SCIENCE NEWS: Best telescopes for kids 2021: Top picks for seeing the moon, stars, planets & more

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If you’re looking to buy one of the best telescopes for kids, you don’t have to spend a great deal of money – it’s possible to find an instrument that’s perfectly suited to youngsters for less than $100. And with options that are robust and portable, you can easily find piece of kit that will withstand a few (gentle) knocks and can be packed up and taken away on camping trips. A lot of the best telescopes for kids come ready-to-use out of the box too, so there’s no fiddly set-up process.

Right now is a good time to pick up a new model as some of the best Black Friday telescope deals are just starting to emerge. Even though the full event is scheduled to kick off on Nov. 26, there are already some decent discounts available. That said, some manufacturers have been quicker than others — there’s already an abundance of Black Friday Celestron telescope deals, for example, but you’ll be lucky to find discounts from the likes of Meade Instruments and Sky-Watcher.

Telescope glossary

Aperture: Diameter of the primary mirror or lens, which allows a telescope to collect light.
Field of view: Area of sky visible through the eyepiece.
Focal length: A telescope’s tube length. Short focal lengths offer a wide field of view and a small image.
Focal ratio: Also known as the telescope’s speed. Small focal ratios provide lower magnifications, wide field of view and a brighter image.
Magnification: Relationship between the telescope’s optical system and the eyepiece. 

When you’re trying to pick the best telescope for your family, the first thing to consider is what sort of things you want to see. There are three types of telescope: reflectors, refractors and catadioptric, the latter of which comes in the form of the Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov–Cassegrain. Refractors are best for seeing high-magnification targets, such as the moon and planets, while reflectors are usually preferred for low-magnification targets like fainter galaxies and nebulas. Catadioptric telescopes correct some visual issues with the old-school refractor and reflector models and are usually good for viewing a wide range of objects. They also often come with a computerized GoTo system, which can take the hassle out of aligning your instrument before you begin observing.

Catadioptric telescopes often come with a slightly higher price, too, which is why we haven’t included any of them below — although they do feature in our round-up of the best beginner telescopes. We recommend sticking to one of the cheaper refractor or reflector styles for young ones, especially if there’s a chance they might lose interest in skywatching.

If you do want to spend a little more money on a model, have a look through our list of the best telescopes for 2021. You may also want to think about picking up some of the best binoculars, too — they’re incredibly portable and they’re cheaper, offering a bit more bang for your buck when it comes to things like glass quality and aperture. Or, if you’re trying to tick off some names on your Christmas list, have a look through our guide to all the Black Friday space deals, which contains lots of toys and stocking fillers. 

(Image credit: Celestron)

Specifications

Optical design: Reflector

Mount type: Dobsonian

Aperture: 2.99″ (76 mm)

Focal length: 11.81″ (300 mm)

Highest useful magnification: 180x

Lowest useful magnification: 11x

Supplied eyepieces: 4 mm, 20 mm

Weight: 4.5 lbs. (2.04 kg)

Reasons to buy

+Portable+Robust build+Easy wide-angle views

Reasons to avoid

Finderscope not supplied

What we love about Celestron‘s FirstScope is that it’s easy to use and pack away. There’s also no need to set it up since it already comes assembled straight out of the box: a fantastic feature for the impatient youngster and parents who aren’t keen on assembling a telescope on a regular basis. 

The FirstScope is portable, weighing in at 4.5 lbs. (2.04 kilograms), while the build is of good quality despite the low cost. As a prime example, the instrument’s plastics are not glossy and cheap when compared to other telescopes within a similar price range.

The Celestron FirstScope is ideal for little hands since the tube can be pushed to the desired target with ease. Meanwhile, this tabletop reflector comes fully equipped for good observations of the night sky: two basic eyepieces — a 4 mm and 20 mm — are thrown into the package, along with a basic edition of Starry Night astronomy software. A great download for young skywatchers wanting to learn more about the universe.

