If this introduction is too dry and humorless for you, check out the revised one I wrote for the Rose City Astronomers Beginner's Page.
What can you really see up there, among the stars?
Newspapers and magazines carry articles on black holes and the Big Bang, but rarely cover events or phenomena that are of importance to the visual observer. Our most advanced instruments have allowed us a chance to peer to the edge of the universe, but amateur observers can see fairly far out as well. A clear night, the eyes you were born with, and an inquisitive mind will take you places much farther away than your typical vacation spot. Add binoculars or a telescope, and the possibilities span the universe. The aim of this hypertext is to provide essential information (and inspiration) to the person who is interested in astronomy but needs some help in finding objects of interest. There is material here for a variety of experience levels. Feel free to skip around, or to come back later for more. If you are really impatient or have been here before, PROCEED TO SKYTOUR. Otherwise, please read on.
This is not intended to be a course in astrophysics.
Most concepts taught in college astronomy courses are not immediately applicable to amateur astronomy, although a knowledge of these concepts may further an observer's comprehension of what he or she sees through the telescope. Eventually, an understanding of celestial coordinate systems becomes invaluable to the telescopic observer, so an appendix on that topic is included.
If you are just getting started and do not yet know the constellations, learn them!
Almost all guides to the night sky will mention constellations and the stars within them when giving object locations. An observer who has learned the major constellations and the major stars in each has taken a big step towards "owning" the night sky. The best starter book for this task is The Stars: A New Way to See Them, by H. A. Rey. The patterns and concepts are simple, just as they should be. Expect to spend a majority of the clear nights throughout the year becoming familiar with the constellations, but don't fret: Once you have learned just a few constellations, you will be able to explore the hidden objects within them. You can sharpen your skills with binoculars and a telescope in the meantime. A planisphere is also useful, as it will quickly show you what constellations and other objects are visible at a given time of night.
What kind of optical aid do you need?
To trace the constellations, you need only your eyes and a little patience. Binoculars will reveal many more stars, cratering detail on the Moon, and most of the brighter and more spectacular deep sky objects. It is good to become proficient with binoculars before getting a telescope, as your binoculars will remain useful as a bridge between the wide field of your naked eye and the narrow field of your telescope. In fact, many objects and groups of objects show up better in good binoculars than in small telescopes. The main weakness of binoculars is the low, fixed magnification, which won't let you see planetary detail. Net denizens Jay Reynolds Freeman and Todd Gross have written good articles on choosing binoculars. If you are on a tight budget, check second hand stores and garage sales for a used pair of 7x35, 7x50, or 10x50 binoculars, which will work quite well.
Do you need a telescope? It depends upon your level of interest. For a beginning observer, a telescope is a major investment of time and money. If you will really spend time using it, however, a telescope is worth it. There are many models and designs out there, in many price ranges. To get an idea of what isn't junk, you should join a local astronomy club and attend star parties. Try to spend a night using the type of telescope you are thinking about buying. These pages have more good advice.
If you already have a small telescope, especially a small "department store" refractor, I have written up a special Skytour Detour just for you. If you can turn the sometimes frustrating learning/coping process into a fun adventure and stick with it, you will eventually have the same mastery of the stars as someone who started out with a larger, more expensive scope.
At this point, take some time to look through the basics
of what you'll find in the sky. Without further delay, here is The
SKYTOUR Table of Contents.