Up until recently, the biggest limiting factor for amateur astronomers was the size of the telescope. While the scientists were using absolutely massive scopes to scan the heavens, the backyard astronomers were stuck with small recreational units. That all changed with the invention of the Dobsonian telescope.
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John Dobson popularized the design which now bears his name. In the 1960s he began mounting Newtonian telescopes onto large altazimuth mounts. Now the design’s hallmarks are a large heavy base with a versatile mount that allows large reflector telescopes to be wielded efficiently by amateurs.
The results have been a groundswell of new and larger telescopes hitting the market for average people to buy. Prices have gone down and size has gone up which has allowed amateur astronomers to see farther than ever before.
Characteristics of a Dobsonian Telescope
There are a few distinctive characteristics that set a Dobsonian telescope apart from its peers. These include the mount, the size and the type of telescope used. All of these are important features of a Dobsonian and it is good to be familiar with them in order to make the best decision possible when searching for one of your own.
The Newtonian Telescope
The basis of all Dobsonian telescopes is a classic Newtonian reflector telescope. Dobsonian scopes are designed for deep space and dark sky viewing and the Newtonian telescope is the best tool for the job.
Reflector telescopes are much better at observing faint and distant objects than their refractor cousins. Dobsonians were designed with the ability to gather as much light as possible in mind as opposed to getting detailed views of single objects. In order to achieve this goal, Dobsonian telescopes are some of the largest telescopes on the market in terms of light gathering diameter.
Reflector telescopes scale up much more efficiently than refractor telescopes and they remain relatively cheap the bigger they get. In contrast, refractor telescopes can get very expensive as they grow in size due to the specialized lenses they require.
This makes the Newtonian reflector a perfect fit for the Dobsonian telescope. They are affordable, easily made and can be scaled up to the large sizes desired by deep space sky watchers.
The sizes of the primary apertures on a Dobsonian telescope usually start at 6” and scale all the way up to 10” or even 12”. These diameters are extremely large, especially compared to standard telescopes that are outfitted for general viewing. That is what makes Dobsonians so unique is the diameter of the apertures that they can support.
Without the Dobsonian design, a 10” reflector telescope could be extremely unwieldy and awkward to use. This could be an issue considering that sometimes these tubes can be fragile so stability is key to keeping them in good working order.
The Dobsonian base was designed because some of these optical tubes can get truly massive. Some of the biggest measure over a foot in diameter and close to six feet tall. That kind of size requires a solid structure to keep them steady and ready.
Stable Base & Altazimuth Mount
The second part of the Dobsonian design that makes it what it is, is the base and mount system. Instead of going with a complicated mount the Dobsonian opts for an altazimuth mount. This is the most simple mounting system allowing manual control on the x and y axes.
Most altazimuth mounts are attached to a simple tripod and most telescopes usually come with this exact setup. The thing that differentiates the Dobsonian telescope from others is the unique base that it comes with. The sizes of the reflectors being mounted are too big for a simple tripod to handle effectively.
Instead, the Dobsonian telescopes feature a solid and heavy base that sits flat on the ground. Dobson called this a gun carriage type of design as it is a similar setup to what large military equipment such as turrets is housed in. This base encloses the telescope tube and sits firmly on the ground on a flat and heavy base which exponentially increases stability over a traditional tripod.
John Dobson was the first person to construct such a base for telescopes. Before that, many telescopes did not warrant such a heavy base to hold the tube and the mount. However, as telescopes continued to grow in size as technology improved, he saw the benefit of creating such a housing system to support ever-larger telescopes.
One thing to note is that, unlike tripods, a lot of Dobsonian bases are made from wood. They are constructed with high-quality plywoods that give them that heavy flat box base that is indicative of the group. If your base is going to be made out of wood, be sure to check and see what kind of material it is made out of. Many uncoated plywoods cannot be left outside and your base might need to be stored inside while not in use.
If the wooden base is properly covered in resin or paint they might be good to be left outside or if the base is made out of quality marine plywood. This is important to keep in mind because it would be a let down if your fancy Dobsonian telescope’s base rotted after a year when it should last indefinitely.
This is what has allowed recreational telescopes to grow in size allowing for farther and more varied sky viewing. More and more discoveries are being made by amateur astronomers because of the advances in the field of telescope design for the layperson. The combination of the large Newtonian telescope, a manual altazimuth mount and a sturdy flat gun carriage designed base is what makes a Dobsonian telescope its own classification.
Why Get a Dobsonian?
