Giant balls of plasma held together by gravity, spinning galaxies so far away we don't know if they exist anymore, cosmic dust borne from supernova explosions—space is awesome. To appreciate it, all you have to do is look up.
You can do a lot of stargazing with a good pair of binoculars. But if you really want to get into astronomy, you need a telescope. And to that end, nothing can—and will—spoil your first foray faster than a bad scope. So don't settle for anything suspiciously cheap, and make sure you understand the basics.
The hole through which light passes, usually the diameter of the main lens or mirror. The larger the aperture, the better the resolution. For beginners, a 6- to 8-inch aperture is optimal. "Really, today, with the light pollution, you almost need to go eight," says Roger Kolman, a 55-year amateur astronomer and second vice president of the American Association of Variable Star Observers.
This is the distance a lens or mirror bends gathered light to a focus point. The larger the focal length, the smaller the field of view. So a telescope with a high focal length (say, 1,400 mm) is better for viewing closer objects, such as the moon and planets. For deep-sky galaxies and nebulae, a shorter focal length (sub-1,000 mm) is ideal. "Remember, the smaller the field of view, the harder it is to find things," Kolman says.
Cheap telescope manufacturers are always touting magnification power on the box, but that's misleading—just making something bigger isn't helpful if the resolution is poor. Magnification is simply a measurement of the telescope's focal length divided by the focal length of an attached eyepiece.
Types of Telescopes
Refractor: Your classic long and skinny telescope. Refractors bend incoming light through one curved lens into another curved lens just before the eyepiece. This simple setup makes refractors durable and low maintenance, but the high-quality lenses also make them an expensive choice.
Reflector: Great for beginners, reflecting telescopes use a two-mirror system to capture and focus light. They usually have the largest apertures, giving them superb resolution. Reflectors can be big and awkward, but they're the most economical due to a lower cost-per-inch of aperture.
Compound or catadioptric: A stumpy refractor/reflector hybrid that uses a corrective lens and curved mirrors to greatly increase the focal length. Compounds like Schmidt-Cassegrains are more versatile and lighter than reflecting scopes, but their four optical surfaces significantly bump up the cost.
An eyepiece changes the focal ratio of your telescope, thus changing the magnification. Certain eyepieces are better for different viewing situations—say, looking at a whole galaxy versus its individual spirals—so you'll want at least a few extra. The Plössl is a popular style of lens. We particularly like Meade's Super Plössl series of eyepieces, ranging from 6.4 mm to 56 mm ($32 to $80 each). When buying eyepieces, opt for a 1.25-inch barrel diameter, which can be used with almost any telescope.
Placed between the eyepiece and the telescope, a Barlow lens essentially doubles the magnification of any eyepiece, making it a staple. The average Barlow is around $50.
Finding the moon is easy. Seeing it in great detail is a bit trickier—the brightness borders on blinding. Solution: a moon filter. It easily fits on any eyepiece and runs about $20.
A star chart that shows the night sky in 2D may seem outdated with so many apps available, but a good one is still a necessity. "I would recommend using the monthly charts in either Sky & Telescope or Astronomy," Kolman says.
Learn your constellations and planets
Think of constellations and planets as celestial land- marks—they help you orient yourself when hunting down unfamiliar objects. And the best way to learn them is to just start identifying and memorizing. "The more legwork you put in in the beginning of your stargazing life, the easier things tend to be later on," Ting says. "Like, oh yeah! That's Orion, that's the Big Dipper, that's Cassiopeia, and now I know my way around."
Join a club
There are hundreds of free amateur astronomy clubs around the country. A meet-up, or stargazing party as they're often called, is a great place to learn more and maybe even score some cheap equipment. For a list of local events, visit at night- skynetwork.org.
When to look for what
Dusk and dawn: Because Mercury and Venus are close to the sun and hard to see when it's high in the sky, these crepuscular conditions are best for viewing.
Winter: We are looking out to the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy's disk, so the sky is rich with stars and nebulae.
Spring: The Earth faces out from the Milky Way, meaning fewer stars and better conditions for spotting distant galaxies.
All year round: Look for bright star clusters, such as the Pleiades. As with planets and constellations, clusters help with night-sky navigation.