Click this link to go back to Jerry's home page

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.

Astronomy Clubs

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.


Astronomy Books 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 naked eye.

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 magazine.)
Nightwatch by Terence Dickinson ($20).

Of course there are many others; these are just the ones I’m familiar with.


Red Flashlights 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 brighter.

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.


Celestron 15 x 70 Binoculars 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 35s.

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 least for a while.

8-inch DobsonianAperture — 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 accessories instead.


Eyepieces 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.


FiltersPolarizing filters 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 fixed-density filter.

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

Starbound Chair Beyond filters, where do you go? What’s next?

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 something similar.

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.


Moon with hand-held camera 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 any depth.

Pipe Dreams

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 one.

Solar prominence 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.

Baader Hyperion Zoom Eyepiece 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.

Sample Budgets

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

Total:  $615

How to contact me

Email linkPlease feel free to email me at the address on the right. (Sorry you can't click on it or copy and paste it; it's a graphic file to thwart spambots that search the internet for addresses to send junk mail to.) I have no idea how much mail this page will generate, so I can't guarantee a response, but I'll do my best to answer everyone who writes with a genuine question or comment about the information on this page.

Click this link to go back to Jerry's home page