We’ve all been there; scrolling through images of planets and deep-sky objects on your phone, your eye settles on an astoundingly detailed and colorful nebula.
Then you view an image of Jupiter with its intricate cloud belts shown in high-resolution detail.
What, you wonder, would it take to produce results like that yourself?
Checking the image capture details, you soon establish that the telescopes used are so far out of your budget that you may as well just wait for Elon to take you there in a rocket.
But what if you could just borrow such equipment for a few weeks and practice high-quality imaging that punches well above your own budgetary weight?
You could then have that raw data, those final images, or those views from the eyepiece, but without the hole in your bank balance to show for it, or indeed a huge mound of equipment taking up space in the shed.
This all sounds like a very good idea, but first things first, can you actually rent telescopes? Should you?
What types are available?
How and where could you rent from?
Read on to find out!
Is it possible to rent telescopes?
Yes! Although it’s not quite as easy as renting a car or a wedding dress, telescopes, like many other potentially high-value items, are available for hire.
You may well have to spend quite a bit of effort tracking a suitable vendor down, though.
Where to Rent a Telescope?
Some generalization is required here because your options will vary depending on where you live on the planet. But in general, bricks and mortar purveyors of telescopes and optical instruments will be your best bet.
Although online-only businesses with a rental option do exist, for example, telescopes.net, I would tend to use these services as a last resort if no physical stores exist nearby.
As with any rental agreement, you have to pay for damage or at least pay an insurance excess; at the end of the rental period, I’d rather hand the gear back to a human standing in front of me who confirms it to be damage-free than having to trust couriers and remote staff!
What to Consider Before Renting a Telescope
How Much Does it Cost to Rent Telescopes?
Prices do, of course, vary according to location and equipment quality. Still, as an example, I found that you can hire a large Dobsonian telescope – ideal for visual astronomy for around $40 per week or $85 for four weeks.
To put this into context, buying a similar-sized Dobsonian is around $500-$700.
Meanwhile, in the UK, one well-known bricks+mortar store with online sales offers a bigger range for hire; from 6inch Dobsonians right up to a full high-quality imaging package consisting of a hi-end 80mmED refractor, field flattener, guide scope and flight case.
You just have to add your own choice of camera. The current price for this rental is $140 for a whole month. You can collect or a courier can deliver for an extra fee.
Considering that the telescope alone would cost upwards of $700 to buy and well over $1000 for the whole setup, this seems like a good deal. It must be borne in mind, however, for those familiar with UK weather- it is entirely possible to have no cloud-free nights for a whole month!
Another often-overlooked way to try out telescopes is to join a local astronomy club.
Not only will you build a relationship with knowledgeable people, but you will be able to use their equipment on-site, perhaps even negating the hassle of bringing anything home at all.
The downside is that most groups will only be able to afford one or two loan scopes, so your choices may be very limited.
Pricewise, I found one local planetarium telescope rental program charging only $15 for a weekend with a 10-inch Dobsonian.
It may seem obvious, but do consider the time of year before renting. With the shortest nights in June/July in the northern hemisphere and December/January time in the southern hemisphere, it might be a bad idea to hire a telescope at these times.
However, that said, do check if special low rates/extra long hire periods are offered at times of the year with little darkness.
Even when there is no true darkness, you can still observe and photograph the Moon, the Sun (always with appropriate filters), some Planets, and some of the bigger/brighter galaxies such as Andromeda and M81 and 82.
Unless you are lucky enough to be renting from somewhere where you know the staff well or you are a trusted member of your local astronomy club, you will likely have to put down a returnable deposit.
Anything from $100 upwards seems standard. You may also need to leave credit card details in case you cause damage exceeding that amount. So pretty much like hiring a car then!
As with renting a car, make sure you thoroughly inspect the telescope and accessories before signing anything- make sure any defects are noted and ideally photographed to minimize the risk of you being blamed for the damage.
Types of Telescope
I won’t go into too much detail about different types of telescopes here as we cover this elsewhere on this site. For example, you can read our guides to Dobsonians, Reflectors and Refractors, and Catadioptrics.
The type of telescope you select depends on what it is you want to get out of your time with the telescope.
With the appropriate adapters, all of the above types can be used for observing at the eyepiece or for astrophotography but you are best to decide which usage you are planning first.
That way, your chosen supplier can provide you with the appropriate adapters.
As a general rule, however, Dobsonians are designed mainly for visual astronomy (traditional viewing at the eyepiece). They do not have the sophisticated mounts required for astrophotography (though some computerized, go-to, camera-compatible models are available nowadays).
All other classes of telescopes can be used for both visual and astrophotography purposes.
What type of telescope should I choose to rent?
