Steps to Take for Your New Telescope

The waxing Moon, right before first-quarter phase, as seen through a small telescope at around 40 times magnification. From one night to the next, the Moon shifts its phase, exposing a brand-new lunar terrain. The terminator, the line between day and night on the lunar surface, reveals more and more of the hostile, foreign terrain as the moon waxes, shining in the evening and getting broader each night.

Perhaps you recently acquired a brand-new telescope of your own. Congratulations! You could be on your way to becoming lifelong friends with incredible, distant things that you never knew were floating over you, things that are up there in the dark above your roof every night.

But the problem — and the achievement — lies in just locating and properly recognizing the majority of them, as they are so far away and dim! You can’t help but be eager to test out your new scope, whether it’s a little marvel of electronic wizardry or a long, sleek tube.

PRIOR TO WHAT YOU PERCEIVE

Here are three crucial pointers to get off to a good start, prevent difficulties, and accelerate your learning curve.
First, prepare your scope for indoor use. Go over the instructions and familiarize yourself with the warm, comfortable workings of the telescope, including how to change eyepieces and move it about. In this manner, you will avoid having to fumble with strange buttons, settings, and tweaks outside in the bitter cold and darkness.

Secondly, to gain a sense of what the scope truly accomplishes, take it outside during the day and practice using it on far-off objects like trees and buildings. It’s normal to have an upside-down perspective; this makes the optical components clean and uncomplicated, and it makes no difference as there is no such thing as up or down in space.

You’ll soon discover that the brightest, sharpest, broadest, and least wiggly views come from a telescope’s lowest magnification (the eyepiece with the longest focal length, or the one with the highest number written on it). Because of its relatively wide field of view, the lowest power also makes it the simplest to find what you’re attempting to aim for. Thus, you should always begin with the least amount of electricity. Use a greater magnification eyepiece only after you have located and focused your target and have taken a thorough, attentive look at it.

Additionally, it is simplest to align the finder with the main scope during the day if the telescope includes a small finderscope or a red-dot pointing device attached to its side. You must act on this urgently. Center the telescope in the main view and aim it toward a far-off treetop or other landmark. If the mount permits it, lock its movements. After making sure the top of the tree is still in the middle, check through the finderscope. To center the crosshairs (or red dot) on the same treetop, use the adjustment screws on the sides of the finder. After that, double-check to make sure it’s still in the middle of the main scope’s view in case you accidentally nudged it off.

Third, make patience a priority. Take the time to get to know each sky item you are able to discover. Too many people who are using telescopes for the first time anticipate the eyepiece to have brightness and color similar to that of Hubble, but in reality, most celestial objects are quite dull. Furthermore, dim objects appear largely as shades of gray rather than colors to human night vision. Again, a lot of the universe’s offerings are subtle and very far away!

Nevertheless, you will progressively be able to make out more of anything the more time and attention you devote to it. Patience is a lesson from astronomy.
Conversely, the Moon and the planets visible to the unaided eye are both easily visible and brilliant! They are great as telescopic viewers’ initial targets. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offers recommendations for telescopic and unaided eye viewing of the brightest stars and planets.

Here are some ideas to get you began.

THE MOON, A NEW-TELESCOPE DELIGHT

Even from a little perspective, the Moon is one celestial body that never ceases to astound. It is the closest planet to us in space; it is large, brilliant, glaringly desolate, and just 25,000 miles distant. That is 100 times closer than any planet has ever been. You may spend all your time using an amateur telescope and a thorough chart of the Moon.

The Moon is nearly full tonight, December 25, 2023, and it will be exactly full tomorrow night. However, the best moment to observe detail on the Moon is really at full phase! This is so that the craters, cliffs, mountains, and hills on the moon will not throw any shadows that would indicate they are anything other than flat because the Sun is directly behind us, brightening its whole face.

Everything will simply be bright gray-white hues. But do give it a look. The lunar plains, or “seas” as they are known in Latin, are the grayer regions. The brighter portions are hilly, and the dazzling white rims of numerous craters, both tiny and enormous, will reveal themselves.

