Your telescope’s first light

Maybe you received a telescope during the holiday season or perhaps you’ve gifted yourself with a telescope. I want you to get as much as you can out of it. I don’t want your scope winding up collecting dust or showing up for sale online. 

You might be tempted to put off using your new telescope until it warms up but I think you’re making a big mistake. Wintertime stargazing is fantastic! It’s worth bundling up for the big celestial show! For one thing, when skies are clear they’re really clear! The sky blurring humidity of summer is long gone and the skies are wonderfully transparent! Along with that skies are truly magical with the great winter constellations and all the celestial treasures within them. Prepare to be dazzled! 

My first word of advice is to be patient! Too many Christmas telescopes wind up neglected because of bad technique. Take your time with your new scope and thoroughly read the instructions, even you guys out there like me who don’t think it’s necessary.

First of all, it really helps to get to know your way around the sky at least a little bit. I’m not asking you to know every single constellation out there through the course of the year but whatever you can do to familiarize yourself with January evening skies will help you. One resource I can suggest is the absolutely fantastic Sky Guide App for your Smartphone. With Sky Guide, all you have to do is hold your phone toward the sky and it’ll show you what constellations you’re viewing. It also has articles, a celestial calendar, and more. It’ll only set you back $2.99. There’s also Stellarium, a great planetarium/star map software for your laptop, computer, or tablet. You’ll love it and it’s absolutely free! Check it out at   http://www.stellarium.org/ 

Another essential thing to remember is to make sure your telescope is set up outside and on solid ground. Pointing your telescope out a window never works! Especially this time of year also make sure your telescope and any eyepieces you’re using sit outside for at least a half-hour before you use it. They need to acclimate to colder outside temperatures, otherwise, whatever you gaze at could be a little fuzzy and you could become discouraged. It’s also a good idea to avoid viewing telescope targets near the horizon. The Earth’s atmospheric layer is thicker there and targets will definitely appear fuzzy.

Make sure your small finder telescope or another finding device like a laser that comes with some scopes are in sync with the main telescope. Check the instructions because these devices vary from scope to scope. You should be able to see the moon or whatever your target is in the main scope with low magnification after you get it centered in the finder scope or device. It’s best to get the finder and the main scope synced up using a fixed land object before going skyward. Also, use wide-field/ low magnification eyepiece when you’re searching for a sky target. Once you find your target, you can go to higher magnification eyepieces, but you will notice diminishing clarity with increasing magnification. Limiting magnification is normal for any sized telescope.

Now for some easy starter targets.

1 The moon

Early this  coming week is a great time to view the moon. Your best views will be right around what’s known as the terminator, the line between the sunlit and darkened part of the moon. That’s where you can get the best views of craters and mountains because of the longer shadows there. You can gain perspective of heights of crater walls and mountains. Later this week we’ll have a full moon and it won’t be near as fun because the entire side of the moon facing us is in direct sunlight making seeing details on the surface much more difficult. Wait until the middle of the next week when the full moon is waning.

2. Pleiades Star Cluster

This is the best star cluster in the sky. With the naked eye, it looks like a mini Big Dipper in the upper half of the eastern sky. Through even a small telescope you can see dozens of very young stars over 400 light-years away. One light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles!

3. The Perseus and Double Star Cluster

This is a great telescope target. It’s nearly visible to the naked eye. Aim your scope very high in the northern sky, just to the upper right of the W shaped constellation Cassiopeia the Queen as you can see on the diagram. It’s one of my very favorites as you’ll see two distinct clusters of stars side by side. They’re both 7,000 light-years away. I know you’ll love what you see!

4. The Orion Nebula

This is simply wondrous through the eyepiece of your telescope. You can easily find it with the naked eye as a fuzzy middle star in the three stars that make up the sword of Orion the Hunter in the eastern sky. Through your scope, you’ll see a glob of gas with a little bit of a greenish tint to it. It’s a giant cloud of hydrogen gas around 1,500 light-years away. Within it, you should be able to see up to four faint and very young stars arranged in a trapezoid. I’ll have a lot more of this beautiful celestial treasure in next week’s Starwatch column.

5. The Andromeda Galaxy

It’s the next-door neighbor galaxy to our Milky Way. It is nearly overhead in the high southern sky within the constellation Andromeda the Princess. Check out my January star maps on my website www.lynchandthestars.com for help locating it. 

6. Planets

Jupiter and Saturn are by far the best planets to view but unfortunately, neither one of them is visible in the evening and won’t be again until next summer. Later on this winter, they’ll be available in the low southeastern sky during the morning a little before twilight. Right now Venus is readily available in the early evening sky as is by far the brightest star-like object in the entire night sky. As brilliant as it is Venus is isn’t that great of a telescope target. It’ll appear as a blinding oval-ish disk, resembling a gibbous moon. Since Venus’s orbit around the sun inside the Earth’s orbit, it goes through phases just like our moon. You can more easily see the gibbous shape of Venus is if you turn your telescope toward it during evening daylight because its glare will be cut down a bit.

One more important tip I can give you is that the clarity of whatever you’re viewing can vary because of subtle differences in Earth’s atmosphere. High winds in the upper atmosphere can have a definite blurring effect that can change from night to night, hour to hour, and even minute to minute. That’s the reason you should take long continuous looks through the telescope at whatever you’re viewing so you can catch those extra and sweet moments of clarity. Atmospheric wind blurring has been coined “bad seeing” by Amateur astronomers. With the naked eye, it can be challenging to detect bad seeing conditions. The sky can look as clear as a bell to the naked eye but the view through the scope may not be. One indication of possible bad seeing without the telescope is to watch how much the stars are twinkling. The more they twinkle the more bad seeing you have. If they’re really shimmering hard wait for another night to explore with your telescope. As I told earlier, you need to stay patient!

Enjoy that new telescope!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.


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