Expectations are everything with home telescopes.
It’s easy to get lost in all the specs and accessories, but ultimately, your enjoyment depends on knowing what is—and isn’t—realistic to expect.
For instance, even entry-level home telescopes reveal the moon’s craters, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter, and deep-sky objects. Upgrading to more powerful and precise optics will let you see finer details in all the above. However, no home telescope provides the vivid colors and sharpness that you might’ve seen in published images.
Most backyard stargazers also need to deal with limitations like light pollution and atmospheric disturbances. These are totally separate from telescope optics, but still have profound effects on what you can see.
Think about it this way: Galileo Galilei observed Jupiter’s moons with a very crude telescope, and this happened over 400 years ago, in 1610.
Today, technology has progressed immensely, and even with a cheap telescope you can have a really great time, however, let’s see exactly what you can and can’t see with a home telescope!
Easy Sights to Spot With Any Home Telescope
The easiest thing to see with a telescope is undoubtedly our moon. Earth’s natural satellite can be seen with any kind of telescope. You can spot the moon’s craters with your home telescope easily. The best time to view it is when it is half illuminated.
When it comes to other planets, you can spot Jupiter—the biggest planet in our solar system—and probably its Galilean moons.
Most other planets, including Mars, Venus, Neptune, Uranus, and even Saturn’s rings can be viewed with an amateur telescope as well. With a home telescope, you can also see the Andromeda Galaxy, which can also be spotted with the naked eye.
The best time to view the planets of our solar system strictly depends on where you live, however, there are plenty of websites that keep track of their movement so you can go from there.
Asteroids or comets can also be seen with a home telescope, however, again, you have to know when to look, and get lucky. The most satisfying view is during a meteor shower, and you won’t necessarily need a telescope to enjoy it.
If the conditions are right, and your telescope is relatively good enough, you can even see the most prominent features of Mars.
What you probably shouldn’t expect to see
Spotting asteroids or comets is a bit rare, but possible nonetheless. You shouldn’t expect to see galaxies as they are presented in images, clear fine details on planets, or on the other moons. Don’t expect to see Saturn’s rings in such a way that you will be able to discern its rings, or asteroids.
You can’t see exoplanets with a home telescope, either, since they’re extremely small, dim, and distant.
Jupiter’s famous Red Spot or clouds are visible with higher-end home telescopes. The same goes for deep-space objects. Around 18% of the dark side of the moon is occasionally visible, but you won’t be able to see the rest of it.
That also stands true for any human landing proofs on the moon, or robots on Mars. When it comes to Venus, you may witness its phases, however, no features can be seen through its clouds. Mercury can also show you its phases, however, it is very difficult to capture, and again, no features can be seen.
Image quality & color: expectations vs. reality
You might have seen plenty of colorful images of nova remnants, nebulae, or star clusters. Thing is, most of the time you will see grey images, and, in the best cases, perhaps some colors when it comes to certain celestial objects, like Orion’s nebula.
The vast majority of deep space objects can’t be seen in color even in big telescopes since they are simply too far away and not bright enough. The atmosphere of the Earth, light pollution, your telescope settings and even your own eyes will get in the way.
For example, you might think that a higher magnification will help you out, when actually, higher magnification is equal to dimness. Objects are not bright enough to trigger cones, and your eye cells, responsible with the reception of color, are simply not strong enough.
Don’t expect to see high quality images of Mars, Jupiter and its moons, or anything remotely similar to what images you have probably seen released by NASA or other agencies. You have to take into account that those images are edited, adjusted, and taken with specialized telescopes that aren’t even available to the public, and these instruments don’t have to fight against all sorts of atmospheric conditions.
Fnstance, the Hubble Telescope doesn’t suffer the consequences and interferences of Earth’s atmosphere, apart from that, most professional astronomers set their gear for hours and hours to get good enough images, and they use infrared telescopes as well.
Here is what you can expect to see through your telescope, concerning Orion’s Nebula, and this is what NASA presents to us. The difference is enormous. The point is, don’t start stargazing with high expectations, you might end up disappointed. Instead, appreciate these space sights as they are, as you can see them, and rejoice even in the fact that you managed to find them at all!
Whenever you want to get more out of your home telescope, you can always upgrade it. Here is what you can expect when you upgrade!
What to look forward to when you upgrade
When you upgrade your telescope, it’s not just exciting to see new things, you will get a bonus even when looking at more familiar celestial objects. For example, you can zoom more on the moon, view the planets in greater detail and focus, and enjoy a whole new perspective.
Let’s start off small, take for example our Sun. To view the Sun, you only need a full aperture filter. It isn’t really an expensive upgrade, but it;s well worth the shot! With this filter, that comes into two different types, you can see the Sun, and its sunspots. The best filter, which is also quite cheap and works on any telescopes, is the daylight filter. It can be used on small telescopes as well.
The other filter is called the narrowband filter. It is more expensive and can be mounted on more exquisite telescopes, however, it provides an even better quality. If you want to zoom in and view the moon in even greater detail, you will need a larger telescope with a more powerful magnification.
For example, with a 20” telescope, you will have a resolution of 0.35 arcseconds, thus the smallest thing you can see on our satellites surface will be 500 meters / 1,640 ft. A magnification of around 300x, will provide you with finer details regarding the moon, and planets.
You will see them much closer and in higher quality, and even observe the moons of Jupiter. With a good filter, you will even be able to discern the clouds of some planets. When it comes to deep sky objects, magnification won’t help you, but aperture will.
With an aperture of around 3, you will be able to see things like the Swan Nebula, Pinwheel Galaxy, or the Hercules Cluster among many other exciting deep sky objects. Stars and double stars, like Albireo, Beta Monoceri, or the first magnitude stars of each constellation will look amazing in a telescope with a good aperture. Comets and asteroids, with an aperture of even 2.3 will take your breath away in an instant!
With an upgraded telescope, you will even see fine details on the International Space Station!
If you wish to begin exploring the skies, then set your expectations reasonably, and enjoy every minute of it!
With a small home telescope—even a relatively cheap one—you will witness what most of our ancestors haven’t, and even what most people today didn’t get and won’t get the chance to do so.
Don’t set your expectations high based on NASA images, SCI-FI shows, or anything of the sort. Enjoy nature as it is, with your own eyes, and who knows? Maybe you’ll witness some extraordinary things firsthand!