Astronomy on a Budget
How to Look Up Without Falling Into Debt
by Jerry Oltion
Amateur astronomy is like any hobby: It will take as much money
as you want to throw at it. Problem is, the difference between what you
want and what you can actually afford can be fairly extreme. So that
brings up the obvious question: How can you enjoy astronomy on a limited
budget? And more specifically, what should that budget look like? People
ask me that question all the time, and I've developed some more or less
standard responses depending upon their interest level and how much
they're comfortable spending, but until now I've never written it all
down in one place. So here goes.
In an article on "hobby killers" that I wrote for the December 2019
issue of Sky & Telescope
magazine I discussed what not to buy. I also made a couple of
recommendations for beginners looking at buying their first telescopes.
This web page will include those recommendations and look at what might
come next. And yes, I include prices. The prices I list aren’t
necessarily the cheapest possible, but ballpark figures clustering
around the most common prices I could find as of early 2021. I'll try to
remember to update them off and on.
I’ll start by saying that by far the best money you can initially spend
on astronomy is a membership in your local astronomy club ($10-30/year).
There you’ll find astronomy enthusiasts of all stripes and all levels of
experience. Astronomy club members love to help newcomers learn their
way around, and many clubs have lending libraries that can provide you
with startup equipment free of charge. You’ll make lifetime friends in
your club, and you’ll learn things faster and far more enjoyably than
you did in school.
Even after you get your club membership, a telescope
may not be the first thing you want to buy. There’s the aforementioned
equipment lending library, but before you jump even into free optics you
might want to start with a simple star chart or a book on
constellations. Get used to going out at night and looking upward. You
can have a great deal of fun just learning your way around the sky by
Books I’d recommend are:
Skywatching by David H. Levy
($15-20) (This is the book that got me started.)
The Stars by H. A. Rey ($10-12)
(Rey is also the author of the Curious George books.)
Turn Left at Orion by Guy
Consolmagno (director of the Vatican Observatory) and Don S. Davis ($35)
Discover the Stars by Richard
Berry ($10) (Richard is a good friend and the former editor of Astronomy
Nightwatch by Terence Dickinson
Of course there are many others; these are just the ones I’m familiar
You’re going to be outside at night with a book in
your hand, so unless it’s an ebook you’ll want a red flashlight. White
light kills your night vision, but red light — provided it’s dim enough
— lets your eyes adapt to the dark and you can see much more. The
easiest and cheapest way to get a red flashlight is to cover a white
flashlight you already own with some red plastic. Taillight repair tape
($5/roll) works well for this. Rubylith masking film ($6/sheet) is the
gold (well, okay, red) standard. I’ve also cut up red report binders,
red wrapping paper, and even painted red fingernail polish over the
front of the light. The trick is to get it red and dim enough to where
it doesn’t look nearly bright enough to your daylight-adapted eyes. When
dark adapted, your eyes are thousands of times more sensitive than in
daylight, so a light you can barely see by day will seem plenty bright
at night. You want it just bright enough to read your chart by, and no
If you’re using an ebook or reading a chart on your phone, you’ll want
to put your phone in night vision mode if possible, or cover it with red
film if not. Most phones’ night modes aren’t dim enough, so you might
need the red film anyway.
If you’d like to just buy a decent red astronomy flashlight, I
recommend a simple keychain light ($1) for the truly budget conscious,
or Celestron’s Astro Night Vision light ($18) or the Orion Redbeam
motion sensing headlamp ($19). The Orion Redbeam is way cool: It has a
motion sensor built in. Wave your hand in front of it to turn it on and
off, freeing up that hand to hold an eyepiece or a sketch pad or a
thermos of hot chocolate.
Now is it time to talk telescopes? Oh no. You’ve
probably already got the next most useful set of optics for astronomy: a
pair of binoculars. If you don’t have any, you can often find them for
$10 or so at Goodwill. And you’ll be amazed at what you can see in the
night sky with just a simple pair of binoculars. You can see hundreds,
maybe even thousands of amazing sights visible in a simple pair of 7 x
Of course you can spend a little more and get a pair of dedicated
astronomical binoculars that gather more light and provide a little more
magnification than average. If you go that route, I recommend the
Celestron Skymaster 15 x 70 binoculars ($70). I have a pair, and they’re
by far my favorites. You don’t want the 25x or the zoom version unless
you have a tripod for them, but 15x can still be held by hand or braced
against something solid. The Pleiades alone are worth the price of
admission, but scan along the Milky Way on a clear, moonless night. Not
only will you see star clusters galore, you’ll also see dark nebulae
better than you’ll ever see them in a telescope. And emission nebulae
like the Orion Nebula or the Lagoon Nebula are stunning in binoculars,
as is the Andromeda Galaxy, and of course the Moon. So binoculars aren’t
something you graduate away from as you gain experience; they’ll be part
of your kit for the rest of your life.
