One of the biggest questions for anyone who is thinking about buying a telescope is what they'll be able to see. It's a good question, and one that isn't easy to answer.
Firstly, forget the pictures you see on the front cover of magazines or on Nasa's website. They are normally taken by huge scientific telescopes, space probes or the Hubble Space Telescope. But don't let this put you off. The wonder of amateur astronomy is that you are seeing things for yourself rather than looking at pictures or a computer screen.
The next problem is that a lot of what you'll be able to see in your new telescope will depend on the weather and sky conditions where you are. You can't control these, so don't get too hung up on them. You'll still be able to observe in the middle of a city (despite the light pollution) but you have to adjust your expectations.
For the purposes of this article we'll assume you've chosen one of the telescopes we recommend - a 4"-6" reflector.
DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN. If you're reading this article you don't know how to do it safely. Seriously, DO NOT LOOK AT IT. At best you might damage your telescope. At worst you could blind yourself. DON'T!
You should be able to see quite a lot of detail on the surface and see individual craters. The moon is impressive through any telescope due to it's size and proximity to Earth. You might even need a filter to view it comfortably as it can be very bright, especially near a full moon.
Jupiter will appear as a small disk (around pea sized), flanked by it's moons. You should be able to see a reasonable amount of detail on Jupiter such as the cloud bands. It's possible to see more but you'll need to be patient.
These will appear as small colored discs, distinct from stars. On a good night you may be able to see a small white area near the poles of Mars.
Saturn and it's rings should be visible to you. You should see a small amount of surface detail on the planet and might be able to see differences in the rings.
On a good night you might be able to see these as discs instead of them looking like bright stars. You might even see some color if you're lucky.
This is where you really need to adjust your expectations. Most deep space objects (nebulae and galaxies) will initially appear as faint grey smudges. But, with patience and experience you can begin to see a lot more detail. Colour and details should start to appear.
Star clusters can also be spectacular and should be easier to see, especially if there is a lot of light pollution where you are. There are hundreds of different star clusters, many of which are named and easy to find.
For a more detailed writeup of what you should be able to see and some helpful tips, have a look at this great post on Stargazers Lounge.
In the next part of this series we'll use a practical example by going back to some of our observation logs from when we first started observing to list some objects you can try looking for.