Many people don’t fully realize that the appeal of amateur astronomy is cerebral rather than a visual. An expensive telescope can afford you some breathtaking views of the moon as well as a nifty view of Jupiter and its satellites. Saturn is a minor thrill, and a few of the larger nebulae also make for fun viewing. But at that point, as far as pure visual spectacle goes, you’re pretty much done. The moon will look the same the next time it’s full. It doesn’t change much. The Orion nebula doesn’t change at all. And it’s a pain in the ass to move that big telescope back into the yard. This is why, on a typical night, so many telescopes gather dust rather than starlight.
If the essential notion of it doesn’t thrill you, then observing variable stars is about the most boring thing imaginable. An enthusiast will get very exercised about the occultation of Regulus by the dark limb of the passing moon. But what are we really talking about here? The star is there, and then it winks out of sight. I can see both sides of this argument. On the one hand, what a majestic event! The inexorable interposition of massive heavenly bodies made plain to our tiny Earthbound eyebones. Oh, the grandeur! The hand of God is surely there. On the other hand: big freaking deal. I’m cold. Why did I stay up for this?
If, however, you had the Hubble Space Telescope at your command, it would be a different story. For a machine like that, the visual thrills never stop. So I was really happy to find a site that does a good job cataloguing all the magnificent pictures taken by Hubble over the years: HubbleSite.
I’ve always found the Hourglass Nebula MyCn18 to be particularly haunting. I’d be willing to bet that freely available pictures like this will do more to recruit more future astronomers than backyard telescopes ever did.