You will eventually want to start looking
at things through a telescope, so let’s go ahead and dive down that
rabbit hole. Let me begin by reiterating my recommendations from my
Hobby Killer article. These are the telescopes that I automatically
respond with when people ask me what they should buy: The 4.5" Orion
Starblast ($200), or a 6-inch or 8-inch Dobsonian ($300-400) of just
about any manufacture. (Although Orion's Skyquest line is hard to beat.)
The Starblast is a wonderful beginners’ scope. It’s extremely portable
and it has great optics, complete with eyepieces, and it’ll show you
thousands of night-sky objects. It comes ready to use right out of the
box, which is also a big plus for many people. And it’s relatively cheap
as far as telescopes go. If you want something that doesn’t break the
bank, doesn’t take up a lot of space, and can be taken out for a quick
look on a moment’s notice, this is the scope for you. You order the
Starblast and you’re done...at least for a while.
Aperture — the diameter of the
light-gathering optical element, be it a lens or a mirror — makes a big
difference in what you can see, both in terms of how bright it is and in
how well defined it is. Bigger is definitely better, so long as you
don’t compromise too many other factors, such as storage space,
portability, ease of use, and of course cost. More aperture costs more
money, but it’s usually worth it if you have the money to spend. There’s
a breakpoint at about 8" of aperture. If you buy something smaller and
wind up fascinated by astronomy, you’ll eventually want something
larger. But if you start out with an 8" scope, you could very well find
that it satisfies you for years. No one is immune to "aperture fever,"
but I still use an 8" scope on many nights simply for the ease of use
and because I know it will show me a fine view of what I intend to look
at that night.
So I suggest it’s worth scrimping and saving a bit to buy an 8" scope
if you can. If you’re flush with cash, buy a 10" ($650), provided you
can store it and transport it and use it comforably. Maybe even a 12"
($900) if you’re seriously into it, but those can be too large for
comfort and you might find yourself wishing you had something smaller
and easier to handle. I wouldn’t recommend anything larger than that for
your first telescope.
I always recommend simple Dobsonian telescopes since they provide the
most bang for the buck. (Dobsonians are Newtonian reflectors on simple
altitude-azimuth mounts.) I don’t recommend a Newtonian on an equatorial
mount unless you’re doing astrophotography, which we’ll get to in a
moment. Equatorial mounts are better suited for refractors (scopes that
use lenses) or catadioptric scopes (compound reflector/refractors with
folded optics), but refractors are crazy expensive in apertures above 3"
or so, and I don’t recommend them for people on a budget. "Cats" are
more reasonably priced, but they’re still more expensive per aperture
than simple Dobs.
I don’t recommend computerized scopes for economy-minded folks, either.
To get a good one you’ll pay over $1000, because you’re paying for the
electronics as well as the optics. Put your money into aperture and
What accessories? Once you’ve got a
telescope, the very next thing I recommend buying are additional
eyepieces. In terms of bang for your buck, eyepieces offer the most
improvement in your astronomical experience. Most scopes will come with
a low power plössl (a high quality design, especially for their
relatively low cost) in the 25mm range, so I recommend a second
plössl eyepiece in the 10mm range ($35). That will give you higher
magnification when you want to zoom in on a planet or a star cluster or
split double stars, etc. Next, buy a 2x Barlow ($30-40). That will
double the magnification of your other eyepieces, giving you a 12.5mm
and 5mm combo to accompany your 25mm and 10mm.
Eyepieces come in two sizes: 1.25-inch and 2-inch. (Cheap scopes will
often come with smaller 0.965-inch eyepieces; avoid those like the
plague.) Until you get seriously into astronomy, the difference between
1.25" and 2" eyepieces is mostly insignificant except at the lowest
magnifications. A 40mm eyepiece in a 2" barrel will show you a wider
field than a 40mm eyepiece in a 1.25" barrel because the smaller barrel
gets in the way. This advantage disappears below about 25mm, though, so
for eyepieces shorter than 25mm in focal length, it makes no difference
which size you buy — except 2" eyepieces are typically more expensive.
And boy, can eyepieces be expensive! This is one aspect of the hobby
where you can really blow a pile of cash. Some high-end models go for
well over $1000 a pop. Are they worth it? Well, sure, if you’ve got the
money to spare and a telescope that will do them justice. But for
ordinary mortals, plössls are fine. If you want to splurge, I
recommend the Explore Scientific 14mm 82-degree eyepiece ($200) as one
that you’ll find yourself using all the time, followed by the Explore
8.8mm 82-degree ($200) or the Televue Nagler 9mm 82-degree ($320). These
are the eyepieces I use far more than any of my others.