Unfortunately, despite having screws to affix one to the tube, the FirstScope doesn’t come with a finderscope — a device that’s useful for navigating the night sky. This means that a great deal of trial and error is required in aligning the telescope with your chosen target, something that is sure to frustrate young skywatchers: we recommend adding a red dot finder for simple hopping between stars.

With an aperture of 2.99 inches (76 mm), skywatchers are able to pick out bright solar system targets, including the moon, Venus and Jupiter, as well as luminous deep-sky targets like star clusters thanks to the optical system’s fast focal ratio of f/3.95 that offers a wide field of view. 

With the supplied eyepieces, which work with the optics to provide magnifications of 75x and 15x, astronomers won’t get hugely close up sights of targets — something we discovered when we turned our attention to the moon. However, we were able to pick out craters and, despite a view that isn’t massively pin-sharp due to a loose focuser, young skywatchers are sure to be delighted with what this telescope is able to offer.  

Hopping over to Jupiter, which dazzled at magnitude -1.9, views are basic but observers are able to pick out the moons of Jupiter comfortably using the FirstScope. Io, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa appear as bright points of light either side of the gas giant’s equator, but it is a challenge to detect Jupiter’s atmospheric bands and belts without the use of planetary filters. Meanwhile, Saturn is seen as a small, faint and fuzzy object, yet with a steady eye, we could just about make out the gas giant’s rings and yellow coloration. 

The Celestron FirstScope is ideal for fuss-free observing, especially for casual views of the night sky. However, if you want to make the most of what this reflector has to offer, we recommend accessorizing with a finderscope, eyepieces that respect the optical limits of 180x and 11x and filters. 

(Image credit: Celestron)

Specifications

Optical design: Refractor

Mount type: Alt-azimuth

Aperture: 3.15″ (80 mm)

Focal length: 35.43″ (900 mm)

Highest useful magnification: 189x

Lowest useful magnification: 11x

Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 20 mm

Weight: 16.98 lbs. (7.70 kg)

Reasons to buy

+Offers more over most beginner packages+Easy assembly+Very good quality build+Portable

Reasons to avoid

Hard to track targetsSlight color-fringing in optics 

The Celestron Inspire 80AZ is a classic telescope that’s both simple to use and assemble. If you know a kid who is happy to spend hours under the night sky, learning their way around without the aid of technology, then we fully recommend this well-built instrument.

This refractor makes use of an alt-azimuth mount and a panning handle for fine movements that allow the observer to accurately lock onto a target: some mounts cause telescopes to jump from one positioning extreme to another, but we’re pleased to discover that we can make incremental adjustments to the tube’s orientation with ease. Patience is required by particularly young observers, so we recommend supervision in helping them to navigate with the Inspire 80AZ. 

The Celestron Inspire 80AZ is supplied with a tripod, two eyepieces with focal lengths of 20 mm and 10 mm (offering magnifications of 45x and 90x), a red LED flashlight to preserve night vision, star diagonal, StarPointer Pro red-dot finderscope and Celestron’s Starry Night Basic Edition Software. If you know that your young observer will be looking to share images of their astronomical finds with friends or may want to try out basic astrophotography, a smartphone adapter is thrown into the bundle.

Through the eyepiece, we did detect a slight amount of color fringing around our chosen targets but this didn’t ruin our experience and we were treated to clear views of stars and planets. Jupiter is particularly stunning, with some belts visible, while far-flung ice giant Uranus can be identified as a faint star in the field of view.

The 3.15-inch (80 mm) aperture made short work of picking out starbirth at the center of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42), while magnified pin-sharp views of the Hyades star cluster in Taurus dazzled through the optical system. 

Given Celestron’s decision to create a basic telescope for the beginner, the Celestron Starry Night Basic Edition Software is on a CD, making the Inspire 80AZ a touch “old-fashioned” compared to instruments that make use of downloadable smartphone apps. Nevertheless, it’ll suit skywatchers who are uncomfortable with using advanced technology, making for a fuss-free observing experience. 

