There's more to see than the Moon
It's always exciting when you get that first telescope. How many of us have patiently assembled the scope on its tripod in our living rooms and bedrooms and carefully turned small levers and focusing knobs while we waited for the night to reveal itself to us.
One thing you'll encounter is the relative challenge of finding various objects in the sky. The Moon is simple enough, but there are apps for various wireless, mobile devices that will make your search much simpler. Some of them are free.
1. The Moon
One thing you might want to think about is going out in the daylight with your scope. Quite often the Moon is visible in the daylight sky, and what a great opportunity to experiment with the tripod and learn how to make adjustments with focus and various eyepieces. One of the first things many of us learn quickly is how difficult it is to adjust a telescope for the first time in the dark. Flashlights seem like a good idea and we soon learn about the value of a red filter on the flashlight to keep eyes dilated for the dark skies.
The Moon is also our first destination when darkness finally falls. It's a good opportunity to become familiar with how the rotation of the Earth and the movement of the moon requires adjustments to keep the moon in our field of view. It also becomes obvious that the higher the magnification, the faster the Moon seems to move across the sky.
After the moon, many of us want to scope our first planet. Mars is a good place to start. It's distinctive orangish, red colour make it easy to spot and it's typically lower in the sky which makes viewing a bit easier with both refractors and reflectors. It helps to have a sky map or an app that will help you find Mars if you're looking for it for the first time. It also helps that Mars is often one of the brightest points of light in the sky.
Venus also has a distinctive colour ranging from yellowish to white and also appears very bright in the sky. On some nights it's the brightest object in the sky compared to the stars and sister planets. Some amateur astronomers struggle with focus the first time they view Venus. Don't worry about it. The thick, cloudy cover that surrounds the planet makes final focus difficult to assess. Do the best you can and use the fine-focus knob if your scope has one to see if you can get close to an accurate image. It also makes frequent appearances fairly low in the sky so it also permits easier viewing at times. Telescopic image by Marc Lecleire
Venus can be very bright and is often confused for a UFO. Seen above causing a light reflection on the ocean. Credit: Brocken Inaglory
It's truly exciting to see Jupiter for the first time through your scope. The unique coloured bands that define the planet will be visible. You also may spot one of the 4 larger moons orbiting the planet or the shadow of one of the moons passing over Jupiter's surface. Jupiter also appears as a bright object in the sky and at times surpasses Venus as the brightest point of light. Jupiter often appears high in the sky which can make it easier to track if you live in a location with many trees or hills blocking the horizon.
Many astronomers are puzzled and disappointed the first time they view Saturn. What they see is a yellowish planet in the sky but no evidence of rings. Don't be surprised. Saturn's rings are surprisingly thin and if the tilt of Saturn isn't right the rings are invisible to most amateur scopes. With any luck your new scope showed up at the right time of year and your first view of Saturn won't disappoint.
6. The Other Moons in our Solar System
There are literally hundreds of moons in our solar system. Some of them almost as large as the planet Mercury. You can see them in your telescope if you know where to look, and what to look for. Some of the larger moons of Jupiter and Saturn are the best place to start. The moons typically look like stars in close proximity to the planet so it helps to know how to separate them from the starry background. The good news is that the moons tend to not only be very close to the planets, but are usually brighter than the background stars.
7. The Pleiades Star Cluster
The Pleiades is not a constellation but a star cluster. It's typically seen high in the night sky and can be found by drawing a line through Orion's belt and looking to the right. It appears to be a miniature version of the Big Dipper but smaller and somewhat dimmer.
Dark-night viewing is the best way to see The Pleiades and binoculars or a reduced magnification on your telescope will allow you to see the full cluster. Higher magnifications will allow you to see some of the hazy, blue light that crosses this cluster as a result of dust particles from a large nebula cutting across the cluster.
8. The Orion Nebula in Orion's Belt
Orion is a dominant constellation in the winter sky in the northern hemisphere. Its distinctive hour-glass shape is easy to find and recognize. Across the center of the constellation is a tight group of 3 stars forming Orion's belt. Coming down from the belt is another series of what appears to be 3 stars forming what is commonly referred to as Orion's sword. The first star is actually a small star cluster called NGC1981. The middle star in the sword is the Orion Nebula. Like all nebulae it will appear hazy and may have a bluish tinge.
9. The Andromeda Galaxy - M31
Good news and bad news about Andromeda. The good news is that it's the closest galaxy to the Milky Way. The bad news is that it's on a collision course with the Milky Way. Of course that won't happen for about 4 billion years so you've got some time. Even though it's coming closer it's still a bit hard to find. This will be your first test of your sky and scope navigation skills. The constellation Pegasus is the key to finding Andromeda and various sky maps and apps can guide you to the exact destination. (image by Adam Evans)
10. The Ring Nebula
Here's the first big test of your night-sky navigation skills. The Ring Nebula in the constellation Lyra. It's located between two bright stars, Sheliak and Sulafata. Your first task is to find Lyra and then determine the 2 brightest stars. The ring nebula is about halfway in between them. You'll need to use increasing magnification to zero in on the Ring Nebula and at higher magnifications should notice a fuzzy, bluish yellow glow. Having a wireless app like Star Walk can give you a close up of what you're viewing, but there's nothing like seeing the real thing through a scope.
Yes, there's more.
At some point you'll have tracked many of the objects we've described in this article. You'll probably look back at your first few attempts and smile as you easily track the moon, observe the planets, and find the moons of Jupiter. As you continue to learn the sky and the constellations you'll find other objects and adventures in deep space. That sense of discovery is the true reward of amateur astronomy and the skills you develop will only take you further as you eventually upgrade your scope, and probe deeper and deeper into the night sky. If you want to find more deep space objects have a look at the ‘how to’ guides on the website.
Related Posts: Observing the Night Sky
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