Best Computer Controlled Telescopes

Before the computerization of home telescopes, the most common method of finding targets was called star hopping. This method, still used by many home astronomers, is like plotting out a road trip using a paper map. You examine the star chart, find a suitable bright star as a starting point, and then try to identify other stars or star patterns along the path to guide you to the deep sky object that you want to see.

Many people enjoy star-hopping, especially those who live in areas with very little light pollution. However, as the growing level of light pollution makes it harder and harder to see stars in the sky, star-hopping becomes more challenging. Many home astronomers find the process frustrating as they fail to find the deep-sky objects they would like to see. Here is where computerization comes to the rescue, by helping to find deep-sky objects by entering their name into a handset, tablet, smartphone, or computer. 

PushTo -The Semi-Automated System

With PushTo systems you push the optical tube while the computer guides you. This system is similar to the GPS in your car. You enter the target into the handset, tablet, smartphone, or computer and hit enter. The system tells you where to point the optical tube. Once you have the target in the eyepiece, you take over keeping the target in view as the Earth rotates.

Some systems use a pair of numbers that eventually go to 0:0 as you turn the optical tube. When you hit 0:0 the planet or deep-sky object should be in the low power eyepiece.

Other, more graphically oriented systems, may display a star chart with arrows pointing in the direction you want to go to get to the object you want to see. You follow the arrows as you turn the optical tube until you have your target in the eyepiece. Both approaches are quite effective and easy to use.

Most PushTo systems will allow you to use the computer assistance or leave the computer turned off and use other, manual methods to find your targets. Again, like the GPS in your car, when you wish to see a target you know how to find you don’t need the computer’s help. When you want help finding your target, turn it on and let the PushTo system guide you.

If you already have a telescope that does not benefit from computerization you may have options. There are aftermarket PushTo systems that can be added to certain types of telescope mounts to add this PushTo capability.

GoTo – The Fully Automated System

Beyond the PushTo system is the fully robotic GoTo system. Here you enter your target into the handset, tablet, smartphone, or computer and hit the GoTo button, which is where the system gets its name. The computer controls motors in the telescope mount that turn the optical tube to the location of the target and then tracks it as the Earth rotates. This is very similar to the robotic systems used by professional observatories. Some GoTo systems can be operated by WiFi so you can control a telescope using your smartphone, tablet, or your computer while standing next to it or from inside your house. Some will let you control a remote telescope over the internet so you can live in a light-polluted city but have you telescope housed in an automated observatory in a dark location.

A very valuable feature of the GoTo system is that it will track the object as the earth rotates. The computer uses the motors to make tiny adjustments to the optical tube so that the object remains in the field of view of the eyepiece as the Earth rotates. This can be a great convenience when viewing at high power. And it can be extremely valuable when sharing the view with others. Tracking is also valuable if you wish to enter into the area of electronically assisted astronomy, EAA, where the eyepiece is replaced by a video camera. Tracking is almost mandatory for EAA.

Some GoTo mounts track accurately enough to be used for astrophotography where long exposures require very accurate tracking. You can take amazing photos from your home telescope that will look a lot like the ones in the magazines.

As with all computerized systems, the early ones were hard to use and unreliable. Today they are simple, menu-driven systems. Most require an initial alignment when you first set up the telescope so the mount knows where you are on Earth.

A typical alignment process would involve setting the mount level with the optical tube level to the ground pointed in a certain compass direction or pointed straight up. This is called setting the starting position or the home position. The name varies by system.

A typical next step for PushTo or GoTo systems involves picking out two bright stars in the sky. With some GoTo systems, the computer will pick the stars for you. You now center them in the eyepiece and hit the enter key. Once the system knows where those two alignment stars are located it can guide you to anything in its database with amazing accuracy. The alignment procedure usually takes only a few minutes at the start of your observing session.

The newest systems are self-aligning. You set up the telescope, turn on the system, and the computer figures out the alignment all by itself. This may involve using a built-in GPS or it may use a process called plate-solving where a camera takes a picture of the sky and matches it to an internal star map. Several of the GoTo systems offer this as an add-on option.

The auto-alignment process can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, depending on the system. The self-aligning systems take the alignment burden off of you. While the telescope is aligning itself you set up your chair, eyepieces, and other accessories that you will use during the night. 

