I'm in a situation that I think many parents find themselves: my son has said that for Christmas he wants "a telescope so that I can see the planets". Which is cool, and I certainly would like to encourage him on this path. But what should I get? Considering that:

  • It should be good enough so that the whole endeavour is fun and not an exercise in frustration;
  • But it should also not be terribly expensive, since there's a good chance he will lose interest anyway.

So... what should I look for in order to strike a balance between these two competing requirements?

P.S. I know that product recommendations are off-topic, and available products vary anyway between regions, so I'd be more interested in what features and parameters to look at; perhaps good/bad brands, but no more specific than that. I think at this level it would be on-topic for this site.

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    $\begingroup$ Where do you live? What would be your budget? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ The moon is easier than planets, and is usually easy to spot by eye :) but is also quite rewarding if you get a decent magnification on a clear night $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterCordes Uhh... he'll be 8 at the end of January. 😅 $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Vilx-: Then probably a pair of binocs would be a good idea, if you don't already have a decent pair. If he finds the night sky not as captivating as he imagined, then you have binoculars that are usable for other things, like bird-watching or looking at landscapes, taking on a hike, or whatever. (Especially if you choose a pair that's compact enough to take easily.) And you can certainly look at the moon with basically any binocs. (If there's a local astronomy club or a friend with one, maybe your son can get a chance to look through a high-end amateur telescope once that way to compare.) $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ Definitely try to find a nearby astronomy club so you can see what sort of image quality you can expect from various scopes. You aren't going to get nice views of the planets from a cheap scope. Also, light pollution is an important consideration. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 10:02

6 Answers 6


A desire to see “the planets” is admirable but not realistic. An affordable back yard telescope will turn planets into shaky white blobs, not Hubble images. The resulting disappointment acts as an incentive for more magnification… which produces bigger, shakier white blobs.

I’m a big believer in binoculars for introductory astronomy viewing. The magnification is great for our Moon, and high enough to see Jupiter’s moons. The field of view is generous which makes spotting objects easy. Aiming is nimble enough to catch the space station as it whizzes by.

A significant advantage of binoculars for beginner observers is the upright image. All astronomical telescope images are upside down... or upside down and backwards... which takes some getting used to.

I bought my daughter a tripod for her binoculars. But she usually just lays on her back in the grass with the binos.

My astronomy club has a 14” Celestron in a full-on observatory, but I spend most of my observing time outside the observatory with my 15X70 binoculars. And the Binos were the only optics I took to the solar eclipse.

A downside of binoculars is sore arms from holding them. A tripod is a poor solution because it must be higher than your eyes. I use a monopod which started life as a telescoping paint roller handle.

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    $\begingroup$ Binoculars are just a pair of compact telescopes. The image is no better than a telescope with the same specifications. But your brain integrates the images so the perceived image is of higher quality. Most people get an extra 1/2 line on the eye chart when they can use both eyes. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Commented Nov 28, 2021 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ Like cameras, the best binoculars are the ones you are carrying when you need them. Small and light is better than huge and heavy. I'm speaking as the owner of huge, heavy binoculars. Compact "roof prism" binoculars can fit in a pocket. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Commented Nov 28, 2021 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Binoculars are specified by 2 numbers e.g.: 7X50. The first number refers to magnification. The 50 refers to the objective size. Bigger objective = more light. However, more light doesn’t do any good if it doesn’t get through your pupil into your eyes. The “exit pupil” is the size if the image beam that comes out of the eyepiece. It is the objective size divided by the magnification (50mm/7=7mm in this example). If your pupil is smaller than 7mm, you are wasting some of that 50mm objective. A 7x35 will give exactly the same brightness if (like most adults) you have 5 mm pupils. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Commented Nov 28, 2021 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ Not surprisingly, 7X35 and 10X50 are two of the most popular binocular sizes. The 10X50s will be heavier. Get your kid to hold them above his eye level for 60 seconds before choosing. Stay away from “zoom” and “focus free”. They sound like good ideas. Not. The big camera companies make good quality, reasonably priced binoculars. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Commented Nov 28, 2021 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ Steady the binoculars by laying on your back. A sturdy wooden picnic table works great, but so does a smooth area on the ground. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 23:13

What to buy?