Now that we know what a Dobsonian telescope is, why would you get one? Dobsonian telescopes give some distinct benefits for people looking to do a certain kind of stargazing. If you want a deep space telescope that can see a lot and see a long way into space than this is the kind of telescope you want to get.
Benefits of a Dobsonian Telescope
Dobsonian telescopes are masters of balancing size with stability. If you want a large telescope that is a breeze to operate and one you do not have to worry about tipping over or getting moved out of place than a Dobsonian is what you are after.
The base combined with the large optical diameters means you get an easy to use the telescope that comes with a lot of power. These telescopes are not hard to assemble or use. The manual altazimuth mount means that it is as simple as pointing to a section of dark sky you want to see and looking through the eyepiece.
There are no complicated parts or pieces, no worrying about the tripod or finding a level or safe piece of ground to set up the telescope on. The flat weighted base means that this thing can be plopped down almost anywhere without having to worry about normal concerns while setting up a telescope.
Another benefit to the Dobsonian design is its cost to power ratio. These telescopes can be a bit more than some standard telescopes in terms of price but the amount of light-gathering power that you get for the money is outstanding. In terms of light-gathering, the capability to dollar ratio Dobsonians is usually unmatched.
That is the biggest benefit, literally, to Dobsonians is that they are generally the largest telescopes available to the average person. Without going into astronomical prices or telescopes geared towards research, Dobsonians offer the greatest light gathering ability of any family of telescopes available. This means that pleasant deep-sky viewing has never been easier.
So what will you actually be able to see with a Dobsonian telescope?
Deep Space Sights
Wide aperture reflectors, sometimes called light sinks or light buckets, are perfect for deep space viewing. Naturally, the farther out you get away from the Earth, the fainter the light becomes from the objects. The only way to effectively collect this light and see these objects is to have a very large light-gathering capability.
This is derived from the size of the light gathering area of the telescope so the larger the primary aperture the more light it can gather and the farther it can see. This is not necessary or particularly useful when trying to look at a small bright spot nearby, like Saturn, but when you are trying to hone in on a distant galaxy it is ideal.
So is a Dobsonian telescope the right fit?
This makes Dobsonians perfect for trying to glimpse extremely distant and rare sights that smaller telescopes just can’t see. The kinds of sights that a Dobsonian telescope is going to be able to capture are unique and varied.
Our Milky Way galaxy is just one of the millions, if not billions of other galaxies out there in the universe. Each of which is home to billions of stars and trillions of sights. This infinite expanse outside of the Milky Way is where a Dobsonian telescope strives to see.
Distant galaxies, nebulas, bright star clusters and whatever else you can find out there are all yours to see with a proper Dobsonian telescope. That is some of the most fun you can have with a large aperture telescope is simply honing in on a section of a dark sky and seeing what appears in your viewer. Depending on the conditions and the kind of magnification you have equipped, new sights can appear every night.
If large chunks of the sky, with lots and lots of bright stars and galaxies that fill the whole view, is what you are after that is exactly what the Dobsonian telescope will deliver. They have a relatively wide focal ratio compared to some telescopes which give you a wide-angle view of a good portion of the sky. This leads to some very busy and beautiful sights reminiscent of some of the ones that NASA posts from the Hubble Space Telescope.
How do smaller telescopes compare?
In comparison, smaller reflectors and refractor telescopes do very different things. Other reflectors that are smaller might be more portable or cheaper but they will not be able to produce the light gathering ability of a larger Dobsonian telescope. Refractors are extremely versatile and come with a lot of options but they are better at fixating on a narrower piece of the night sky than a reflector.
All telescopes have their benefits and drawbacks which is why the telescope market is so varied. There is no catch-all telescope and none that truly outclass the rest, they are simply tools that fill a specific job. The Dobsonian’s job is to give the user a smooth, easy base in which to view large scenes from deep space on any given night.
They’re Great Overall
Dobsonian telescopes offer all-around great experiences to anyone using them. They’re fluid, powerful, sleek and they look awesome. They are extremely powerful and capable of keeping a backyard astronomer’s attention for years.
They’re stable which makes them great for kids, school groups, clumsy astronomers or anyone whose backyard or campsite sits on uneven ground. They’re stable even while holding up truly massive optical tubes capable of stretching the limit of backyard astronomy.
They’re easy to use, relatively cheap and can show off some great sights. This makes them perfect for a beginner astronomer who wants to see as much as the sky as possible or more advanced users who want to explore deep space with a more calculated eye. They are just a great overall design.
Here are some of the best available Dobsonian telescopes on the market right now.