Dedicated vs. Interchangeable Mounts

Many computerized systems come as part of a package. The computerization is in the mount. The package includes the mount, various accessories, and the optical tube. In some cases, the mount and optical tube are dedicated and are intended to be used together.

Other computerized mounts offer a more flexible arrangement that allows you to swap optical tubes. In this way you can have one optical tube that might be optimized for low power wide views, sometimes preferred for certain deep sky objects. You could have another optical tube that is optimized for high power that works best for planets and other types of deep-sky objects. Some mounts will even allow you to have two optical tubes mounted side by side.

Which is Better, PushTo or GoTo?

Like everything else, each system has its advantages.

PushTo systems are generally less expensive and add very little weight to the mount. As there are no motors involved they require very little power, often operated by a battery in the handset. And since there are no motors there is no concern about motor failures.

Since PushTo systems are based on manual mounts they also give you great flexibility as to whether you use the computer assist or not for any given observing session. While a PushTo could be integrated into any type of mount, they are extremely popular on the Dobsonian type telescope mounts. There are many kits available that allow you to add PushTo to your Dobsonian telescope, some for as little as $100 that use your smartphone as the computer.

GoTo systems are typically more expensive and are usually factory integrated, based on mounts that are specifically designed for a GoTo system. They require more power and so use larger battery packs or AC adapters.

Some GoTo mounts require you to use the computer to use the scope. If your battery runs down or if you have a motor failure the scope cannot be pointed.

Other GoTo mounts have clutches that can be released so that you can turn the scope manually. While this adds flexibility, many GoTo mounts are not well suited for manual use, but it can be done.

The biggest advantage of the GoTo over the PushTo is tracking. Many manual and PushTo mounts have integrated slow-motion controls to help make manual tracking easier, but you still have to do the tracking yourself. With GoTo mounts, tracking is automatic. When you have a line of people who want to look, or kids who grow impatient as you try to center a target that has moved out of the field of view, a tracking mount can be a great asset.

Cost of Computerized Telescopes

PushTo and GoTo mounted telescopes run the full range of prices. Usually, a mount is used with a variety of optical tube sizes and styles to create a family of offerings based on that computerized mount. Prices will vary largely based on the aperture and type of optical tube that is included with the package. While there are GoTo mounts that are sold separately from the optical tube, we won’t be covering those here.

What follows are recommended PushTo and GoTo telescope packages that are organized by price range. Each package includes the mount, an optical tube. Most include accessors to help you get started. And many of the recommended models are part of a series that include larger and smaller aperture optical tubes.

Best Computerized Telescopes Under $500

Celestron StarSense Explorer from LT 80 PushTo refractor


Price – $189.95

Celestron is a top name in consumer telescopes. This is a self-aligning PushTo system based on an 80 mm refractor optical tube. It uses your smartphone as the computer and the pointing device. It automatically aligns and is very easy to use. The StarSense Explorer line includes optical tubes from this 80 mm to 130 mm. It includes 2 eyepieces, a Barlow lens, and finder scope as well as the StarSense Explorer software license. It has all you need to get started.

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Celestron – StarSense Explorer LT 80AZ Smartphone App-Enabled Telescope – Works with StarSense App to Help You Find Stars, Planets & More – 80mm Refractor – iPhone/Android Compatible

Celestron StarSense Explorer DX102 AZ PushTo Refractor

Price – Price not available

This is a self-aligning PushTo system based on a 102 mm refractor optical tube. It gathers 1.6X as much light as the smaller 80 mm version listed earlier. The larger aperture will allow you to see more detail on planets and deep-sky objects as well as dimmer objects. It uses your smartphone as the computer and the pointing device. It automatically aligns and is very easy to use. It includes 2 eyepieces, a Barlow lens, and a finder scope as well as the StarSense Explorer software license. The mount on the larger 102 mm includes slow-motion controls to help you track your targets more smoothly. It has all you need to get started. If you have the budget, this would be preferred over the 80 mm.