You might think an 8-24mm zoom eyepiece ($70-300) would cover all the
bases, but they tend to have narrow fields of view. They’re great for
studying an object at varying magnifications, but not as good for
general astronomy. I’d put this down the list a ways except for one
specific use: Solar observing. More on that anon.
Once you’ve filled out your eyepiece
kit, or even while you’re still working on it, the next most useful
items if you have any degree of light pollution in your sky would be
filters. A general skyglow filter ($50 for a 1.25", $70 for a 2") cuts
down a lot of the city glow that reflects off the dust and moisture
overhead, letting nebula and starlight shine through. The difference can
be astounding. So called "narrowband" filters cut even more background
light, and are tuned to allow specific wavelengths through. An oxygen 3
filter (often written OIII) ($80-120) really brings out nebulosity like
the Veil Nebula and planetary nebulae, etc. There’s a new favorite
called the DGM NPB filter ($75-100) (affectionately called the "alphabet
soup filter" by aficionados) that provides more transmission of red
light as well and excels at things like the Orion Nebula and the Lagoon
and Trifid nebulae.
If you like to look at the Moon (and who doesn’t?), you should get a
polarizing filter ($30-50). This is actually two polarizing filters on
separate rings that you can rotate with respect to each other.
Polarizing filters have the unique property of allowing you to tune the
degree of obstruction, dialing in however much light you want to let
through. This is incredibly useful on the Moon, since you’ll be
observing it in various phases and at various altitudes. It’s well worth
the extra few dollars to get a variable filter rather than a
You might be tempted to buy a Hydrogen Beta filter ($75-150) because
they’re great for looking at the Horsehead Nebula and California Nebula,
but that’s really about all they’re good for unless you get into
photography. I’d put that low on the list, too.
One other special kind of filter is well worth the expense: a solar
filter ($20-$150+ depending upon aperture). This lets you look at the
Sun without damaging your eyes. A solar filter will let you see sunspots
in crisp detail.
It’s worth noting that you can make your own solar filter relatively
inexpensively by buying just the filter material (Baader Astrosolar) and
making your own housing for it. Do this only if you can follow the
directions to the letter! Solar observing must be done right if it’s
done at all.
A Happy Butt
Beyond filters, where do you go? What’s
Actually, an accessory that should probably fit into the list alongside
eyepieces and filters is a good observing chair. These are
adjustable-hight chairs that let you look into the telescope while
seated, which adds immensely to your stability and your ability to study
objects carefully.You can buy the Starbound chair, which is probably the
most ubiquitous observing chair made, for about $200, or you can build
your own for anywhere from $10 to whatever, depending on what you’ve got
on hand for materials. I've got plans for a good homemade chair right here on this website. Even a folding
picnic chair or a camp stool will serve you well.
Along with the chair, a nice folding table ($30) helps keep your charts
and eyepices off the ground. I like the kind where the top rolls up and
the legs fold up and the whole works goes into a bag like a camp chair.
But to start with, you probably have a card table or a TV tray or
A Planetarium in Your Pocket
Your beginner’s star charts will prove
limited after a while, so another accessory would be more detailed
charts. Sky & Telescope’s
Pocket Sky Atlas ($25 for the regular sized edition, $42 for the jumbo)
is one of the best, and I don’t say that just because I write for S&T. It’s simply the best
printed sky atlas for general astronomy.
In the digital age, it’s also possible to get planetarium software that
runs on your phone or a tablet. These programs are astonishing in their
capabilities. You can zoom in and out on various parts of the sky,
simulating a naked-eye view, a binocular view, or a telescope view. You
can search for hundreds of thousands of objects in the database, get
information on any of them, and see when they rise and set. You can
organize observing lists and record your observations. You can hold your
gadget up to the sky and the program will tell you what you’re looking
at. You can even use these programs to guide your computerized telescope
if you have one of those. Planetarium programs are simply amazing.
SkySafari is by far my favorite. It comes in three flavors: the basic
version for $3, the "plus" version for $15, and the "pro" version for
$40. They often go on sale for half price. As you might suspect, the
more you pay, the more features you get. It’s well worth splurging for
the pro version, especially if you can catch it on sale.
You’ll be tempted to photograph what you
see through the telescope. The good news is you probably already have
sufficient entry-level gear: your phone. A cell phone camera simply held
up to the eyepiece will take pretty amazing photos of the Moon. You can
buy brackets ($15) to hold them in place for steadier shots. For planets
and nebulae and star clusters, however, you’ll need more dedicated
equipment, and that’s a whole ’nother rabbit hole to drop down. It can
be an immensely satisfying one, however. I did it for several years back
when we were still using film cameras, but I haven’t done much since the
digital age started a whole new era, so I won’t dig deeply into
equipment here. Suffice to say that you’ll want several thousand dollars
for a solid mount, a good imaging telescope, a good camera, and a decent
computer and software if you really want to get into astrophotography in
But let’s do talk briefly about what to do if you win the lottery. What
would your dream setup look like?
