Anyone can see dazzling astronomical images online, but just like with music and theater, nothing really compares with seeing something beautiful for yourself – live and as it really is.
When it comes to using a backyard scope, however, there’s more involved than just buying a ticket to an event. Getting great views depends on the weather and what kind of equipment you have, but it also requires patience and familiarity with sky geography. This can make astronomy a pretty frustrating and antisocial hobby: nobody wants to hear “Oh, I think I really found Betelgeuse this time!” three times in a row.
With the NexStar SE, these worries simply fade away. To use an analogy, these scopes combine the convenience of a point-and-shoot with the power of a high-end camera along with a case full of lenses.
The drawback, of course, is that they cost a pretty penny: you can literally buy a starter telescope for a tenth of the price of the top-of-the-line 8-inch SE. Even so, in a sense, any telescope gets cheaper the more often you use it, and many people will be a dozen times more likely to use their NexStar SE at every opportunity rather than some dinky little 50 mm refractor scope.
The Celestron NexStar SE is one of the more expensive scopes you can buy, but it comes fully loaded with almost everything you can think of.
- Schmidt-Cassegrain Reflector
- Motorized Alt-Az Mount
- 1,325 mm, 1,250 mm, 1,500 mm, or 2,032 mm Focal Distance
- 4″, 5″, 6″, or 8″ Aperture
The Celestron NexStar SE: Powerful, Precise, and Painless to Use
One thing that appeals to us about this range of telescopes is that the same full-featured model comes in four different aperture sizes, giving you some flexibility in terms of how much you want to spend.
Spending a little (well, actually quite a lot) extra is worth it, especially if you want to get into astrophotography. Crafting a near-perfect mirror of eight inches across instead of four isn’t twice as difficult, more like ten times, so you definitely get what you pay for.
When You Wish Upon a Star: The High Points of the Celestron NexStar SE Series
What really sets the NexStar SE apart is that these scopes come with a computerized go-to drive as standard.
There are two main types of telescope motors: go-to and tracking. A tracking drive only turns the scope to follow stars as the earth’s rotation takes them out of view, while a go-to can point the scope in the direction of any celestial object.
Not only does this allow you to track planets (and more distant targets) as the earth’s rotation takes them out of view, but it makes finding any of the 40,000 or so features listed in its database as simple as pressing a couple of buttons.
Importantly, getting the tripod, mount, drive, and telescope all in the same package gives you a lot more peace of mind. There’s no need to try to figure out which will fit on what, and they’ve all been designed to work with one another without any tinkering on your part. It also looks much neater than any homebrew system.
- Automatic alignment
- Robust performance
- Super-simple photography
Simply pointing the average telescope in the direction of whatever you’re hoping to see is not the easiest thing in the world. Though online tools are a huge help, star atlases are still more complicated to read than road maps. You have to know about things like magnetic declination, fractions of a degree matter, and whatever you’re looking for is no longer where it was 15 minutes ago.
All this goes right out the window with a NexStar SE.
Thanks to the SkyAlign technology, all you need to do is punch in the time and your latitude/longitude coordinates on the attached control panel.
After that, manually aim your scope (using the arrow keys on the controller and optionally the finder scope) at any 3 distinctive sky objects. From here on, the NexStar knows where to find almost anything worth looking at and will automatically pivot to bring it into view.
You can also set it to cycle between different views automatically, showing your friends a dozen or more far-off objects in less time than it normally takes to locate a single one.
If this is somehow not enough for you, you can also turn to the included Starry Night and Celestron Skyportal software for a kind of virtual planetarium experience.
Crystal Clear Views
As you would expect from any telescope at this price point, the NexStar SE’s optics (in particular of the 8SE) take a back seat only to those of truly specialized scopes few hobbyists will have any use for. With a little skill and patience, you should have no trouble getting extremely crisp views of planets, constellations, and nebulae.
The Celestron NexStar SE: A Pricey Beast But Worth It
It’s difficult to point to any real flaws on this line of telescopes. Sure, there are occasional hick-ups with Celestron’s star alignment technique, and using this scope takes a little getting used to, but doesn’t anything in life?
If anything, their worst feature is that they’ll spoil you for any less capable, manually aimed scope you may encounter in the future. There is indeed a sense of achievement in learning to navigate the sky without technological assistance, but many people will point out that climbing this somewhat intimidating learning curve without really having to is just masochism.
There are, however, a couple of minor things about the NexStar SE series you should be aware of before you reach for your checkbook.
A Couple of Minor Shortcomings:
- Costs an arm, a leg, and a kidney
- A few add-ons are needed
- Runs on batteries
Don’t Fall for Useless Wingdings, Gee-Gaws, and Gimmicks
Remember that the telescope itself isn’t the only thing that’s going to make your bank account take a hit. It’s a good idea to also budget for things like filters, a padded transport case, and the occasional trip to a campground free of light pollution.
