. It highly depends on your astronomy goal and what you plan to do or see with this telescope. So, I will try to break it into the few categories and give you an idea of what the particular scope is capable of and then I can give you the best answer possible with narrowed down recommended products.
Visual Observer – Astronomer Beginner
If you are serious about astronomy and you want to learn the night sky, the best option for you will be a big manual light bucket. And what do I mean by that? Simple, you need the biggest telescope for the price. The big telescope will show you almost everything on the night sky. The bigger scope you have, the more light it will gather, and you can see much fainter objects than with a small telescope. The magnification here is not essential. The important part is the diameter of the optical tube.
The scope will be manual, so you have to know already or be willing to learn the sky map. If you want to see something you have to know where to look for it. It may sound hard, but it is actually a straightforward and rewarding experience.
You can use a method called “star hopping”. You just have to locate the brightest star near the object you are looking for, and with the aid of the star charts, you can find it very easily. It is used by amateur astronomers mostly for the deep sky objects because they are almost invisible to the naked eye; therefore it is hard to locate them even with the finder scope, so you have to point the telescope right at them. I also recommend having some star maps or books to help you locate the objects on the night sky.
So my recommendation here will be the biggest Dobsonian telescope you can find under $500. Dobsonian telescopes are the best telescopes for the money you can buy. Dobsonian telescope has its name from the base it is mounted on. This mount is a very simple point and shot construction, and it can carry a lot of weight as well. It is why there is no competition when it comes to the Dobsonian telescope. They are much cheaper than other telescopes mounted on a German equatorial mount or alt-azimuth mounts on the tripod.
You can have a look at the Orion 8945 SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope. This beast will not disappoint you, and it will serve you for many many years, maybe forever. This telescope is also my universal recommendation for any beginner who wants to start with this hobby. Further, it is a good allrounder when you are not sure what your journey will be in the astronomy. It’s also the reason why I mention it in the first category because the next ones are for more specific things. One more advice, don’t start with small and cheap scopes, it is like throwing money out of the window because they will disappoint you for sure.
The planet and Moon Hunter – Big Magnification
If you plan to use your scope mostly for observing planets and the Moon, you will need a telescope with high magnification. Planets are tiny in the sky, so you need enough power to enjoy them in the close details. It applies for the Moon too. The Moon is a large object which means you will see it in every telescope even in binoculars but to be able to see the close terrain and craters; it is best to use high magnification telescope.
Unlike in the first category, here, the size (diameter) of the optical tube doesn’t matter. What matters is the focal length. Let me explain.
The magnification of the telescope is calculated by dividing the focal length of the scope with the focal length of the eyepiece. If you want to achieve high magnification you need very short eyepiece focal length or very long telescope focal length.
Very short eyepieces are uncomfortable to look through. They have a small exit pupil, so it is good to have a scope with longer focal length. But you may say that very long telescope is not practical and hard to transport. If you want to have 200x magnification with 10mm eyepiece, you need a telescope with a focal length of 2000mm. So it is pretty long yeah? But don’t worry there are special designs that allow having a small telescope with long focal length like Maksutov-Cassegrain.
And this is my next recommendation. Buy a small Maksutov-Cassegrain for planets and moon hunting- something like this Celestron NexStar 4 SE Telescope. Even if it looks tiny, it has a focal length of 1325 mm (52”). I’m not going to explain here the details of the design, but if you are interested, you can read my article Schmidt Cassegrain vs. Maksutov Cassegrain where I’m explaining how these designs work.
You may notice that this telescope is on a motorized mount. That means that the built-in computer will help you to locate all objects on the night sky and it will keep them in the field of view by compensating for the earth rotation. This is very important if you plan to observe the planets and the Moon in high magnification. The problem with high magnification is that even small touch or movement of the telescope can move your object out of the eyepiece view. That’s why I don’t recommend telescope on the manual mount for this category.
The motorized mount will make your observing session much pleasant and stress-free. You can also do very basic astrophotography with it where you can make amazing close-up pictures or videos of the planets or craters on the Moon. Read my guide about using a simple webcam with your telescope– it is a really cool thing to do, and this telescope will allow you to do it. You can also connect his mount to the computer and control it with free software.
This telescope is not suitable for observing deep sky objects because the diameter is only 102 mm (4.02”) so it will not collect a lot of light. However, it can show you brightest objects like Orion nebula, Pleiades or Andromeda galaxy.
This is the last category, and it’s a little more complicated one, but keep reading till the end. If you are into stunning images of space that some astronomers make with their scope, and you also wish to start with astrophotography, begin with the telescope I recommended in the second category. I suggest this because for astrophotographer-beginner, it’s better to start working with motorized mount and learn some basics by photographing planets and the Moon.
To do deep sky astrophotography, it requires to have expensive equipment, and your $500 won’t be enough for that. You need to have a motorized German equatorial mount with good scope either Apochromatic refractor or dedicated Newton astrograph. You can check my recommendation for the best telescope and mount for astrophotography.
However, there is another option- start without the telescope. If you have a DSLR camera, I recommend buying iOptron SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount. This mount is dedicated to DSLR cameras, and you can do amazing things with it. Just mount the camera and the mount will track the object. A good camera lens is preferred here, but even with the stock lens, you can do some astrophoto. Astrophotography is challenging to learn, but you can do it. Remember that you can start small and work your way up.
Now, last but not least. If you are stubborn like me and refuse to hear that astrophotography is not possible with at least $1000, you will enjoy my article Budget Astrophotography With DSLR Camera And Telescope Under $600. I have slightly modified my telescope and started doing pretty amazing things with it. I plan to update my progress and write the second article about it, so stay tuned and check my blog.
There are a lot of options if you have a budget $500 for a telescope. I hope that my article helped you in the research process because I know from my own experience that picking the best first telescope is very hard. I tried to narrow down the search for you, and If you follow my instructions and buy a telescope based on what you are planning to do with it, you will be ok. From my picks, I have to mention the first one again- the Dobsonian telescope. Every astronomer will tell you that it is the best choice you can make as a beginner.