Telescopes can only be as good as their mount, and good mounts are expensive.

my telescopes

Dobsonian telescopes are a good choice for beginners, because they are really easy to use, they are affordable and very stable. They are reflectors, so they are basically a large tube full of air with a mirror at the bottom. For a given aperture (=diameter), they will be much cheaper than refractors, which can be very sharp but are also expensive because they contain many lenses.

They are great for kids, who are able to point the telescope to the Moon or bright planets on their own.

What are your alternatives?

For 80€, you probably won't find anything good enough for an enjoyable experience. You'll either have to:

  • be lucky and find a good, used telescope for ~100€. Beware, ebay will also be full of cheap, frustrating telescopes.
  • Build your own telescope. John Dobson developed the portable, low-cost Newtonian reflector telescope specifically to enable people to build their own. It takes a long time, but it could be a great experience for the whole family.
  • be ready to pay more than 80€, and buy a good telescope, once and for all. I've bought my first 4.5inch (114mm) Dobsonian many years ago, and still use it regularly even though I have larger ones at home. It's very portable yet large enough to see many interesting things. It's the telescope in the middle, on the above picture.
  • Don't buy anything yet, and try to find someone interested in astronomy in your neighborhood. Ask them if you can watch the sky together, or if you can borrow one telescope for a while. Amateur astronomers tend to have N+1 telescopes.

What to watch?

There are many things in the sky which are interesting to watch when you know a bit about them. But if you're honest, they mostly just look like a light grey blob in front of a dark grey background, and probably won't impress your son.

There are a few crowd-pleasers, though:

  • The Moon, especially when partially lit. The craters along the terminator have incredible details. If you look at the right time, you might even see a wall!
  • Jupiter, with the 4 Galilean moons, especially when there's a solar eclipse on Jupiter, and you can see the shadow of one moon on Jupiter. They were the first objects found which clearly didn't orbit the Earth.
  • Saturn looks stunning. The rings are magnificent, and I've never met anybody not impressed by Saturn's beauty in a telescope. With a 4.5inch Dobsonian, you can see the Cassini division on the rings.
  • The Double Cluster, especially with dark skies.
  • The Orion Nebula, which can be surprisingly colorful and detailed.
  • The Andromeda Galaxy, whose light traveled 2.5 million years to reach your eyes.
  • With some practice, you can watch the ISS through the telescope, and see many details.
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    $\begingroup$ I'll second this. We bought this cheap 3 inch dobsonian as our first telescope, and were very happy looking at bright planets. The main thing people told us to avoid was toy store refractor telescopes advertised by their magnification. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @KarlBielefeldt Indeed! On a lark I once grabbed a cheap 60 mm refractor w/ tripod and eyepieces at a department store just to see what it would be like. Once I looked through it I discovered the objective was a single piece of glass, not even an achromat doublet! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ Amateur astronomers tend to have N+1 telescopes. Can confirm. $\endgroup$
    – Jason
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 0:32
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    $\begingroup$ Also, don't buy anything based on positive Amazon reviews. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ well said. I got a telescope at around age 8 and the instability and inability to hold a stable focus (yes, it was that bad, the mechanism was too weak to hold the eyepiece in its place so it had a lot of creep) put me off so much I didn't buy another telescope for over 30 years. Now I have it and I rarely have the opportunity to use it because of a busy life, inner city living, and health issues not allowing me to stay up all night. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 1, 2021 at 4:14

tl:dr: to ensure a positive result, have an observing plan and some background information before the first observing session to avoid disappointment!

If one looks for those beautiful planet images one will be disappointed. But if one is looking for many different interesting things because one knows ahead of time what to look for, it will be much more fun!

A low quality telescope will be disappointing compared to a good quality one; a used good quality telescope might end up a much better deal than a new low quality one of the same price, but buy from an owner who can show you how to set it up. Look for an astronomy club if possible, they don't need to be necessarily local, but having an experienced observer give you some coaching or help you find a new or used scope in your price range could really help.

@Woody's answer is very helpful, it's a good idea to manage expectations.

Worst case scenario is that you spend some money and time getting a great telescope, your child takes a few looks, sees a fuzzy, dancing blob of light, says "oh", runs back inside to some instantly-gratifying electronic device and that's the end of it, except you just put all that time and money into buying that great telescope...