The Inspire range is also available in apertures of 2.76 inches (70mm) and 3.14 inches (100 mm). If you’re looking for an instrument that’s going to take a few years to outgrow, the Inspire 80AZ is highly recommended.

(Image credit: Orion)

3. Orion SpaceProbe II 76

Specifications

Optical design: Reflector

Mount type: Alt-azimuth

Aperture: 2.99″ (76 mm)

Focal length: 27.56″ (700 mm)

Highest useful magnification: 152x

Lowest useful magnification: 11x

Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm

Weight: 7.05 lbs. (3.2 kg)

Reasons to buy

+Good views for young skywatchers+Good build+Excellent range of accessories

Reasons to avoid

Views are not pin-sharpAssembly is a little fiddly

The reflector is often advised as a first telescope since the design promotes excellent light-gathering prowess for a low investment. The Orion SpaceProbe II is of no exception, collecting 60% more light over most beginner instruments with apertures of 2.36 inches (60 mm). 

The Orion SpaceProbe II provides an aperture of 2.99 inches (76 mm), which — just like the Celestron FirstScope — will reveal the solar system, lunar surface and a selection of bright deep-sky targets up close. Weighing in at 7.05 lbs. (3.2 kilograms) the SpaceProbe is lighter than Meade’s StarPro, which makes it a perfect grab-and-go telescope for kids: it’s light enough to take on a camping trip or for quick observing sessions in the backyard. 

While it’s lighter than the StarPro, the SpaceProbe II doesn’t suffer in quality, particularly since its optical tube assembly is made of steel. Additionally, for slightly more budget, this reflector does come much better equipped: 10 mm and 25 mm Kellner eyepieces, red dot finder and a moon map are included in the package. If you’re looking to spend slightly more, then several packages come with an extra planisphere, red flashlight and 2x Barlow lens. The immediate setup provides magnifications of 28x and 70x, but there is the potential to magnify up to 152x with the right accessories.

Using the SpaceProbe II is simple, more so thanks to the included red dot finder, which will help with star hopping even under skies with a touch of light pollution. Adults will need to help young children with aligning the finderscope as well as building the telescope up: attaching the tripod legs to the alt-azimuth mount is a touch fiddly.  

Orion’s SpaceProbe II offers wide-field views, making it ideal for more diffuse objects like bright nebulas and star clusters, however, we find that this reflector performs best with lunar and planetary observations. 

A word of warning though: due to the telescope’s spherical mirror, views are not pin-sharp but — despite this — are sure to please young skywatchers wanting to get a closer look at craters on the moon and small, fair views of Saturn. For any kind of extra detail on chosen solar system targets, we recommend furnishing the telescope with additional eyepieces and filters.

While the whole family can enjoy sights through the Orion SpaceProbe II, we recommend it to skywatchers under the age of ten years of age or to beginners with a low budget who are unsure if a hobby in skywatching is for them.

(Image credit: Celestron)

4. Celestron Astro Fi 90

Specifications

Optical design: Refractor

Mount type: Computerized alt-azimuth single fork arm

Aperture: 3.54″ (90 mm)

Focal length: 35.82″ (910 mm)

Highest useful magnification: 213x

Lowest useful magnification: 13x

Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 25 mm

Weight: 15 lbs. (6.80 kg)

Reasons to buy

+No tools needed for assembly+Latest tech for a reasonable price+Great range of accessories+Very good optics 

Reasons to avoid

Telescope useless without handset or smartphone

While young skywatchers will enjoy using the Celestron Astro Fi 90, this refractor is a great first instrument for teenagers and observers who are looking for a step up from the tabletop designs. For less than $400, astronomers can enjoy the latest in telescope technology as well as a decent-sized aperture of 3.54 inches (90 mm). 