Celestron could, of course, have thrown in a couple of filters or at least more than one eyepiece. Few telescopes come with much extra stuff, though. This would certainly drive up the price, and since every stargazer has their own field of interest, it would be difficult to create an accessory kit that appeals to everyone.
If you’re going to take pictures, it makes sense to tack on an equatorial wedge, Celestron’s proprietary adjustable cellphone mount, and, of course, a T-adapter and whatever ring fits your brand of camera.
An equatorial wedge lines up your telescope’s mount with the earth’s direction of rotation. One benefit of this is that your camera’s field of view doesn’t seem to swivel with exposures of longer than a minute or so.
The above items don’t cost all that much, and you’ll certainly be glad to have them. On the other hand, there are a couple of accessories you really, truly, and absolutely don’t need to waste any money on.
We’ve already covered the calibration you need to do every time you set up your scope. As long as you own a spirit level and can identify any three stars well enough to point the finder scope at them, you should have no trouble at all with this. And if you do (alignment sometimes fails), try pointing at stars instead of planets, or use the auto two-star technique. That almost always works. An expensive gadget that does exactly the same thing, or in fact a special GPS, will in no way improve your stargazing experience.
The optional wi-fi module, for its part, does nothing other than let you control the go-to drive’s motion from your phone rather than the included keypad. By all means splurge on this kind of stuff if you’re an obsessive gadgeteer, but don’t confuse these over-the-top frills with the telescope itself.
In the same category, we can mention special cameras designed specifically for astrophotography. At least at first, and probably for the foreseeable future, your standard DSLR or mirrorless will work just fine.
Portable, But Only up to a Point
Unless you want to use your NexStar exclusively at home, you should probably spend a few dollars more on a power solution of some sort. Once the 8 AA batteries run out, you’re pretty much stuck, with no way to adjust the tube by hand.
If you’re planning on using your scope for more than a few hours at a time, you will want to consider getting a car socket adapter and perhaps a Celestron power bank. There are cheaper options that will do the same job, but it’s probably worth going for something that you know won’t affect the 2-year manufacturer warranty.
On the plus side, this telescope is very easy to take apart and re-assemble at your destination. The steel tripod is worth a particular mention: many manufacturers seem to cut corners on this essential accessory to keep the total price down. Fortunately, Celestron and its customers avoid this trap, and you shouldn’t have any trouble even on uneven ground.
Finally, collimation is a necessity with all reflector telescopes, and you’ll have to search long and hard for a refractor that boasts an 8-inch aperture. Fortunately, Schmidt-Cassegrain designs (and Maksutov-Cassegrains in the case of the 4SE) are pretty forgiving in this regard. The rugged build quality of the NexStar SEs also means that you won’t have to collimate them frequently in any case, and your local camera and telescope place will probably be happy to help out if you get stuck.
Images: What Kind of Views Can I Expect?
It’s common to hear questions like “Will I be able to see Jupiter with this telescope?” from people looking to buy one. The short answer is always going to be “yes”, of course: you can observe most planets with the naked eye. The more important aspect is actually how well you can see whatever catches your fancy.
It’s very difficult to give a satisfactory answer to this. One person will be able to make out more detail than their neighbor, while factors like light pollution and humidity will change what you can discern from one day to the next. The following photographs may give you a general idea of what you can expect from the Celestron NexStar SE.
Unfortunately, though, just like pregnancy and parallel parking, magazine-rate sky photographs don’t “just happen.” Some of the images you’ll see here are actually computer composites of dozens or even hundreds of frames. In other words, it is certainly possible to get photographs like these with this telescope, but you’ll also need some extra equipment and quite a bit of expertise.
A Whole Lot of Scope
Something many people fail to realize is that it’s very rare for someone to buy a telescope only for themselves. You’re almost certainly going to end up sharing it, a fact which makes spending $1,000 or more on a good, user-friendly scope seem much less extravagant.
Weighing cost against benefits, the Celestron NexStar SEs really are good value. In particular, teachers, nature guides, and anyone with an interest in astronomy but limited time to practice getting good at it will love owning one of them. What they will find especially charming about this scope is how easy it is to transport it to a viewing event, late-afternoon picnic, or just on vacation.
Apart from the sturdy construction that makes this possible, you’ll also notice the quality of the optical components themselves. To get an idea of how important using high-quality glass is, try looking through an ordinary windowpane from the edge rather than the front – almost no light makes it through. In the NexStar SE series, the mirrors and lenses are further improved with a special coating that minimizes light loss while increasing image clarity.
Without question, however, the main advantage here is that these telescopes take virtually no skill to use. The computerized go-to drive jacks up the price somewhat, but it’s totally worth it in terms of the time it saves you on frosty nights. It almost feels like cheating.
Seriously, though, not everyone has a desire to learn celestial navigation. This scope can provide a good introduction to what stargazing has to offer without forcing you to learn about the mechanics of things. With a scope like this, you can skip most of the “baby steps” portion of the learning curve and start producing and sharing quality images almost from day one.
If you’re not entirely sure yet, you may also be interested in our roundup with the best telescope reviews.