This article is a sample from DISCOVER's special Extreme Universe issue, available only on newsstands through March 22.
When Martin Ratcliffe pushes the roof off his $1,200 backyard observatory in Wichita, Kansas, the stars beckon and the human world slips away. “Viewing the sky places into a cosmic context my daily worries,” he says. Ratcliffe works at Sky-Skan, where he trains outside producers on planetarium software. In the United States, about 250,000 amateurs watch the heavens—and many of them have made significant contributions to science. Recently Australian amateur Anthony Wesley, using his homemade, 14.5-inch backyard scope, detected a new spot on Jupiter. Professionals quickly confirmed his observation, which turned out to be a scar from impact with a massive object, probably a comet. Regardless of the cost of your setup, “the sky is free,” Ratcliffe says. And today’s GPS-equipped, computer-guided “prosumer” gear makes it easier than ever to do a professional-caliber job on an amateur’s budget.
If you are just getting started, keeping it simple increases the odds that you will enjoy the experience and continue with it. There are refractors, reflectors, and compound telescopes. Ratcliffe suggests first trying a refractor like the kind Galileo used to discover the large moons of Jupiter. You can build a Galileoscope with a 20-inch tube, 2-inch-wide lens, and 50-power eyepiece in five minutes, using $20 worth of equipment. Feeling more ambitious? Try a Dobsonian telescope, a reflector on a simple swivel mount. Later, you can upgrade to the higher-end, automated telescopes that orient themselves by looking for reference stars and determining their location via GPS. Then you can tell the computer what you want to see, and, after an initial alignment by hand, it will do the pointing for you. Some old-timers frown on letting a computer do the work, but Ratcliffe is a fan. “It opens up astronomy to the backyard viewer,” he says.
Some specific brands to consider:
BEGINNER: Orion SkyQuest XT4.5, 4½", $229;
Edmund Scientific AstroScan, 4¼", $229;
Celestron NexStar SLT, 4", $500.
INTERMEDIATE: Orion SkyQuest XT10, 10", $500;
Meade ETX-125 AT, 5", $999;
Celestron NexStar 8SE, 8", $1,199.
ADVANCED: Meade LX-90 SC, 10", $2,399;
Celestron CPC 925 XLT, 9¼", $2,499;
Meade LX-200 ACF, 14", $6,999.