Back in 1609, Galileo gazed into the Italian night sky from his backyard.

With his handmade telescope trained on Jupiter, he managed to spy what he thought were four new stars moving around the Jovian sphere, itself considered a star at the time.

But those stars turned out to be four large moons, and their sighting caused Galileo to turn the world upside down, leading him to challenge the very notion of our planet's place in the universe.

These days, with a decent pair of binoculars -- even in a major metropolis like New York City -- you can see the very things that Galileo saw and more.

Perhaps with a telescope of your own, you'll make a discovery that will turn your own world upside down.

Star Struck

There's no experience like seeing mountains on the moon, polar ice caps on Mars, the great red spot on Jupiter or even the rings of Saturn firsthand.

All these natural wonders are easily spotted with a beginner's telescope, retailing well under $1,000. But soon, like an addict, you'll be craving more: asteroids, comets and what are known as deep-sky objects -- nebulas, galaxies, double stars, and my favorite, globular clusters.

And all of these wonders are visible from your own backyard if you know where to point your scope.

There are two approaches to stargazing.

There is the old-fashioned way, taking the time to learn the positions of the constellations and using them as reference points to find your galactic quarry -- similar to looking at a map before a road trip.

Then there's the newer, armchair approach, which is to buy one of the widely available robotic, or GoTo, telescopes, and let the telescope drive you to your destination -- like a galactic GPS.

Actually, there is heated debate within the amateur stargazer community about the use of such robotic scopes.

First, the word "robotic" is a bit of a misnomer. These telescopes are actually fitted with a small computer that is loaded with the contents of the night sky. You enter the name of the object you wish to see, and the telescope automatically directs itself there. All you have to do is look.

So what's wrong with that? Detractors say that this removes the fun and adventure -- not to mention the wonder that stems from decoding the sky -- and deprives the viewer of a sense of accomplishment. Why not just watch a TV show on planets?

There is something to be said for learning the position of the stars, of observing the cycling of the planets and knowing where north lies just by looking up. However, there are times when it's nice to just tap in a name and get a perfect view of the Crab Nebula.

If you're good at reading maps, self-motivated and bit of an adventurer, you'll do fine with manually finding night-sky objects. However, if you'd rather drive an automatic instead of a standard, or if you like all-inclusive vacations, the GoTo scopes will be a perfect fit.

Scoping the Scene

Whatever your predilection, there's certainly a telescope for you.

It's common for beginners to think, "I want a telescope that magnifies 1,000 times!" While that sounds impressive, magnification is not the most important feature.

The single factor that most determines how many objects you will be able to see is the aperture of the scope, or the telescope's light-gathering ability.

What a beginner would refer to as the lens of the scope -- the business end that points at the stars -- is really called the objective. The bigger the objective, the more light is taken into the scope and the more objects you can see, even very dim ones.

And what are dim objects?

They're bodies that are either very distant or ones that emit or reflect little light, such as galaxies. (Yes, you can see other galaxies through a commercial telescope!)

The next key traits are optics, manufacturing quality and the mount. That means the mirrors are high-quality and properly aligned, the controls are smooth and easy to use, and the telescope is mounted on a sturdy, nonvibrating frame.

But don't fret about all these details just yet -- the recommendations below will take the guesswork out of the decision-making process.

Let's look at the different types of scopes to figure out what works best for you.

Refractors

For the novice who just wants to dip a toe into the galactic water, a small, achromatic refractor with an aperture from 60mm to 80mm is an ideal start.

For instance, you might just be interested in checking out some easy-to-spot planets and maybe a bright nebula or two.

This size will allow you to observe the moon and the major planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and Mars up close.

Another nice feature of these scopes are the entry-level prices -- as little as $100 for a 60mm. What's more, because of their small size, they're easily portable; due to their optic design, they're also are lauded for their sharp images.

Refractors, however, do have the widest price range per inch of aperture: A 150mm refractor with GoTo technology, for instance, is in the neighborhood of $1,200.

Reflectors

Reflectors are the workhorses of the telescope milieu.

Also known as "Newtonian reflectors," they're named after Sir Isaac Newton, who perfected the reflector design in the 1600s. If a reflector telescope was good enough for the discoverer of gravity, it's certainly good enough for you.

These scopes are typically the most affordable and allow the user to see both planets and deep-sky objects.

What's more, their widely available apertures range in size from just 3 inches all the way to a gigantic 14 inches. A scope that large will yield a tremendous amount of night treasures, but be forewarned -- the larger the scope, the heavier the mount and the less portable it is.

And for beginners, a giant scope can be a bit overwhelming. A good place to start is either a 6-inch or 8-inch reflector on a Dobsonian mount, which will yield a tremendous amount of objects, but is still relatively portable; this will cost you $350 to $500.

Schmidt-Cassegrains

These scopes, and their sisters, Maksutov-Cassegrains, are excellent choices for people concerned with getting a lot of aperture in a compact package.

These scopes are a lot more portable than comparatively sized reflectors. For instance, a Newtonian reflector with an 8-inch aperture can be as long 45 inches, while the tube of a Schmidt-Cassegrain with the same 8-inch aperture is only 18 inches long. Additionally, that 8-inch scope renders beautiful views of both planets and deep-sky objects.

There's always a caveat, though -- Cassegrains are not cheap. A basic 8-inch model is priced over $1,000, and their tripod and mount are usually quite heavy.

Good Heavens

Now that you're seeing stars, I'll make it simple for you: get the most aperture you can afford with the least amount of weight and size you will want to move around.

If your new toy is a pain to move, you're not going to use it.

Let's face it, most of us don't have dedicated observatories with our scopes all set up and waiting for us every night.

At the very least, you'll probably need to carry your new instrument outside, to a car and set it up.

Consider that when jumping into this hobby: portability is key.

Though Galileo may have seen some of these sights first, you, too, may find yourself filled with awe and wonder at what awaits through the eyepiece of your new telescope.

Maybe you'll even feel a little like him, when he wrote in his diary after the first night stargazing through his handmade refractor:

"I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries."

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