Only you will know what you want to get out of your rental session. If imaging awesome deep-sky objects is your goal, then go for a small refractor.
Modern refractors combined with modern image acquisition techniques and processing software have made the requirement for huge, heavy refractors a thing of the past.
A 50mm scope that you can hold in the palm of your hand can produce exceptional deep sky images of nebulae.
For purely visual astronomy, I would choose a Dobsonian- you will get maximum ‘bang for your buck’. Aperture is still king when it comes to using your own eyeballs to view objects.
For long-exposure astrophotography with beautiful diffraction spikes (the classic star effect), you need a reflector on an equatorial mount.
But beware- reflectors can very easily get out of collimation during transport, and you could end up spending chunks of your hire time trying to align the optics (if the vendor even allows hirers to do this themselves).
It’s perhaps why I found it hard to find anywhere that offered Newtonian reflectors for hire.
Again, I didn’t find many of the ‘folded light’ catadioptric design telescopes, such as the popular Smidth Cassegrain or Ritchey-Chretien designs, offered for rent. It’s a shame because such designs offer the very long focal lengths required for seeing the planets up close and in detail.
But even more so than Newtonian Reflectors, these more complex designs can require regular collimation of their mirrors, so are less suitable for a hard life on the rental road.
Finally, before you commit to hiring a telescope, make sure you will be able to maneuver it, and you have room to safely store it somewhere dry. Ask about the size and weight of the model you are considering.
Oh and one more thing! Astrophotography often requires quite an array of adapters, spacers, and other accessories to work properly with whatever camera you are using.
Unless a camera is part of the hire, make sure the renter knows what equipment you will be using to avoid frustration when your rental period begins.
Renting a virtual telescope – buying time
There’s another way to rent a telescope, and you never have to take delivery of anything or worry about causing damage or being clouded out for the rental period. You can also get access to the darkest, driest, clearest mountain-top skies thrown into the deal.
Sounds too good to be true?
Well there really isn’t a catch other than you may have to wait a while in a queue for a slot on a given telescope and you pay more for better telescopes.
But the same is true of standard telescope rental, and no renter of physical telescopes offers you a 24-inch Planewave to take home (currently priced at $90,700)!
iTelescope.net is one such site offering this service. Rates you pay range from $0.00 (that’s zero!) for 30 minutes of time and unlimited sessions on advanced multi-thousand dollar amateur scopes to $160 per hour for remote access to multi-million dollar telescopes.
There is a wide range of internet-connected telescope options in between, with ‘affordable’ scopes costing around $40-60 per hour of exposure time.
This really can be an addictive way to view the universe and it might make going back to your own telescope a bit of a let-down! You get full live control of the telescope so it can be like controlling your own telescope from the shed or the house (except you are using some of the world’s best equipment).
It’s not for everyone. For many, it’s the use of equipment they are personally setting up and experimenting with and learning how to physically use that is all part of the hobby’s appeal.
Producing and viewing images they have personally created from scratch, but many will be persuaded by the appeal of having no-compromise image quality and always available clear, dark skies on tap. Hey, it’s your choice!
Should You Rent or Buy a Telescope?
There’s no correct answer here, but one of the very best arguments in favor of renting is that you can ‘try before you buy’. Buying a telescope can be a huge investment, so why not try out various types and sizes, commitment-free?
On the downside, depending on where you live, it can be very hard to predict when the skies will be clear so you may end up with a lot of ‘dead’ rental time. The benefit of owning a telescope is you can always be ready to go when the clouds part.
I must say as well that I found it difficult to find anywhere that offered a large range of telescopes for rent.
Most kept 4 or 5 models of simpler designs – Dobsonians mainly, with the occasional exception offering a range of more complex astrophotography setups. But it may be hit or miss whether the type of telescope you are looking to rent will be available anywhere near you.
There are pros and cons both to renting and buying; it all depends on what you want to get out of the hobby and your location and financial circumstances.
Renting can also save you from the hassle and expense of continually buying, selling, and upgrading your equipment.
Rent Telescopes? We Think It’s a Great Option
To conclude then, one of my top takeaways from researching the telescope rental market is that choice is limited- businesses seem reluctant to keep a large stock of high-end models. Still, if you do your research and find a good local source or you join a club you can spend several weeks with a large, sophisticated telescope, for a very reasonable cost.
One option I found particularly appealing – and you may too if you are more of a results-based person rather than a process-oriented user of telescopes – is the virtual hire of large, expensive remote telescopes via sites like i-telescope.
Either way, there is a telescope rental market out there. Why not give one or more of the options above a go and see where it leads you?
Maybe soon, it’ll be your images that others are staring at in envy.