Ideally, you wouldn’t use a tractor to plant a couple of petunias, and you wouldn’t plow a thousand acres with a gardening trowel. Selecting the right tool for the job is half the battle.
In the world of astronomy, this also means that you have to take into account the skill level of the person who will be using the telescope. There’s often a correlation between how much you can potentially see versus how difficult it is to use.
The Orion SkyQuest XT, however, strikes a welcome balance between usability and power. Unusually for a scope at this price point, it’s simple enough to be operated by anyone, yet it’s also the preferred tool of many amateur astronomers with years of experience.
SkyQuest XT series telescopes are very affordable for their performance and easy enough for even a beginner to use. Their only real drawback is their large size.
- Newtonian Reflector Type
- 1,200 mm Focal Distance
- 6″, 8″, or 10″ Aperture
- Dobsonian Mount
The Orion SkyQuest XT Range: Superb in All Ways Except One
Designing and manufacturing a telescope with a wide aperture and good optical performance is difficult enough, but it turns out that this is only half the battle. Even a fantastic scope will be a disappointment to use if it’s on an inferior mount.
For both mount and tube, simplicity is sometimes the best policy. With the SkyQuest XT, a simple Newtonian reflector layout was chosen over a “light-folding” catadioptric design (most telescopes that are called reflectors are really catadioptrics and use a combination of both lenses and mirrors).
Instead of a tripod, the resultant over-sized tube is set on the tried-and-tested Dobsonian mount – a simple hinge on a rotating base, with very few mechanical parts.
In other words, this kind of telescope is as elementary as can be and, in a striking example of the KISS (Keep It Simple, Silly) principle, actually outperforms many more costly scopes. What it sacrifices to achieve this is compactness: measuring about 50 inches from head to toe, this isn’t a telescope you can easily sling into a car’s trunk.
The XT-Plus Range
While we’re mainly talking about Orion’s classic and well-loved SkyQuest XT range of telescopes here, we should also mention that an updated design is now available.
The Plus version of each has a bracket for spare eyepieces on the stand and a couple of extra accessories, weighs somewhat less, and doesn’t require a screwdriver for collimation. It’s also blue instead of black and, unsurprisingly, costs a little more.
Besides the accessories, the main difference you’ll actually notice is that the Plus includes a tensioning screw on the elevation axis, whereas the old-style XT uses springs to balance the tube. This only really comes into play if you’re mounting a fairly heavy camera onto it.
The price difference between the classic and Plus models is significant, but getting an extra eyepiece and 2x Barlow lens (depending on which package you choose) takes much of the sting out of this.
Which should you get? The extra features of the Plus are certainly nice to have, but not exactly of vital importance. The best advice is probably to get the largest aperture scope in your price range and only then start worrying about minor bells and whistles.
XT4.5, XT6, XT8, or XT10? Size Matters
There are few differences between these apart from the all-important aperture and focal ratios (all have the same focal length and are therefore of similar size). In other words, these telescopes are pretty much built around that beautifully large parabolic reflector at the back; everything else seems to be an afterthought.
One happy consequence of this straightforward approach is that you can expect exceptional optical performance from your SkyQuest, far in excess of other telescopes around this price point. Considering the cost per inch of aperture, you’d be well advised to go for the largest size you can afford.
Keep in mind that what really matters is the surface area of the objective mirror; the following table should give you an idea of each scope’s light-gathering ability:
|Aperture||Square Inches||Theoretical Max Magnification|
Each of these is also available in an IntelliScope version, which includes a small hand-held computer that helps you with locating celestial objects. Fully automatic, motorized versions exist too, but their cost makes them poor choices compared to something like the Celestron NexStar, which was designed with this functionality incorporated from the ground up.
Why You Want This Dobsonian:
- Straightforward, uncomplicated viewing
- Great resolving power
- Decent at taking photographs
All Hail the Dobsonian Light Bucket!
A telescope’s business is all about light: collecting it (so dim objects become visible), concentrating it (to show an image many times larger than the original), and focusing it (so you can see what’s actually there instead of a grayish blob). There are a multitude of ways to achieve these tasks, but the “light bucket” (an affectionate name for the Dobsonian concept) stands out in several respects.
In the first place, simplicity is always a virtue, assuming that you can live with the sheer size of this kind of contraption. Mr. Dobson, in fact, conceived of this kind of telescope as something a dedicated hobbyist could build themselves.
While the SkyQuest is obviously a cut above any DIY project, knowing exactly how all the pieces fit together and what each one is supposed to do gives you a greater sense of ownership and makes using it easier in some ways. When collimating it, for example, you can clearly visualize what you’re doing and how it affects the view through the eyepiece.
A Gentle Learning Curve
A major strength of this scope is that it makes it easy for beginners to get started, but will also satisfy more demanding users. Collimating it is not hard, especially with a laser tool.
Getting it pointed in the direction you want isn’t much of a chore, either: simply push the tube with your fingers using only a minimum of finesse until the star finder lines up with your target.