With the Astro Fi series, Celestron ensures that the skywatcher is observing in no time at all, offering a quick and simple setup that requires no tools to build. What’s more, it’s an all-inclusive package, coming with everything that’s needed for a successful night under the stars — along with the tripod and computerized alt-azimuth mount, two eyepieces (10 mm and 25 mm), a StarPointer red dot finderscope, 1.25-inch star diagonal, battery pouch, integrated smartphone adapter for basic astrophotography, accessory tray and Celestron’s Starry Night Special Edition software are also supplied.

The Astro Fi 90 features aux ports on the mount, allowing skywatchers to make use of an optional NexStar+ hand control for slewing to chosen targets at the touch of a button. Astronomers interested in this telescope should be aware that the handset isn’t included within the price.

If you would rather not invest in add-ons at this stage, this GoTo can be operated using a smartphone: the Astro Fi is supplied with a free download of the Celestron SkyPortal App, which makes use of the mount’s WiFi for seamless navigation, calibration and alignment — however, practice makes perfect with this feature: if you feel that the recipient has no patience or is unlikely to persevere with the technology, we recommend choosing a manual telescope.

This telescope’s build is exquisite, but we are particularly impressed with the refractor’s fully coated optics, which offer bright and clear views of the moon and planets. With steady observations, Venus’ phases and Saturn’s rings can be seen along with high-definition sights of craters and lunar mountains. 

Good views of the brighter deep-sky objects can be had, too — the Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31) and Bode’s Galaxy (Messier 81) are stunning, with a pleasing amount of detail. A slight degree of color fringing, or chromatic aberration, can be seen around particularly luminous treasures, but this does not spoil the observations.

It looks like the Celestron Astro Fi 90 is out of stock in the U.K. Try these great alternatives instead: 

(Image credit: Orion)

5. Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector

Specifications

Optical design: Reflector

Mount type: Dobson

Aperture: 4.49″ (114 mm)

Focal length: 17.72″ (450 mm)

Highest useful magnification: 228x

Lowest useful magnification: 16x

Supplied eyepieces: 6 mm, 17 mm

Weight: 13 lbs. (5.90 kg)

Reasons to buy

+Great aperture for low budgets+Excellent optics with great clarity+Intuitive to use 

Reasons to avoid

Small views, more eyepieces required

For slightly less than $200, Orion’s StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector offers a generous aperture of 4.49 inches (114 mm). Akin to the FirstScope and FunScope, this pleasantly painted telescope is already assembled out of the box, making it perfect for kids who want to get stuck straight into observing what the universe has to offer.

The Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector is also fully equipped, furnished with Explorer II 6 mm and 17 mm eyepieces, EZ Finder II reflex sight finderscope, collimation cap, eyepiece rack and Starry Night Special Edition software. With the supplied accessories, skywatchers can achieve magnifications of 76x and 26x. 

Yet with useful optical limits of 16x and 228x, the StarBlast 4.5 is an excellent piece of kit for nurturing a young skywatcher’s interest in the night sky, while sating the observing appetite of the entire family. A comprehensive manual is included, however we feel that kids will find using this small telescope intuitive enough without it.

Weighing in at 13 lbs. (5.90 kilograms), youngsters will need assistance in carrying this reflector to an observing site but once there, the StarBlast 4.5 is as simple to use as any other tabletop telescope: the battery-operated red dot finderscope makes star-hopping a breeze, while the optical tube assembly can be pushed with ease to the skywatcher’s desired target. We detected no stiffness in slewing from left to right or up and down, while the mount supported the tube adequately.

With the supplied eyepieces, the entirety of the moon’s disk fills the field of view. While it’s not possible to get incredibly close to the craters, mare, rilles or lunar mountains using the included accessories, the Orion StarBlast 4.5 provides excellent contrast and clarity despite its budget price. The parabolic mirror ensures pin-sharp views, while the rack-and-pinion focuser smoothly brought the lunar surface into focus reasonably well for a beginner’s instrument.