The finest places to view lunar surface features are those that are close to the terminator, often known as the lunar dawn or sunset line. Consider the picture at the top of this page. Even low-lying landforms throw stunning black shadows near the terminator, where the Sun is low in the Moon’s sky.

When the Moon is waxing, the terminator advances daily, revealing fresh sceneries; when the Moon is declining after full, it conceals them in darkness. At full Moon, the terminator is practically hidden along the edge of the Moon.

Thus, exercise patience. Starting around January 13 or 14, the Moon will next be waxing in the evening sky, looking incredibly rich through a telescope. It will display the same phase as the picture above on the sixteenth.

GLAMOROUS WORLDS

I wish you luck from now on. The brightest point of light in the evening sky is Giant Jupiter, waiting for you. Go outside in the early evening, look upwards, and face roughly south. Suddenly, there it is: a brilliant white dot that outshines every star.

The four pointlike moons that round Jupiter may be seen with even the smallest telescope operating at low power. From night to night, their arrangement is always changing. Io and Europa are located on one side of Jupiter tonight, December 25, while Callisto is located closer in and Ganymede is located farther away. Their arrangement will change significantly the following day, and so on, as long as Jupiter is visible during the winter.

Change to a reasonably high wattage now. Even a tiny scope will show that Jupiter is not exactly spherical because it rotates so quickly—once every ten hours.
And do you see any of the parallel cloud bands around Jupiter? In a period of months or years, they get brighter or darker, wider or narrower. You won’t precisely notice them right away. Continue looking without stopping. With caution. When the planet becomes more acute, you could occasionally have a period of stable air. The so-called “atmospheric sight” varies from one night to the next and frequently from instant to instant, becoming clearer or blurrier.

Now switch to a somewhat high wattage. Due to its rapid rotation (once every ten hours), Jupiter is not precisely spherical as even a modest scope would reveal.
Furthermore, are the parallel cloud bands surrounding Jupiter visible to you? They get larger or narrower, brighter or darker over the course of months or years. They won’t be immediately apparent to you. Never stop searching. With prudence. Every so often there may be a spell of steady air when the planet gets more sharp. From one night to the next, and often from moment to instant, the so-called “atmospheric sight” changes, getting sharper or less distinct.

A tougher catch is Jupiter’s well-known Great Red Spot, which is located on the border of the South Equatorial Belt. It could require a minimum of a 6-inch scope and a really clear night. The Red Spot has been steadily receding for years and is today a very faint orange color (it too varies). Naturally, when you look, it must be on the side of Jupiter that faces us at that moment! This only occurs 50% of the time.

Also in early evening vision presently is Saturn. Stretching your hand to its maximum length, measure approximately six fist-widths to Jupiter’s lower right, taking into account variations in hand and arm sizes. There will be a little, steady-glowing dot nearby that is somewhat yellowish and much fainter than Jupiter. Keep it apart from the comparably brilliant star Fomalhaut, which is located around two fists to the lower left of Saturn.

The planet’s recognizable rings are visible even with a tiny telescope operating at a moderate power. Yes, it is how Saturn looks in real life! However, Saturn is currently getting lower, and low means bad telescopic vision. As a result, get your scope on it as early in the evening as feasible.

Though they are far fainter than Jupiter’s moons, Saturn also possesses many moons visible with amateur telescopes. Titan is the brightest. Tonight, it is approximately in line with Saturn’s rings, but off to one side by a factor of five. Try to notice the little orange hue it has.

The other luminous planets? Early in the morning, Venus is the dazzling “Morning Star,” located low to the southeast. Currently, it is dazzlingly white and resembles a little gibbous moon when viewed through a telescope. Look for small Mercury approximately a fist’s distance to the lower left of Venus during the second week of January. Due to the Sun’s glare, Mars is now invisible and will stay that way for several months.

ADDITIONAL NEW TELESCOPE VISITS

Of course, the moon and planets are not the only objects in the night sky! Winter evenings can provide clear, bright skies with a thick blanket of stars. But where should one aim first, with so many tempting targets above?

The Pleiades star cluster is located two or three fists to Jupiter’s left. When held at arm’s length, it appears to the unaided eye as a little patch the size of your fingertip. The Pleiades are located almost halfway between Jupiter and the Moon tonight, December 25. The Pleiades shouldn’t cause you too much problem, even when moonlight in the sky wipes off dim objects’ views. The Moon will disappear from the early evening sky by December 28 or 29, leaving the sky pitch-black.

