THIS FALL IS a great time to take up stargazing. After Sunday's equinox, nights will be longer than days, and the next few months will see a host of celestial marvels: Venus will be unusually bright; the comet ISON is predicted to come into its radiant, long-tailed splendor around Thanksgiving; and at the end of the year, the Geminids meteor shower will light up the sky.
Hubble may have cornered the market on breathtaking deep-space imagery, but even a modest telescope can bring astonishing views of the universe to your backyard. Surprisingly, high-powered magnification isn't always ideal. "It limits your field of view, which makes it hard to find objects in the night sky," said Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium, in Chicago. Higher magnification usually results in dimmer images, too, especially in urban and suburban areas where light pollution is prevalent, making stars appear faint or washed out.
Whether you want to view the lunar craters, the moons of Jupiter, or the Ring Nebula in the constellation Lyra (one of Dr. Hammergren's favorites), illumination is the key. For that, the most meaningful metric is aperture: the size of the lens or mirror that a telescope uses to pull in light. This rule holds true for both "refractor" models-the long, skinny telescopes you see most often-and the many variants of barrel-shaped "reflector" here telescopes, which use a parabolic mirror to gather light.
Of course, if you don't know your way around the heavens, a guide can help. The Sky Safari app ( southernstars.com), for Android and iOS, is one of the best. The $3 basic version offers information on over 120,000 stars, satellites, asteroids and other-deep sky objects. Upgrading to the $15 Plus version and adding an adapter lets you link the app to certain models of automated telescopes, like the Meade, shown at right.
While the search for a good telescope can be confusing, it doesn't have to keep you up at night. We've scoped out a few that make it easy to start exploring. After all, starlight didn't travel billions of miles just for scientists to have all the fun.
The entry-level View: Celestron Cometron 114AZ
A good telescope does not need to be expensive. The Celestron Cometron 114AZ reflector telescope forgoes bells and whistles and focuses instead on quality optics. The 114-millimeter mirror captures plenty of light, even for city use, and its relatively wide field of view is ideally suited for taking in objects larger than your average star, like galaxies, planets and comets. Two included eyepieces (10 mm and 20 mm) let you vary the telescope's magnification levels, and the included tripod is simple but sturdy-setup takes less than 10 minutes. At 8.4 pounds, the whole kit is light enough to toss it in your trunk before you head to the darkness of the hinterlands. $179, celestron.com
The fully automated model: Meade LS 8-inch SC LightSwitch
Using a built-in GPS, a star-scanning camera and a motorized mount, the Meade LS 8-inch SC LightSwitch telescope can automatically point itself at any of the 100,000 celestial objects in its database. (Tell it where to go by scrolling through menus with the hand-held remote control.) This functionality, known as "GoTo," may be the biggest revolution in home astronomy since the Big Bang. Once the telescope gets its bearings, a 10-minute process, you're pretty much exploring the night sky with an expert guide. The telescope includes a collection of narrated tours (yes, the telescope can speak). The "Tonight's Best" tour is customized to your specific location that night, directing you from one deep-space attraction to the next. When the telescope points you to the Andromeda Galaxy and explains that the oval smudge you're seeing is home to over a trillion stars, the experience is both thrilling and humbling. Exploring with friends or family? Connect the onboard camera to an e xternal monitor for group viewing. $1,799, meade.com
The bespoke option: Skylight AR101.15
If you're looking for a telescope that's as impressive to look at as through, set your sights on the Skylight Telescope's AR101.15. Few are as beautifully detailed. While the brasswork and hand-milled tube are meant to evoke the Victorian heyday of the gentleman scientist, the optics are thoroughly modern. This bazooka-length refractor scope produces a bright, razor-sharp image ideally suited for lunar and planetary viewing. Built to order by Richard Day in his Wimbledon workshop, each is as unique as the stars it's designed to observe. Starting at about $2,180, skylight-telescopes.com
Put Two Eyes in the Sky
While using binoculars to view a celestial body that's 239,000 miles away might seem counterintuitive, they're actually one of the most effective astronomical tools. Even a pair with relatively modest magnification, like the Canon 10x30 IS (shown here), will bring the craters of the moon into sharp relief, not to mention the Orion Nebula and maybe even the Moons of Jupiter.
The main drawback of binoculars has always been that they're difficult to hold steady. Even the slightest movement-caused by the wind, muscle fatigue or even your own heartbeat-can be visible through the lens. But Canon's image stabilization technology solves this problem. Push a button on the bridge of the binoculars and vibrating stars resolve instantly into fine points of light.
The Canon 10x30 IS is also small enough that you can use it to comfortably track a fast-moving object-whether a football or the international space station, which, incidentally, you can literally see crossing the sky at night. $549, canon.com