Aperture fever being what it is, everybody dreams of owning a 20" scope
($5,000 on up), or even larger. Yes, the view through big glass is truly
phenomenal, but buying a really big telescope can often mean far more
expense than just the telescope. It can mean buying a vehicle ($5,000
used to $60,000 new) to carry it in. You’ll often want better eyepieces
($500-1000 each) to take advantage of the increased aperture and
(hopefully) better optics. You might need a stepladder ($50-150). For a
really big telescope you might need an orchard ladder ($200-400). If you
can observe from home you could forego the vehicle, but you might want a
dedicated building ($50,000-$100,000) to house your new pride and joy.
And so on. Expenses can snowball.
Also, remember that the bigger the telescope, the more difficult it is
to transport, set up, and use. You’ll find yourself using that 20+"
monster a lot less than the 8" scope that you can carry out into the
driveway in one trip. So even if you invested in Apple when it was $40 a
share, you’re better off buying that 8" Dob for your first telescope.
Get the 20" as a second scope, or a third. Because telescopes are like
potato chips: If you like ’em at all, you’re not likely to stop at just
With that in mind, a dedicated solar
telescope($1,000+) makes a great second, third, or dozenth scope. With a
hydrogen-alpha solar scope you can see prominences standing out from the
Sun’s limb, filaments and granulation on the surface, the disturbances
around sunspots, even the tiny gap between photosphere and chromosphere.
Solar observers often joke that it’s a lot of money to spend on a scope
that only lets you see one star, but if you’ve got the budget for it,
it’s well worth the expense.
And here is where a good zoom eyepiece
comes in handy. When you're looking at the Sun, different features are
best seen at different magnifications, but it's cumbersome to keep
switching eyepieces all the time. Remember that I said up above that a
zoom eyepiece has a narrower field of view than a regular plössl
eyepiece, but with the Sun that doesn't matter a bit. It's half a degree
across at all times, and that fits comfortably within the field of view
of just about any zoom eyepiece. GSO, the Chinese company that makes
just about all the world's low- to medium-priced optics, sells a decent
zoom for about $70-100. (You can get the same eyepiece with many
different brand names on it.) The Cadillac of zoom eyepieces has to be
the Baader Hyperion Mark IV 8-24mm, checking in at about $300.
Expensive, yes, but worth it if you've got the money.
Do It Yourself
Since I edit the Astronomer’s Workbench column for Sky & Telescope magazine, I
would be remiss if I didn’t point out that you can build quite a bit of
your own astronomy gear and save substantial money on it, plus gain the
satisfaction of using equipment you made yourself. You can make your own
chair like the one I describe here.
You can make finders and focusers. You can make tracking platforms. You can even make eyepieces (S&T,
September 2020 issue). And of course you can grind your own mirror and
make your own telescope, but surprisingly enough, that won’t save you a
whole lot of money until you get up into the relatively large apertures.
Mass production has lowered the cost and improved the quality of
factory-made scopes to the point where making your own 8" Dob will cost
you just about as much as buying a commercial one. The break point is
probably around 12". Beyond that you can probably do it cheaper
yourself, but up to that point it’s debatable.
I haven’t mentioned used gear, either. The nice thing about telescope
gear is that it seldom wears out. Mirrors sometimes need to be re-coated
after a decade or two of heavy use, but a lot of telescopes with
30-year-old mirrors are still perfectly functional. The going price for
a used scope is typically about half to two-thirds what it cost new, but
you can sometimes find garage sale scopes for practically nothing. Most
of those are junk, but you can occasionally find a real gem.
So what brand should you buy? I haven’t mentioned specifics, except for
the Starblast. That’s because nearly every manufacturer offers decent
equipment once you get above the bottom-end stuff. I never hesitate to
recommend Orion, but I also have two Celestron scopes that I love, and I
know people who are well satisfied with Astro-Physics, Explore
Scientifics, Lunts, Meades, Obsessions, Sky-Watchers, Stellarvues,
Takahachis, Unitrons, Vixens, etc. all the way down the alphabet to
Zhumells. When you’re shopping for astronomy gear, read reviews, talk to
other telescope owners, and buy from reputable vendors.
And remember that the best equipment you can buy is the equipment that
you will use the most.
One and Done
Orion Starblast: $200
A Basic Starting Astronomy Budget
Astronomy club membership: $25
Beginner’s guide to the sky: $20
Red Flashlight: Cover your own light
Used binoculars: $10
8-inch Dobsonian telescope: $400
10mm plössl eyepiece: $35
2x Barlow lens (optional): $35
Skyglow filter (optional) $50
Chair: Use your own at first
Table: Use your own at first
SkySafari (pro version): $40
How to contact me
Please feel free to email me at the address on the
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everyone who writes with a genuine question or comment about the
information on this page.
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