Though the scope stays put after you position it, this finder scope is a bit of a letdown, as it’s just a simple reflex sight. It doesn’t let you aim the main tube precisely without looking through a wide-angle eyepiece as well. Adding a 6-power finder scope will make finding dim objects like star clusters much easier.
While the SkyQuest’s optics, including the focuser, aren’t top-rate, they’re more than acceptable in quality. This focuser, somewhat unusually, has both a normal and times-eleven Vernier knob to help you achieve the crispest view possible.
Perfect for Quick Snapshots (and Capable of Much More)
The focal ratio for these scopes ranges from f/7.8 for the 6-inch to f/4.7 for the 10-inch model.
Especially with a larger reflector like this, it’s a relatively simple matter to translate this into any magnification you desire by using a suitable eyepiece. Still, photographers especially will want to keep in mind that lower f/numbers generally translate into wider fields of view, while higher focal ratios work best for point targets.
Something which will cause hard-core astrophotographers some concern is that there’s no dedicated equatorial mount available for this telescope. This isn’t much of an issue for casual viewing (and actually makes things easier in some ways), but can become a hassle if you hope to take pictures of very faint objects in deep space.
The good news is that you can indeed stick this scope on a tripod mount as long as it’s sturdy enough. Of course, its size and the fact that the eyepiece is near the top makes this a little awkward. This does, however, allow you to use an equatorial mount. Along with a star tracker, this lets you use the wide aperture of a no-nonsense Newtonian reflector to take some really stunning photographs.
The Orion SkyQuest XT: Not All Things to All People
A frustrated film director supposedly once asked his bosses: “How do you want your movie: cheap, fast, or good? Choose any two.”
With telescopes, the question could be framed equally well as “cheap, powerful, or portable”, and the designers of the SkyQuest obviously decided to focus on the former two.
There are a few other things that could be improved: the focuser takes a little getting used to, the bearings seem a little cheap, and you’re better off buying a real finder scope to locate faint deep-sky objects.
But really, these would only become valid criticisms if this scope cost a great deal more. Its considerable weight and bulk are what a prospective buyer should be concerned about.
Where It Falls Short:
- Large, hefty, and cumbersome
- Comes with few accessories and a substandard finding scope
- No easy way to convert to equatorial mount
Huge and Heavy
Taking this hulking beast along will turn a simple camping trip into a major expedition. In fact, just finding space for it in a cupboard can leave you scratching your head.
The XT10’s base and tube together weigh about 50 pounds, while the XT6 tips the scales at about 20. The two pieces are easy enough to separate and put back together, but someone with a wonky back may prefer a smaller, less capable telescope for this reason alone.
On the other hand, the weight of the base does serve a purpose: once you put it down somewhere, it doesn’t move unless you want it to.
Upgrading the Basic Alt-Az Mount
With most telescopes it’s a relatively simple matter to add accessories like an equatorial mount and a tracking drive. Not so with large Dobsonians: there are indeed tripods capable of handling even the XT10’s weight (and have a balancing counterweight to match), but they’re not especially cheap or easy to handle.
This isn’t the end of the world, though, especially if you own a camera with fairly good performance at high ISO. Learn how to use stacking software and perhaps invest in a few telescope filters, and it is actually possible to take good pictures without using long exposures – even if you live in the city.
Images: What Kind of Views Can I Expect?
Assuming that you’re blessed with a clear night and have the right eyepiece, you should be able to see details on the moon’s surface and the cloud bands of Jupiter, as well as nebulae and star clusters.
The SkyQuest series is certainly capable of a lot more than your average hobbyist scope. If you’ve used one before, you will most likely be pleasantly surprised. If you’re new to stargazing, the following images will give you an idea of what kind of views you’ll be able to achieve with some perseverance.
Roundup Time: The High and Low Points of the Orion SkyQuest XT
This telescope, perhaps along with a good good zoom eyepiece (one that allows you to adjust its focal length and therefore magnification factor) is really all you need to start out with amateur astronomy. Given the sizable apertures the Orion SkyQuest XTs let you have at an affordable price, the same setup will also keep you occupied and inspired for a long time to come.
Add the fact that this scope makes it really easy to obtain good photos and you pretty much have a scope that can serve you well – from your first night of stargazing to even after you’ve gained some proficiency in the art. However, this will probably not be the only telescope on your wishlist. Unless you’re lucky enough to live in an area with low light pollution, you’ll want something more portable sooner rather than later.
This drawback is offset by just how easy this kind of scope is to use, not to mention how inexpensive it is. There are few telescopes in the same price range that can provide comparable views of the Jovian moons and far-off nebulae. Add a simple adapter to fit your camera, and you can easily start snapping pictures to make your friends jealous, and perhaps invite them over for a viewing evening on your porch.
Plenty of future scientists got their first taste of the wider universe as children peering through a telescope. Ideally, of course, kids would be able to explore the skies on their own, but many starter telescopes are either too difficult for them to use without plenty of assistance, or too feeble to show any really remarkable views.
The SkyQuest XT, on the other hand, is powerful enough to delight its users without demanding any real skill. This combination of benefits is extremely welcome in an economically priced scope, making this Orion an excellent option for families.
For more reviews and recommendations, check out our page with the best telescopes.