Best Budget Dobsonian Telescope:
Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic
If I was just starting out and was going to get a telescope for the first time, the Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian would be high on my list as a potential buyer. It is affordable, powerful and easy to use and also comes with a decent kit of accessories for a beginner. It checks all of the boxes for what you would want out of an affordable Dobsonian telescope.
The Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian is not the biggest telescope on the market but it still comes in a sizable 6” in terms of its primary aperture. This gives it 80% more light-gathering ability over a standard 4.5” reflector telescope meaning that those extra 1.5” really do add a lot of visible power, almost double. For the price especially, the size is plenty to give you those low light, deep sky views that you are craving.
The focal ratio of this unit is f/8 which is a great middle-ground number. This will give you a wide enough view to capture some stunning deep space objects but narrow enough to benefit from the aperture size for objects closer to Earth.
This telescope is 45” in length and weighs in at 20lbs meaning that it is still small enough to be portable. It breaks down easily and is able to be taken to various places in search of a good dark sky. Many of the larger Dobsonians get harder to move around as easily but this one fits in in a great size range. If portability is important to you then the Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian is a great option.
The other thing that makes this particular kit great for beginners is the host of beginner-friendly accessories it comes with for no additional cost. This includes a beginner astronomer guide showing many great sights for first-time users to find and observe. It also includes a moon map for observing the moon and a star target.
These are all additions that are focused on getting a new astronomer comfortable with the night sky by allowing them to find and see some classic and interesting objects right off the bat. This will ease in anyone to the exciting world of astronomy and works great because the Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian is so easy to use.
The other accessories include a 2x Barlow lens which doubles the magnification of the included eyepieces as well as an LED light to round out the kit. All of these things are great for novice astronomers to have and are stapes for any long term astronomy kit. You get these right off the bat for no extra money which builds a strong base on which to build future accessory purchases off of.
The Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian is a great all-around telescope and checks all of those great Dobsonian features. It is easy to use, affordable and comes with some great extras for a beginner. Overall, this is a great beginner telescope for anyone who is just starting out or anyone who wants to try their hand at their first Dobsonian telescope.
If You Like the Orion XT6 Try The Orion XT10
Orion has made their XT series of Dobsonian telescopes in a family that includes the XT6, XT8, and Orion SkyQuest XT10 Classic varieties. The XT6 is the 6”, the XT8 the 8” and the XT10 the 10” variations of the same design. For about twice as much as the XT6, you will get all of the same features and accessories but in the 10” model.
This will bring Orion’s kit and quality up to the large 10” size that many people crave when getting a Dobsonian telescope kit. This will give you the ability to stretch that light bucket even farther into the void to dig up new and exciting sights.
If you like Orion, if you like their quality, their design and the accessories they offer in their setups then this is great for anyone who wants to upgrade to the bigger size. Obviously, this is going to make this telescope a little more unwieldy and harder to pack up and move. It still comes with the carrying handle on the base but the bigger the telescopes get the harder they are to move effectively.
The weight and size will also make this version a little harder to control effectively as the base and mount are the same as in the smaller design. That is the trade-off when upgrading in size.
This kit still offers all of the beginner-friendly options that the XT6 does including the sky maps, beginner book, and moon map. This means that the Orion kits are still great for beginners, this one is available to anyone who wants to jump straight into the largest available apertures.
There is also the XT8 for those who want to take the middle road on this one. Orion has really scaled this series well. All of them are made with the same quality, same design and come with the same accessories so it is all about choosing the one that fits best for you.
The XT6 is a fantastic beginner scope due to the size and price but there are other options available for anyone who wants to use the Orion XT series of Dobsonian telescopes.Check Latest Price
Best Medium Budget Dobsonian Telescope:
SkyWatcher S11620 10” Traditional Dobsonian Telescope
The first thing that caught my eye with this particular telescope was its striking visual design. Too often, Dobsonian telescopes are large, black, detailless tubes that are functional but do not strike any sort of visual stance at all. This one was different because it is white which black accents which look great.
Besides looking awesome, this telescope also performs awesome as well and includes a few unique features that set it apart from a few others in this price range.
The second thing that struck me with this telescope after the great visual design is the size. The SkyWatcher S11620 10” Traditional Dobsonian Telescope has a 10” primary aperture. This is nearly double that of the smaller Dobsonian telescopes which will give this unit unparalleled light gathering ability. The size of this telescope is going to allow it to get those stunning deep space views that everyone dreams about.