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Celestron – StarSense Explorer DX 102AZ Smartphone App-Enabled Telescope – Works with StarSense App to Help You Find Stars, Planets & More – 102mm Refractor – iPhone/Android Compatible

Best Computer Controlled Telescopes Between $500 and $1000

Orion StarSeeker IV 130 mm GoTo Refractor Kit

Price – $599.99

Orion is a very popular name in telescopes for the home observer. This package includes a 130 mm Newtonian reflector optical tube, two eyepieces, a 2X Barlow lens, a Moon filter, and a Moon map. It also has an AC adapter so you can run the scope without batteries when you are near a power source. Unlike many GoTo systems, after alignment, this one will allow you to move the optical tube by pushing it without losing your alignment. This can save battery power and time. Unlike many Newtonian reflectors, this optical tube is permanently aligned at the factory so it requires very little maintenance.

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Orion StarSeeker IV 130mm GoTo Reflector Telescope Kit

Orion SkyQuest XT8 Intelliscope PushTo Dobsonian Reflector

Price – Price not available

Orion is a very popular name in telescopes for the home observer. This package includes a 130 mm Newtonian reflector optical tube, two eyepieces, a 2X Barlow lens, a Moon filter, and a Moon map. It also has an AC adapter so you can run the scope without batteries when you are near a power source. Unlike many GoTo systems, after alignment, this one will allow you to move the optical tube by pushing it without losing your alignment. This can save battery power and time. Unlike many Newtonian reflectors, this optical tube is permanently aligned at the factory so it requires very little maintenance.

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Orion 10018 SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope

Celestron NexStar 6SE

Price – $799.00

This very popular GoTo telescope package is based on 6 inch/150 mm Schmidt-Cassegrain (SCT) optical tube. The SCT design, while more expensive than the Newtonian alternative, offers a folded light path that makes the optical tube smaller, lighter, and more portable. Options within the NexStar SE series range from 4 inch/102 mm to 8 inch/200 mm apertures. The package includes a red dot finder and an eyepiece as well as the NexStar handset.

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Celestron - NexStar 6SE Telescope - Computerized Telescope for Beginners and Advanced Users - Fully-Automated GoTo Mount - SkyAlign Technology - 40,000+ Celestial Objects - 6-Inch Primary Mirror

Best GoTo telescopes Over $1000

Celestron - NexStar Evolution 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope

Price – Price not available

This is a WiFi Enabled GoTo telescope that will allow control by the included handset or remotely from your smartphone. The 8-inch aperture gathers a lot of light to show you deep-sky objects, planets, and the moon. There is also a 9.25” optical tube available. The optical tube comes off the mount to allow you to move it in manageable pieces. This also offers the flexibility of using the mount with other optical tubes. It includes a 10-Hour internal Lithium Battery. The tracking on this mount is reputed to be good enough for entry-level astrophotography. The package includes a red dot finder, two Plossl eyepieces, and an AC adapter.

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Celestron - NexStar Evolution 8 WiFi Enabled Computerized Telescope - 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope SCT - Control via Smartphone App - 10-Hour Lithium Battery - iPhone and Android Compatible

Sky-Watcher Flextube 300 SynScan Dobsonian 12-inch Collapsible GoTo

Price – $3,704.80

This is a very large 12 inch/300 mm aperture telescope based on a GoTo Dobsonian mount. There are optical tube options from 8 inches to 16 inches in this series. It is WiFi-enabled so you can control it from the included handset, your smartphone, or tablet. Sky-Watcher has addressed the large size of a 12” Newtonian optical tube by making the tube collapsible. This allows it to fit easily into most cars. The larger light gathering of this telescope will allow you to penetrate deeply for those dimmer deep sky objects and to see great detail on planets and the Moon. The package includes a 2-inch Crayford-style with 1.25 inch adapter, two eyepieces, 9×50, and the SyncScan GoTo handset. Unlike many GoTo systems, this one will allow you to hand turn the tube after alignment without losing the alignment.

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Sky-Watcher Flextube 300 SynScan Dobsonian 12-inch Collapsible Computerized GoTo Large Aperture Telescope

Summary

Computerization is now available on hobby class telescopes across a variety of prices. What has been offered here ranges from the small and highly portable to the large and powerful computer controlled telescopes. We have not gone into the observatory class scopes as these are usually beyond the interest of the typical hobbyist.

You can search the sky, just like the observatories, with computer assistance to help you find your targets in our light-polluted sky. No more fiddling with paper charts and star-hopping to find things. Just turn it on, do a quick alignment and the system will find anything in its database freeing you to spend more time observing and less time hunting.