Have you been given a telescope or binoculars for Christmas? And are you wondering what you can look at with it in the sky right now? Well here are some great targets to seek out during the holiday, as long as the clouds stay away!
Remember that nights get very chilly, especially in winter. But if you wrap up warm and brave the cold, there are some great sights to see! Unfortunately there are no bright planets on view in the evening in December, 2017. You will need to get up early to catch Jupiter before dawn.
1. The Moon
On Christmas night, 2017, the Moon will make a perfect first object to view through your new telescope or binoculars. For one thing it is easy to find, and in Christmas week you will find it well-placed in the evening sky as soon as it gets dark.
On Christmas Day, the Moon will be approaching First Quarter, which is when it will actually resemble a half Moon! This is an ideal time to observe the Moon because the sunlight will cast shadows, making lunar mountains and craters stand out. Even binoculars will show you that the Moon is covered with craters.
If you watch over the next few nights, you will see more craters as the Moon waxes towards Full phase, especially where the side of the Moon lit by the Sun meets the side in darkness. Astronomers call this zone the terminator. But when the Moon is Full, at the start of the New Year, you will find that most craters disappear. That is because, from where we are observing the Moon, the Sun will be shining straight down on it and there will be no shadows.
We have a more detailed guide to observing the Moon, including a list of 50 fantastic features that you can see with a small telescope.
2. The Orion Nebula
This huge cloud of gas and dust, also known as Messier 42 (M42), is actually a stellar nursery, because new stars are being born within it. It is the closest site of star-formation to us, at a distance of more than 1,300 light-years, and is one of the finest sights in the heavens. You can see its misty blur with binoculars and a small telescope will reveal its shape, which has been compared to a fish’s mouth! Just don’t expect to see the colours that you find in long-exposure photos in books.
To find the Orion Nebula, use our monthly star chart to locate Orion (the hunter), which is one of the more recognisable constellations. It will be visible above the south-east horizon at 7pm local time. You will then find the patch of nebulosity in a line of stars descending from the hunter’s belt.
Use a low-power eyepiece, if you have a selection with your telescope, as the nebula covers a relatively large bit of sky. Here is a sketch of the nebula as seen through a 30cm (6-inch) reflecting telescope.
3. The Pleiades and Hyades star clusters
Not far from Orion, you will find the constellation of Taurus (the bull). It is home to two star clusters that are both visible with binoculars, but also wonderful sights with binoculars or a small telescope. One is a very compact grouping of stars called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. Its catalogue name is Messier 45 (M45).
The other is a more spread out cluster resembling a V-shape on its side, and is called the Hyades. It is the closest star cluster to Earth, at a distance of 150 light-years. One of the brightest stars in the sky, Aldebaran, lies between us and the Hyades, at a distance of 65 light-years, and so is not part of the cluster even though it looks to be in it.
You can probably see six or seven stars in the Pleiades with the unaided eye if you have reasonable eyesight. But through binoculars or a telescope you will see countless more. The cluster lies 444 light-years away and the stars are young. It makes a beautiful sight through binoculars or a small telescope. Photos of a few minutes duration will reveal some of the gas surrounding them, left over from their formation, but you won’t see this with your eyes.
4. The Andromeda Galaxy
Also known as Messier 31 (M31), this is the closest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way, at a distance of 2.5 million light-years. You can just see it with the unaided eye, as a misty blur, if you have clear dark skies and get away from artificial lights. Through binoculars or a small telescope with a low-power eyepiece, the galaxy is much easier to see. You won’t see its spiral shape, but simply an extended blur. However, it is amazing to think you are seeing light that set out before the first humans appeared on Earth.
To find the Andromeda Galaxy, use our monthly chart to locate the Great Square of Pegasus. The constellation of Andromeda extends from the upper right corner of this “square”.
5. The Double Cluster
Not far from the Andromeda Galaxy, you will find the constellation of Perseus, which contains a pair of star clusters which resemble a cosmic jewel box through a small telescope or binoculars. This pair of clusters have the catalogue names of NGC 869 and NGC 884, and lie about 7,500 light-years away from us. They are called open clusters to differentiate them from tightly packed globular clusters of ancient stars.
On winter evenings, it is worth using your binoculars or small telescope to sweep across the Milky Way which runs from Cygnus in the west, through Cassiopeaia, Perseus and Taurus, and on through Orion. You will spot many more little star clusters and interesting sights.
I said at the start of this article that there were no bright planets to view at the moment. While this is true in the evening, you can get a good view of bright Jupiter if you are prepared to get up early in the morning. It rises very late in the night, so try to catch it before dawn. You will see it shining down in the south-west.
A small telescope will easily show you Jupiter’s four largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, which were noticed by Galileo and so are called the Galilean satellites after him. They can be seen with binoculars too if you hold them steady, either on a tripod or by leaning against a wall. You will see the moons as starlike points. Their motions are obvious over just a few hours, and they switch from one side of Jupiter to the other. You will see fewer than four if one or more is in front of, or behind, Jupiter’s disk.
A small telescope will make it easier to view the moons, and will show you Jupiter’s disc, which you will notice is not circular but squashed like an oval, due to the speed at which the planet rotates. With patience you will see the belts in Jupiter’s cloudtops. Don’t expect to see them easily straight away. Spend a few minutes watching the yellowish disc and your eye will begin to perceive the subtle differences in shading. The Great Red Spot has not been as prominent in recent years as it used to be, but should be visible unless it is on the far side of the planet when you observe.
Whatever you choose to look at . . good luck!
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