I'd encourage you to manage expectations and (potentially) make the experience a lot more fun/rewarding by doing some reading or watching videos about amateur observing.

In addition to the planets, there are other potentially more beautiful things to look for!

As we are coming into winter soon and you are in the Northern hemisphere, why not learn a few constellations too. Orion is a big favorite because it is easy to recognize with those three stars that make up the belt, and the "sword" contains the great Orion nebula which will already look good in binoculars and really could benefit from the higher magnification of a telescope if you decide to go that way.

Betelgeuse, the bright orange star (yes, some stars have obvious color!) that makes up one corner of the big rectangle that is Orion has been in the news a lot lately, you could read about that so that it has some context.

Then there are the beautiful Pleiades that can be found by extending a line along the three stars of the belt. Learning/reading a little bit about them may also make finding them and looking at them more interesting.

The Big Dipper is another favorite, and the stellar system of Mizar and Alcor can be resolved with even a small pair of binoculars. What's exciting to learn here is that each of those is also a double start; there are four stars doing an elaborate dance together!

In fact, many and perhaps most stars are part of multiple star systems, and our singleton Sun is a little bit unusual that it has no companion!

For Jupiter, what's more fun than the blob itself is the four Galilean moons that dance around it. These are easy to see in binoculars and every night they will be in noticeably different positions!

You can find their positions online first if you like, or what may be more fun is to try to sketch their positions; draw a circle for Jupiter and use it to estimate how far the "little stars" are from it. They will all pretty much fall on one like through the Jupiter's equator, which helps distinguish them from stars.

To get an idea where things will be and to plan your evening I recommend either the website in-the-sky.org which has news, observing suggestions and a planetarium mode (it will get your general location and time zone from your internet connection, but as shown in the screenshot below you can also reset it to wherever you like.)

The other, even more fun way would be to download some free planetarium software. I notice that Stellarium seems to be mentioned frequently in this site and used to answer many questions here for example.

If the telescope or binoculars are meant to be a surprise, then trips to a library to read about Astronomy or viewing videos on Youtube together ahead of time may not be possible, but you can certainly plan ahead and have some of those at least ready.

For more options on apps and website etc. have a look at the answer to Where can I find the positions of the planets, stars, moons, artificial satellites, etc. and visualize them?

You can also search right here in Astronomy SE for information or ask questions, and if the first observing sessions generate questions you can also consider posting them here, e.g. "what did we see?" or "why couldn't we see...?"

I've chosen Riga as the location and 25-Dec-2021 22:00 EET as the date and time. I then typed "Pleiades" in the Find box to make them easier to see.

Christmas night 2021 in Latvia, 10 PM local time:

Christmas night 2021 in Latvia, 10 PM local time

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    $\begingroup$ Albireo is a good candidate for viewing as well (the color difference is striking), though you'll need a telescope rather than binoculars for it. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know if it's okay to promote books here, but I've found "Turn Left at Orion" extremely interesting and helpful. It contains all the observing tips you've listed (good ones!), and some more. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 11:07
  • $\begingroup$ @EricDuminil if you're not personally affiliated with the book then I think it's simply a recommendation rather than an actual promotion. You could consider posting another answer (as there are several good ones already) and quoting a few tips that aren't listed already. I've already mentioned a trip to a library (if possible) so you can refer to that and mention this would be a particularly good book to look for. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh: Thanks for the answer. Tip for "Turn Left at Orion" fits better in your answer than mine, feel free to include it when you mention the trip to the library. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 12:14
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    $\begingroup$ @EricDuminil I'm going to try to get a copy today, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 21:02

First of all, some caveats. Telescopes and accessories seem to be particularly affected by current supply chain issues. The used market can be better, but finding what you're looking for on short notice is always difficult. And your parameter of "not terribly expensive" is a bit unclear in a hobby where some amateurs spend more on their telescopes than their cars.

You've already received the "standard answer" of a small Dobsonian. My opinion about this is a bit heterodox. The problem I have with Dobs is that seeing details on planets requires high magnification, around 100x or more. Inexpensive Dobs (which is the main appeal of the design) do not track objects as the Earth turns. This means that at high magnification, you can only observe for a few seconds before you have to move the scope again. This can be frustrating, especially since the movement of small, cheap Dobs is not as fluid as their larger cousins. My second telescope was a 6" f/8 Dob. It was optically excellent, but I sold it because I was frustrated by trying to use it at high magnification. Additionally, all Newtonian telescopes require periodic collimation. If the recipient is not the kind of person who's inclined to fix or adjust things, but expects them to just work out of the box, a Newtonian is not a good choice.