The six brightest Pleiades stars are visible to most persons with unassisted vision. They take the shape of a little dipper. With the exception of the lowest magnification, a telescope will reveal the entire swarm and make the dipper pattern appear enormous and brilliant, even spilling over your ocular view.

The Pleiades cluster contains about 500 stars, according to astronomers. The Pleiades are bound together by their mutual gravity, much like other star clusters. The comparatively uncrowded arrangement of the stars in this cluster qualifies it as an open cluster. In terms of star clusters, it is close by, orbiting the Earth at a distance of around 440 light-years.

Astronomers have calculated that the Pleiades stars just started to glow roughly 80 million years ago. At 4.6 billion years old, they are only infants in comparison to our Sun and solar system. These young suns have incredible energy. The brightest, alcyone (al-SIGH-oh-nee), is at least 350 times more brilliant than our Sun. It shines with a strong bluish-white light, just like the other brilliant Pleiads, indicating that it is extraordinarily hot and enormous.

Now for a more profound recommendation. This time of year, the well-known constellation Orion ascends the southeast sky in the evening. Locate Orion’s Belt, a three-star constellation, in the center of it.

Below the three stars of Orion’s Belt, in Orion’s Sword, is where you may locate the Orion Nebula, according to this map. The chart’s five brightest stars, or the biggest dots, are the only ones that are easily visible to the unassisted eye.
Diagram of the sky and telescope

A smaller, fainter star cluster known as Orion’s Sword extends just a few degrees south of the Belt, or about two fingerwidths’ width at arm’s length. It contains the Orion Nebula, a bright cloud of gas and dust where hundreds of young stars are forming. In many photos, it seems pink, but in real life, it appears to be a shade of gray with a tint of green.

Any telescope can clearly show the nebula and the Trapezium, a close-knit group of four young stars in the nebula’s core. The Orion Nebula is known to astronomers as Messier 42 (M42), and star charts will designate it as such. Situated around 1,400 light-years from Earth, this huge star-forming nebula is the nearest one.

Nebulae and other faint objects are best observed in a moonless, extremely dark sky. The more distance you can avoid from the artificial light pollution of cities, the better. However, don’t allow light pollution stop you from discovering what’s visible from your apartment’s balcony or garden!

To ensure that you’re prepared to take advantage of favorable conditions when they present themselves, choose targets that are fairly bright to hunt, and learn how to locate and closely examine them. For example, the night after a storm goes through, the sky could be particularly clear and black.

What a considerably smaller scope and a camera can accomplish for the same nebula! This is how the Orion Nebula would appear if your retina functioned like an electronic imaging detector, gathering and accumulating light for extended exposures; if your brain’s visual cortex were as adaptable and sophisticated as the sophisticated photo-processing software employed here. Good, well-mounted amateur telescopes are now significantly more capable than we previously believed possible thanks to advances in digital astrophotography.

However, imagining this excellent is still a skill for the picky and committed who can afford to purchase high-end equipment and have the patience and time to become proficient in it, despite continuous technological advancements and simplifications. You could be about to get very obsessed….

Orion’s Belt can also serve as a navigational aid. Draw a long, upward line across the sky, about two fist-widths at arm’s length, and you will see Aldebaran, the orange eye of Taurus, a moderately brilliant star. After another fist or so, you will arrive at the Pleiades.

The Next Astronomical Steps

Start studying the constellations if you want to find much more in the night sky. They are the key to finding anything that is deeper and fainter to search with binoculars or a telescope, much to how you need to know the continents and nations on an Earthly globe in order to identify cities like Milan, Sydney, or Jakarta.

Use the large monthly chart included in the middle of every issue of Sky & Telescope, the indispensable astronomy magazine, for a user-friendly constellation guide that covers the whole nighttime sky (sigh).

Keep going, whatever else comes up. These things are not innate in anyone. As you become more familiar with the pastime, take your time and don’t stress about the things you still need to learn or grasp. That’s the main purpose of existence in a vast world, isn’t that right?

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