Not only does this telescope have a very large primary aperture allowing it to really collect that dim and far off light, but it is also made with high-quality materials. SkyWatcher has focused on the mirrors, which is what determines how much of the collected light is usable. They polished the mirrors to be 94% reflective and then coated them in a special blend that will allow the mirrors to keep their polish over time.
What does all this mean?
This means that the mirrors will not fade over time. They have focused on eliminating the possibility of losing quality light from the sky during the magnification process. This means that in addition to being a great light-gathering telescope it will also be very efficient while doing it.
The other design element that SkyWatcher focused on when building this particular telescope is in the mounting system. They know their telescope is large, which is why they invested in Teflon bearings and proprietary tension control handles. These are upgrades that will allow the large 10” optical tube to be controlled effectively and easily.
Their tension handles allow you to control how much movement you want out of the telescope at any given time by applying or releasing tension. This is great for a telescope of this size as you do not have to hold it stable when trying to view something as this could get tiring balancing a tube of this size. Instead, just tighten the handles down to keep it locked into place.
This shows how much thought SkyWatcher has put into this particular model when designing it. All of this comes in at a price that won’t break the bank and is well worth it for all of the things that come with the SkyWatcher S11620 10” Traditional Dobsonian Telescope.
Are their extra accessories?
In addition to all of those features, SkyWatcher has also thrown in a big bag of accessories to fill this kit out. It comes with two eyepieces, a finderscope, and an eyepiece adapter. This means that you can use any eyepiece accessory, both 1.25” and 2”, with this setup which opens the accessory market wide open for new and advanced astronomers alike.
As far as middle budget telescopes go, this one pretty much has it all. It is a little light on accessories but the included adapter really makes up for that. Otherwise, it is a total package Dobsonian telescope that comes packed with power and quality of life features in a great looking package.Check Latest Price
Best Big Budget Dobsonian Telescope:
Zhumell Z12 Dexlux Dobsonian Telescope
The Zhumell Z12 Dexlux Dobsonian Telescope is the largest telescope on this list in terms of aperture, as well as tube size and weight. This thing is a beast of a telescope. If a massive reflector telescope has been on your mind then this is not one you should ignore.
With a 12” primary aperture, and a focal length of 1500mm this gives this telescope a focal ratio of f/5 which is perfect for the kind of deep space, wide-angle viewing that this design was made for. This setup will give you an eyepiece filled with bright, far away objects that are sure to entertain you or the family for years.
The drawback to such a large telescope is that moving it is going to be very challenging. They advertise taking it to the campsite with you but the 75lbs weight, over a foot in diameter tube and equally large base and case make it so that moving this telescope is going to be a challenge. That is the trade-off for the extremely large size.
What makes Zhumell Z12 Dexlux the best?
When it comes to Dobsonian telescopes, the Zhumell Z12 Deluxe Dobsonian Telescope really embodies everything that makes them great and why they were invented in the first place. It has a massive primary aperture to gather as much light as possible, it is heavy and stable as well as being easy to use and it has that low focal ratio perfect for getting large views of deep space.
Interestingly enough, the Zhumell Z12 Dexlux Dobsonian Telescope also comes with a cooling fan to keep the mirrors at optimal temperatures. This telescope is so big and collects so much light that the light from the stars is actually enough to heat the mirrors. The included cooling fan not only acknowledges this fact but keeps the mirrors at a usable temperature so they do not warp or expand which would decrease the image quality of the telescope.
In addition to being the largest telescope on this list, it also comes with more accessories to finish it out. Zhumell has included a ninety-degree angle finderscope for easy spotting in the sky, two eyepieces, and a Crawford focuser. The finderscope and focuser make it so it is a breeze to locate and focus on any object that you are seeking in the night sky without much fiddling or hassle.
If you are willing to spend the extra money and get one of the largest Dobsonian telescopes available you will not be disappointed. Zhumell has produced a massive and easy to use a beast of a light bucket telescope that is sure to check all of the boxes for someone looking to drop a good bit of money on a solid big aperture Dobsonian telescope.Check Latest Price
I find Dobsonian telescopes fascinating. I am pulled in by their light gathering ability. The universe is so large, being able to see as much of it as possible is something that really appeals to me. They are unique and they look super awesome when they are set up.
They offer unparalleled ease of use when compared to their price point. There are plenty of telescopes in the same price range that has half the power of the Dobsonians on this list and are harder to use. Dobsonians were created for a very specific purpose, to be stable light buckets to reveal the deepest depths of the night sky, and it does that task extremely well.
Anyone who wants to see the depths of the universe should consider one of these amazing Dobsonian telescopes to call their own.