Views of the planets are fair, and as suspected, quite small through the field of view, while swathes of rich starfields are a stunning sight under good to moderate seeing conditions. We recommend purchasing a Barlow lens along with a selection of eyepieces to make the most of the telescope’s optical system.

(Image credit: Celestron)

6. Celestron AstroMaster 70AZ

Specifications

Optical design: Refractor

Mount type: Alt-azimuth

Aperture: 2.76″ (70 mm)

Focal length: 3.54″ (900 mm)

Highest useful magnification: 165x

Lowest useful magnification: 10x

Supplied eyepieces: 10 mm, 20 mm

Weight: 11 lbs. (5.0 kg)

Reasons to buy

+Good views of the solar system+Versatile, accepts accessories+Good overall build

Reasons to avoid

Cheaply made star diagonal

The Celestron AstroMaster 70AZ is a no-frills telescope that makes a good starter instrument for skywatchers aged seven years and up — particularly those who prefer not to stoop down to use a tabletop telescope. Some youngsters will need to be supervised while using the AstroMaster 70AZ.

Like many starter scopes, the AstroMaster 70AZ doesn’t require any tools for settiing up and comes with everything the skywatcher needs to kick-start a rewarding hobby, including 10 mm and 20 mm eyepieces, an erect star diagonal as well as a battery-operated red dot finderscope. 

A download of Starry Night Basic software is also included and features a database of 36,000 targets to explore, including printable sky maps, three-dimensional renderings of galaxies, exoplanets and stars. Whichever way skywatching pans out for your young astronomer — whether it’s a passing phase or a lifelong passion — this refractor is a great option that doesn’t break the bank.

There are more plastic features on the AstroMaster 70AZ than we’d like (the star diagonal feels particularly cheap), but given the low cost and good overall build, the telescope will last for many observation sessions to come — provided it’s treated with care. It’ll be able to withstand a few knocks, but be wary of giving this instrument to youngsters who are unlikely to respect the delicate optics.

The steel tripod can be adjusted to suit a majority of heights for a comfortable observing experience, while the optical tube assembly provide good magnified views of the solar system, star clusters and bright naked-eye nebulas like the Orion Nebula (Messier 42). 

During our handling of this telescope, we are pleased to find that the alt-azimuth control operates smoothly, with no stiffness. And, when the time came to lock onto a chosen target, the pan handle tightens sufficiently to prevent any sagging of the tube. A feature that ensures young skywatchers can take in the views without the need to continually re-adjust the positioning.

Thanks to the multi-coated optics, we achieved bright, clear views of the moon, Jupiter and Venus: with sufficient fine tuning of the focuser, we are able to bring craters, the Jovian moons, a hint of Jupiter’s cloud bands and a Venusian phase into clear view. With most beginner refractors there is a degree of color fringing, where a purple-blue tint appears around particularly bright targets, but the observations are not spoiled.

Given the telescope’s 2.76-inch (70 mm) aperture and useful magnifications of 10x and 165x, the optics can be pushed that touch further without compromising the image quality. We recommend looking to invest in a selection of eyepieces to show your young skywatcher more dazzling sights of the universe.

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Gemma is content director of science and space magazines How It Works and All About Space, history magazines All About History and History of War as well as Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) kids education brand Future Genius. She is the author of several books including “Quantum Physics in Minutes”, “Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual to the Large Hadron Collider” and “Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual to the Milky Way”. She holds a degree in physical sciences, a Master’s in astrophysics and a PhD in computational astrophysics. She was elected as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2011. Previously, she worked for Nature’s journal, Scientific Reports, and created scientific industry reports for the Institute of Physics and the British Antarctic Survey. She has covered stories and features for publications such as Physics World, Astronomy Now and Astrobiology Magazine.

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