You were lucky enough to be given your first telescope and the sky is clear. But what should you look at first when it seems there are so many objects to choose from?
There are plenty of targets worth exploring, but for a beginner it is best to turn to some of the brightest and best known first as you get used to using your new instrument. Here are five top targets for a small telescope in January 2008.
The Red Planet is only just past its best, having been closest to the Earth around Christmas 2007. The distance between Mars and the Earth is now steadily increasing again but use this opportunity to glimpse some of the markings on our neighbouring world.
A few minutes at even a small telescope will help you to glimpse some of the larger dark regions on Mars, plus the white area around the planet’s north pole due to ice and clouds.
Mars is easy to find in the sky just now on the borders of Gemini because it shines so brightly like an orangey lantern. Look for it high in the sky as soon as it gets dark. You’ll learn more on how to find it and about this fascinating world in our special Mars pages.
Mars will gradually fade over the next few months and its features will become much harder to spot on a smaller disk. The sketch of Mars here is by experienced UK amateur astronomer David Graham.
Once you’ve viewed Mars, you can look above the eastern horizon in mid-evening to catch another bright planet – and what a jewel this one is. Even a small telescope on a steady mounting will reveal the amazing bright ring system that encircles Saturn.
For many, the rings make this the finest object you can view in the sky. The rings are made up of a myriad of particles of rock and ice kept in check by Saturn’s moons. If atmospheric conditions are steady, check to see if you can spot a dark gap in the rings called the Cassini Division.
Saturn: Saturn itself is one of the gas giants and unfortunately the cloud tops are a fairly uniform yellow and do not normally offer much, if any, detail for small telescopes to detect, unlike the clearer belts around giant Jupiter.
You could also sketch the pattern of stars visible in the telescope’s field of view around Saturn and check which are the planet’s brighter moons, including its biggest, Titan. Our image, with a simple webcam, resembles a view of Saturn through a small telescope on a night with average atmospheric disturbance, or seeing.
Craters and mountain ranges are easy to spot and you will never run out of things to look at on the lunar surface. What is more, their appearance changes from night to night as the Moon orbits the Earth.
Because the Moon has no light of its own and shines thanks to reflected light from the Sun, its features vary according to the direction of sunlight upon them and the shadows they cast. You can see new features come into view or disappear completely into shadow as the phase of the Moon changes during its monthly cycle.
Strangely enough, Full Moon, when we see the whole of the lunar disk, is not a good time to observe its fascinating detail. Sunlight then bounces straight down onto the surface and directly back towards us, with no shadows visible. You can still make out the lunar seas, or maria, plus it is a good time to spot the bright “rays” caused by material ejected from some of its younger craters blasted out by relatively recent asteroid impacts. The Moon looks especially brilliant at this time and a special Moon filter which you can fit to the eyepiece may help counter its glare.
With such a wealth of features available to see on the Moon, you might like to check out Skymania’s special Guide to the Moon. It includes a list of 50 fantastic features which you can print out and tick off as an observing project. The photo of a waning gibbous Moon, by Paul Sutherland, shows how shadows starkly pick out the craters and mountains.
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.
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.