If I were gifting a used telescope to a beginner who's specifically interested in planets, my first choice would be a 60mm-ish f/15 (preferred) or f/11ish refractor, ideally 1980s or earlier Japanese manufacture, with a 0.965-to-1.25 hybrid diagonal, one of the decent but inexpensive 9mm eyepieces sold by Svbony and other Chinese brands, and a 25mm Plossl for wider views. The showpiece planets (Jupiter and Saturn) are within the reach of a scope like this. Jupiter and Saturn are currently setting not long after the sun, but still visible around a kid's bedtime.

My next choice, or maybe first if the recipient is mechanically inclined, would be a 114mm f/9ish Newtonian with the same eyepieces, no diagonal needed. This telescope is capable of excellent views of planets. A Cheshire eyepiece or collimation cap would be a welcome accessory.

I'd recommend an equatorial mount for either. EQ mounts are often criticized for being a bit more complicated to set up. Basically, one of the axes of the mount should be pointed at the celestial pole, i.e., the North Star if you're in the northern hemisphere. But don't be put off by the precision required to align a mount for astrophotography. I've found that eyeballing it is adequate for visual observation. And yes, cheap EQ mounts are flimsy and frustrating in their own way. But as a beginner, I accepted this weakness as worth it for the ability to track objects by turning a single knob.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting points, thanks. With a dob, it helps to think about dragging the object and moving it back towards the center of the eyepiece, as opposed to dragging the telescope towards the object. It became second-nature to me (I can follow the ISS at 180x), just like setting up and using an EQ mount is second-nature to other people. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ Good answer, not going to downvote, but I disagree with a few points: 1. being able to handle high magnification with a Dobsonian depends on the viewer - some people hate it and others don't have any issues. I find that the 'drift time' isn't annoying, even with my lowest focal length eyepiece (a 52° 3.3mm in a 250mm/1250mm Dob) I get over 20 seconds before having to nudge. Usually the seeing doesn't support such a high magnification, and my 4.5mm or 6.5mm eyepieces give plenty of drift time. 2. the narrow FoV of a long FL refractor can be frustrating for a beginner... [tbc] $\endgroup$
    – Aaron F
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ [cont] ..., those long FL refractors are specialist planetary telescopes, and after a beginner has seen the moon and the three main planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Mars (every few years)) then they'll want to see more, and for deep sky then a wider FoV is useful. 3. an equatorial mount is easier to wrap your head around once you already have some observing experience: sitting outside night after night and watching how the sky moves above you helps you to understand declination and right ascension. Before that point, altitude+azimuth is the easiest way to find things, even though it's harder to track $\endgroup$
    – Aaron F
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ @AaronF A 60mm f/15 refractor has a maximum TFOV of about 1.7 degrees. With a 25mm Plossl, it will give a TFOV around 1.4 degrees, enough for nice view of showcase objects like M42. (Though this might be reduced by a .965 focuser.) IMO, no inexpensive beginner scope is particularly well suited for DSOs. And the pleasure of seeing the faint fuzzies is a bit esoteric, anyway. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ @TechInquisitor I think your child is very lucky to have you show them how to use the EQ mount :-) When I was a child my grandfather bought a Tasco reflector on an EQ mount and neither of us could work it out. It was many years until I figured out how it worked :-D I agree that an alt-az mount with slow-mo isn't going to be that easy to use. My preference for alt-az is a Dobsonian mount where you just grab the telescope and point it where you want. $\endgroup$
    – Aaron F
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 17:26

We usually don't post two answers to a question but occasionally some do when the answers are getting long and are somewhat unrelated.

There are two "starter" telescopes that are pretty common and I was lucky enough to own both at different times in my childhood.

