Seven top targets in the Solar System

If you are the proud owner of a new telescope, you may be wondering what you can see through it. There is so much in the night sky that it can seem overwhelming. What to look at first! Here are seven top targets in our Solar System for a small telescope. To check which objects are actually in the sky when you want to view, consult our Night Sky pages.

Moon showing dark lunar seas

The dark lunar “seas” (Paul Sutherland)

1. The Moon. Before you go diving off into deeper space, don’t forget our planet’s partner in space! As well as being bright and easy to find, the Moon also offers lots to see plus an ever-changing face over the month as its phases wax and wane.

With the unaided eye alone, it is clear that the Moon is a discernible disk. But the only detail we can see like this is the darker patches that make up the waterless lunar “seas” or plains of lava. These are what produce the famous “face” of the Man in the Moon, for example.

Even a pair of binoculars will vastly improve the view, revealing the mountainous nature of the Moon’s surface and showing some of the larger craters caused by asteroid impacts. But the smallest of telescopes improves the view still further and offers countless features to study, including peaks, craters, valleys, rifts and mounds.

Not much happens on the Moon due to its lack of any significant atmosphere. But it ever-changing phase as it orbits the Earth means that the view is ever-altering too due to the different lighting and shadows as the angle of sunlight falling on the Moon changes.

You won’t normally see the Moon when it is at its New phase and therefore closest to the Sun, unless there happens to be a total eclipse in progress! Your first glimpse will come in the evening sky a couple of days later when it appears as a fine crescent after sunset. Over the next couple of weeks, watch as the phase gradually grows until, 14 days after New, we get Full Moon and the side facing us is totally illuminated by the Sun.

Oddly enough, when the Moon is Full, its appearance totally changes because virtually all those craters and mountains seem to disappear. The reason is that the Sun, on the opposite side of the sky, is shining directly down from our perspective and so all those shadows disappear. This also makes the Moon glaringly bright as the light is reflected directly back at us. Full Moon is a good time though to examine those lunar “seas” or maria. You will also see a couple of bright spots from younger impacts plus bright rays spreading away from them which are formed of the debris that was thrown out in those collisions. We have a beginners’ guide to help you find 50 fantastic features on the Moon!

2. Jupiter. The largest of the planets in our Solar System dominates the night sky when it is well-placed for viewing. Even the unaided eye shows it as far brighter than any star, shining steadily down but without any twinkling due to the fact it appears as a tiny disk rather than a starlike point, even though the disk is not visible without optical aid.

A pair of binoculars will immediately reveal that disk, plus you will see up to four points of light to either side of the planet, stretched out like a string of beads. These are Jupiter’s four largest moons, Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, which Galileo discovered when he first used a telescope. With binoculars or a small telescope, you can see the positions of these natural satellites changing as they orbit the planet. You may not see all four when you look if one or two are in front or hiding behind Jupiter when you look.

A small telescope will show you that Jupiter is not spherical but appears rather squashed like a pumpkin at the poles, due to its gas-ball nature and rapid spin – it turns once in just under 10 hours. Look carefully through your telescope and you will begin to make out that Jupiter shows a pattern of light and dark bands or belts. These are more subtle to the eye than some sketches or photos suggest, but patience will help you see them. You may also see the famous Great Red Spot, a colossal storm that has been raging for centuries.

3. Saturn. The second largest of the gas giant planets is also further away and so appears smaller in your telescope than Jupiter does. However, what it lacks in size it makes up for with its splendid array of rings that encircle it. Formed from billions of particles of ice and rock, these create a spectacle unlike anything else in the heavens. Even binoculars will show the odd shape that the rings give to Saturn and a small telescope will provide a dazzling view. If the atmosphere is steady and gives you good “seeing” conditions, you may be able to pick out a dark gap in the rings called Cassini’s Division. Now and again, you may encounter a view of Saturn without its rings on display – this happens at the rare times when they appear edge-on to the Earth.

Saturn’s disk itself has a far blander appearance than Jupiter’s with a straw-yellow colour and none of the contrasting light and dark bands and belts. Occasional white spots, marking storms, appear which can be observed with larger amateur telescopes. Don’t expect any view like Hubble’s, but marvel at what we can see of this jewel in the sky.

4. Mars. Everyone is fascinated by the rocky red planet Mars. And when it is at its best, it makes a splendid target for your telescope. But because its distance from Earth varies greatly over just a few months, you have to pick your moments! Mars, the next planet out from our own, takes 687 days to orbit the Sun, which means we overtake it on the inside every 780 days or so. For a few weeks or months around that time, it is close enough to show a small orange disk in a backyard telescope, and you might be able to pick out a few dark features or the white polar ice caps. But a year or so later, when Earth and Mars are on different sides of the Sun, it will appear much fainter in the sky and you won’t see anything on its dot of a disk at all. Mars’s next closest approach, called Opposition, occurs in March 2012 so it is getting to be a good time to observe it as I write this! Skymania offers a special guide to Mars including a sky map to help you find it.

5. Venus. Our other neighbour planet, only slightly smaller than Earth, lies closer to the Sun. This means it can never be seen to shine in the middle of the night because it either follows the Sun down after sunset or rises ahead of it before dawn. Because, like all the planets, Venus shines due to reflected sunlight, it shows phases just like the Moon does. When it is on the far side of the Sun, it appears as a tiny disk, but when closer to us its appearance varies between that of a “half moon” and a wider crescent. Venus shines brilliantly and is the brightest object in the night sky after the Sun and Moon. It can even be seem with the unaided eye in broad daylight if you have a clear blue sky and know just where to look. Its phases are easy to see in a small telescope and may be made out in binoculars, although be very careful never to sweep the sky for it while there is a danger you might accidentally point at the blinding Sun. Despite its brightness, due to sunlight reflecting from Venus’s permanent veil of cloud, you won’t see any significant detail in those clouds with a small telescope, though some claim to see subtle shadings.

6. The Great Nebula in Orion: The mighty hunter Orion stands proud in the southern sky from the northern hemisphere in January. It is a bright and impressive constellation that actually has some resemblance to the figure of a man, complete with three stars marking the belt around his waist.

Look a little below the belt to see a vague line of stars marking his sword. If the sky is dark, the Moon not too bright and you are away from streetlights, you will hopefully be able to make out a bright blur with the unaided eye.

Turn your telescope on this blur and you will more clearly see it as a bright luminous patch – a vast cloud of shining gas in which new stars are being born. Don’t use too high magnification, but choose a low-power eyepiece giving a wide field of view to see the Orion Nebula at its best. A higher power will show a bright grouping of some of these new stars, called the Trapezium, at the centre.

The main nebula is also known as Messier 42, or simply M42, after a French comet hunter who catalogued fuzzy objects in the sky that people might mistake for comets. If you have seen photos in books showing bright billowing clouds in dazzling colours, you may feel disappointed when you view the nebula for yourself. This map will help locate M42.

Remember that these photos are usually long exposures taken with large telescopes. You will be lucky to see it as other than a luminous silver, but it is worth spending time and allowing your eyes to take in the view. You may then discern a clear, sharper edged feature called the “fish mouth” and trace the swirls of gas as they extend and fade from the central region.

7. The Pleiades: Here is an easy cluster of bright young stars visible in the constellation of Taurus the bull. You could never mistake them for a comet but Messier included them in his catalogue as M45. They are better known as the Seven Sisters, or Pleiades.

Their popular name comes from the number of stars supposedly visible with the unaided eye, but many people can today only count six in our poor skies, although others count more than seven. Binoculars will show vastly more than this and you will be able to count hundreds when you turn a telescope on the region. Once again, use a low-power eyepiece to get a wide field of view and see the cluster in all its glory.

Larger telescopes and long exposures with cameras will reveal wisps of gas in the cluster illuminated by the hot blue stars. This map will help you find the Pleiades.

Five more targets for your telescope

Here are some more that you can seek out. Don’t forget that you can still check out the Moon too!

Jupiter as seen in a small telescope

The largest planet in the solar system is low in the evening sky for observers in the northern hemisphere but one of the brightest objects in the heavens. Even a small telescope will show Jupiter as a disk, but one that is decidedly squashed, due to its rapid spin – it rotates in a day that lasts less than 10 hours. (Conversely, Jupiter is high up for southern hemisphere observers).

Turbulence in our atmosphere will make it difficult to see much detail in Jupiter’s cloud cover, but be patient and you may make out some of the planet’s bands and belts. If viewing conditions are good, more powerful instruments should show the famous Great Red Spot when it is turned towards us. (The image here is deliberately “non-Hubble” and closer to what you will really see in a small scope).

It can also be fascinating to watch the movements of Jupiter’s four biggest moons, Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, as they circle the planet like a mini solar system. Known as the Galilean satellites after they were spotted by Galileo in 1610, they resemble a string of beads and may be seen in steadily-held binoculars.

M31 – The Great Andromeda Galaxy: We live in a collection of billions of stars that is known as the Milky Way due to its appearance, viewed from within, as a shimmering band across a dark sky. Our galaxy is just one of billions of other “star cities” and the largest that is close to us is M31 in the constellation of Andromeda – the M stands for Messier, the French comet hunter who added it to his famous catalogue.

This galaxy – a spiral like our own – is bright enough to be visible with the unaided eye alone in a moonless sky. Binoculars show it well, or turn the smallest of telescopes on it and it will resemble a bright, elongated blur. Don’t expect to see individual stars or any of the detail in professional photos, but marvel at the fact that the light you are viewing left the galaxy 2.5 million years ago, before Man appeared on Earth. See, too, if you can pick out its two satellite galaxies M32 and M110.

M13 – a bright globular cluster: On the opposite side of the heavens to the famous Orion stands another celestial strongman, Hercules. Spot him high above the western horizon when it gets dark in early autumn. Four moderately bright stars mark out the mythological hero’s torso, and the next gem on our list may be found a third of the way down between the two stars on the right side.

M13 is a ball of more than 300,000 stars tightly packed together. Just visible to the unaided eye in ideal conditions, it resembles a fuzzy glow in binoculars but its true nature is revealed in telescopes which begin to resolve, or pick out, the individual stars as pinpricks of light.

Globular clusters form like halos around galaxies and more than 150 are know to surround our own Milky Way’s core. M13 is the best know in the northern sky but southern astronomers enjoy a more spectacular treat in the shape of Omega Centauri, which was bright enough to be mislabelled like a star in Centaurus.

Albireo: Still flying high in the sky in the evening at this time of the year is Cygnus, the swan, despite the fact that its brightest star, Deneb, forms part of what has become known as the Summer Triangle. Cygnus’s cross-shape is meant to resemble a swan in flight with outstretched wings. At the opposite end to bright Deneb in the longer bar of this cross is Beta (β) Cygni, or Albireo. To the unaided eye it appears simply as a moderately bright star, but turn your new telescope on it and discover a real gem. You will find that Albireo is actually a double star and the brighter 3rd magnitude yellow star is accompanied by a 5th magnitude blue companion. The contrast of colours makes Albireo one of the mosy beautiful double stars in the heavens.

Double cluster: Yet another hero of the heavens is the Greek character of legend Perseus. This constellation is rich in delights for binocular and telescope users because it lies closse to the star-rich Milky Way. But its most famous inhabitants, close to the border with Cassiopeia, are the two collections of stars known as the Double Cluster.

Binoculars will show them as rich concentrations of stars but through a telescope they sparkle like gems in a jewel box. They are termed open clusters because they don’t have the structured, spherical form of the globular clusters, and individually they are labelled NGC 884 and NGC 869.