We are thinking about buying a telescope for viewing planets, stars, the moon, and aircraft! What is the absolute minimum zoom and/or size to achieve getting a good glimpse of an aircraft at its cruising altitude?

Does anyone have experience doing this that they could share to help us out?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure you can watch aircraft if you can watch planets, as you get a pretty good glimpse with the naked eye or with a pair of binoculars :) (cruise altitude is ~30k ft) The bigger problem will probably be keeping it in sight (moving at ~ 400kts), and actually seeing the whole aircraft rather than the fly splattered on the fuselage... $\endgroup$
    – falstro
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 16:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm with @falstro, a telescope that's good for astronomy is going to be a bit strong for aircraft. Perhaps a good pair of binoculars would be better? Especially with how much a plane can move... $\endgroup$
    – Jae Carr
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 16:51
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ do keep in mind you'll see planes upside down when using an astronomical telescope. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @shortstheory or watching an aerobatic contest :-) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 17:14
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You might want to use the term "magnification" rather than "zoom" (which means something different in photography at least) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 17:38

3 Answers 3


I would not recommend a telescope for viewing aircraft.
As others have pointed out, a telescope that is suitable for astronomy would be incredibly overpowered for viewing aircraft - the aircraft would move out of the viewing frame very quickly, and you would have a difficult time tracking them.

I would suggest picking up a spotting scope (the kind of thing bird watchers and hunters use - good ones can be had in the 50 to 100 dollar price range, and excellent ones abound from about $100 up), or a pair of good binoculars for your plane watching. The zoom factor is far better suited to plane spotting, and either option would be substantially more portable than a full telescope rig.

As for advice on a telescope, there is an Astronomy stack exchange site, and while the entire network generally doesn't do "product recommendations" the Astronomy site's chat might be a good place to ask for advice on picking a telescope. (I'm not sure how active their chat room is, but it's worth a shot!)

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ While Astronomy doesn't do product recommendations we do cover "how to find the right telescope for your requirements". We just don't allow posts which only recommend a specific product without more information. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 17:50

Others have said that a telescope suitable for astronomy would be overpowered for viewing aircraft, but this isn't true. Manually keeping aircraft in the field of view would be difficult, but you can use software to automatically steer a computer-controlled telescope and get great results.

For example, here's a photo of an aircraft being tracked by the tracking application OpticTracker:

Aircraft being tracked by telescope

This demo video shows both a Meade LX200 and a Celestron NexStar 4E being used with OpticTracker to track various aircraft.

There may be other tracking applications out there; OpticTracker is just one I've researched. In order to select an appropriate telescope, I would start with the requirements for whatever tracking software you're considering using. For example, you can see the list of telescopes compatible with OpticTracker on the compatibility page.

  • $\begingroup$ Impressive tracking! Note that it's also perfectly possible with manual tracking, e.g. on a dobsonian. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 21:37

I've been spotting for years with my astronomical telescope. I typically use low to medium power to make tracking easier. The key is to start behind the plane, and raise your scope until you find the con trail. Focus on the con trail, then follow it to the plane! If you lose the aircraft, find the con trail again and follow it. I'm also now using the flightaware app to cross reference the craft I see.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .