I have to agree with the gross over-generalization stating many astronomers are astronaut-wannabes. It's obvious I fit into this category. Until space travel is affordable, and not the exclusive regime of highly-trained people, the best one can do is look out the window at the magnificent spectacles in the heavens. Sounds good to me... if I can't get there any other way. ("Zits" copyright 2002, King Features Syndicate)
One of the best ways to learn your way around the sky, and learn about the fun of observing the heavens, is to find your local astronomy club. Some cities have more than one astronomical organization, and you might be surprised how many folks from many walks of life, are interested in observing. Just try a search on the Web, and you'll find one near you. After finally settling down in Texas, I found a great astro-organization in San Antonio. Not only do we talk stars, planets, and deep space objects, we have a great public outreach program for local parks, schools, community events, and regular star parties. These are large observing sessions, usually at a location well away from city lights, where you can look through a whole bunch of different types of scopes, at a lot of different celestial sights. If you want to check out whether you might really get into astronomy, or want to test drive a particular telescope, this is a great way to do it, and get plenty of informed, friendly advice from experienced people.
Here's the most important rule I've learned about telescopes: never ever buy a department store telescope! You know, the kind they sell around Christmas-time. They are poor quality, darned near useless, and you can't see what you want to see. You need to spend at least U.S. $300.00 to get a real telescope. The best advice I know is to read a good basic guide like the one at Sky and Telescope Magazine or the Astronomical League.
I am happy to have two of the three basic types of telescopes: refractors, and compound scopes. Refractors (left) are the traditional looking long tubes with lenses in both ends. The second type of scope is the reflector, which uses a mirror at one end of a tube to gather light. A compound scope (right) uses both lenses and mirrors to fold the light path into a much shorter tube.
A compound scope is also called a "catadioptric (meaning: pertaining to both types of optics)" or "cat." My specific type of cat is a Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope (SCT), which is named for the inventors. You may notice a cat sitting under the refractor in the photo on the left. This cat is not at all related to the SCT cat. I married into cats - so please have a heart if you're a dog person.
Small Scope Specifications: The refractor is a Orion model ED80, with an 80mm (3.1 inch) objective (main lens) and 600mm F/7.5 focal length. It is mounted on an Meade LXD-500 German Equatorial Mount (GEM), and has been retrofitted with sturdy set of Al's Oak Legs. Here's my full review of this scope.
Big Scope Specifications: The SCT is a Meade model LX-200, with a 203 mm (8 in) objective, F/10 focal length, using an altitide-azimuth (alt-az) fork mount, the Autostar computer system, all sitting on a Meade Field Tripod.
What about very specialized refractors? Here is a revolution in Sun-watching: the small, affordable Coronado Personal Solar Telescope (PST). It is a simple refracting telescope, but with a sophisticated filter which isolates the Hydrogen Alpha (H-Alpha) emission line from the Sun's layers. This allows us to see the Sun's active outer atmosphere (coronasphere), including solar flares.
Like many amateur astronomers, I
developed strong opinions on equipment. I have always enjoyed the
beautiful views available in apochromatic (meaning "no false color") refractors, plus their
clean & simple design. I'd always planned to get a larger
example of this original telescope design, but with 21st century
enhancements. That came in the form of a TMB (Thomas M.
Back) Signature Series 130mm (5.1 inch) refractor. This
instrument is a triplet (3 lens) design with a 910mm F/7 focal
length. TMB is a builder of premium refractors, with what many
would consider premium prices. Fortunately, their SS line brings
all the qualities of a top drawer apo design into a more
affordable price range. There are also many "clones" of this type scope, at even better price points.
In the field, this instrument is simply stunning on the planets and the Moon, and holds its own against deep sky objects with its medium aperature and high contrast. See my full review of the TMB 130 SS. The scope rides very well on a Meade LXD-75 Autostar-computerized German Equatorial Mount.
Meade Instruments Corporation, Celestron International and Orion Telescopes & Binoculars are the three big scope companies. I have had a chance to sample multiple products from all three, and all make or supply very good quality instruments.