  • 4.25 inch or 108 mm diameter f/10 Newtonian reflector (Edmund Scientific)
  • 2.4 inch or 61 mm diameter f/15 refractor (Unitron)

Both were on equatorial mounts which is helpful when you are holding a star chart and want to move from point A to point B following the right ascension and declination axes of the chart, and as the object moves across the field (due to Earth's continuous rotation) you know you only need to nudge the RA axis to bring it back to the center of the field.

My Newtonian Reflector: had a very solid and very heavy cast-iron base. The axes moved fairly smoothly but there were no slow motion knobs to turn "just a little bit". You had to loosen the lock screw and just push on the telescope. That was okay once you got good at it, but it's suboptimal.

But the advantages of the Newtonian was that the eyepiece mount was close to the tube which was pretty heavy, so if I attached something like a camera (astrophotography is FUN!) it didn't affect the balance much and wasn't wobbly. I found having my head near the top of the scope (which sat low) was somehow convenient and never needed a right angle prism to make viewing possible like was usually necessary for the refractor. And of course four times the light gathering!

My Refractor: had a beautiful, high quality equatorial mount with fine motion controls for both right ascension and declination and very gentle shaft locks, and a fine adjustment for aligning the polar axis toward the pole, basically there was altitude and azimuth for aligning and then the full equatorial mount on top of that.

It was also much lighter and more portable than the 1970's cast-iron mount reflector; it came in three hand-crafted wooden boxes (scope + eyepieces, mount, folding legs).

If you want to look high in the sky with a refractor (or binoculars) you have to either assume a weird position (like laying in the grass) or if you use a refractor, use a right angle prism so the eyepiece can point up, then bend over or sit down to look into it. For observers of low height maybe standing is fine.

It was also more of a challenge to mount a heavy camera on the end of my long skinny refractor's focusing tube, but these days cameras are a lot lighter.

When telescopes are taken care of reasonably, they can remain in excellent condition for decades, so I recommend checking for a used scope to see if you can locate one and discuss with the owner and ideally give it a try.

For new scopes there are so many options these days but the quality can vary dramatically, some can be pretty bad. Either way if possible find an Astronomy club you can contact and ask for help if possible.

From https://www.cloudynights.com/topic/163333-425-f10-edmund-telescope/

enter image description here enter image description here

The "business end" looking into the scope we see the diagonal mirror that sits in the middle and reflects light sideways to the eyepiece, and the objective mirror way down at the bottom of the tube:

enter image description here

From http://www.company7.com/library/unitron/unitron_114.html

This is an alt-az mount shown here, mine had the much nicer equatorial mount

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Here are some slightly larger ones with the good mounts, from here: http://www.company7.com/library/unitron/unitron_132-152.html

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The "business end":

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Equatorial mounts can be very convenient, but they're not really noobie-friendly IMHO. And good ones, without telescope, will be much more than what OP is ready to pay. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ @EricDuminil noobs come in different flavors. I was the kind of noob who read every astronomy and telescope book I could get my hands on even before I got my first telescope, and so I really appreciated having two axes that match the coordinates of the star maps I was looking at. The point of my answer(s) is that to make the first observing session enjoyable the parent can do some reading and planning ahead of time. In that case having RA and Dec on the mount can be something they can take advantage of from the beginning. But certainly that's my perspective and others may say Dobsonian/AltAz. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 11:03

FWIW, my telescope I'm pretty sure is a celestron powerseeker 114az, which was slightly more than $100 iirc when I bought it. I normally spend about an hour (or more) with it making painstakingly fine adjustments to it, to have the payoff of seeing a planet or two for about 2 minutes cumulatively. It's very hard to keep the telescope from vibrating the object out of frame, since the altitude control isn't rock solid and the stand isn't the most stable. I still enjoy using it since I'm a patient person, but I doubt that'll suffice for your kid.

I would say you'd want to prioritize stability over the largest magnification. It's very frustrating to finally get an object in view, only to have it wiggled away before the next person can see. As a bonus of lower magnification, this gives you a broader range of error for getting an object in view and keeping it there.

I've only used altitude-azimuth telescopes, so I can't comment on whether equatorial mounts are generally more stable. That'd be worth reading up on.

As other answers mentioned, binoculars are sometimes easier to use. They have the bonus that most of the centering of objects is naturally done by your body, whereas many telescopes having inverted controls (i.e. moving the scope right makes an object go left in the view, and moving up makes the object go down), which is very unnatural.


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