Face plate image: http://www.wroras.org/images/misc/mann_aurora1.jpg - "Southern Aurora in Ohio" - Credit: Terry Mann
Ouote: "The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It... Stands at the cradle of true art and true science." --Einstein
Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! Are you ready for a whole year of what's up in the night sky? Then look no further as we present the best of what can be seen on any night. In these pages you will find lunar features, planets, meteor showers, bright and double stars, open and globular clusters, as well as distant galaxies. There's astronomy history to explore here, just as there is some science. You'll find things here for those who enjoy stargazing with just their eyes, binoculars, or even the largest of telescopes!
While these observing tips are designed with all readers in mind, not everyone lives in the same time zone, same hemisphere, nor has clear skies every night. No matter where you live, or who you are, it is my hope that somewhere here you find something of interest to keep you looking up!
May all of your journeys be at light speed!
Learning the Night Sky...
If you are new to astronomy, perhaps one of the most difficult and daunting parts about beginning is learning all those stars. Relax! It's a lot easier than you think. Just like moving to a new city, everything will seem unfamiliar at first, but with a little help from some maps, you'll soon be finding your way around like a pro. Once you become familiar with the constellations and how they appear to move across the night sky, the rest is easy.
Thanks to the good folks at Sky and Telescope magazine, we've provided you with some "sky view" charts to help guide the way. They outline the constellations that can be seen at any particular time of the year and will help you greatly on your way. There is also an optional download of sky charts created by Jeff Barbour that list objects in even greater detail, as well as a key of Greek letters to help you read them, and help to understand star hop instructions. Keep in mind the constellation charts are oriented just as if you held the map over your head, while star charts are printed in the order in which the sky moves - north is up and east is left.
These pages also contain a simple way of helping you understand relative positions and sizes in the sky. In some instances, you will find directions to certain objects to read a "handspan" or a "fingerwidth", but what exactly does that mean?
While not everyone's hands are the same size, these types of instructions will help to put you in the general area of an object you are looking for. A "handspan" is a measurement from the tip of your little finger to the tip of your thumb when held outstretched at arm's length. For the most part, this simple measurement covers around 20 degrees of sky. A "fistwidth" is your hand closed at arm's length and covers around 10 degrees, while a "fingerwidth" is around 2 degrees, and a moon width around 1/2 degree. Although these type of instructions are not foolproof, if you remember that northeast is always northeast - no matter if a constellation is rising or setting, you'll find these simple directions will help you to find the right area to begin.
While I would love to be able to tell you which binoculars or telescope would be perfect for you - I can't. The choice in equipment is just as individual as one's taste in automobiles. Every person uses equipment differently and under different circumstances.
Let's start with binoculars...
Anyone every vaguely interested in the night sky should own a pair of binoculars - even inexpensive ones. While they will never reveal the heavens in quite as much detail as even a small telescope, their availability, ease of use, and portability make them the perfect night sky companion. It takes no effort at all to aim them towards the stars and begin! But which ones?
The very best size for astronomy are 7x50 and 10x50 models of the porro prism design, yet even the modest 5x30 models will show a wealth of sky objects. While it might be tempting to get the "monster" models, remember the weight and how difficult it would be to steady them! Very large binoculars truly require a mount of some type. There is no recommended brand, but I suggest when purchasing to keep in mind they might get dropped or lost.
Don't be afraid to ask to try models out before purchasing. They should be comfortable to hold, and when you look through the eyepieces, the field should be evenly illuminated. When you look in the main lens, white reflections mean poorly coated optics, while deep purple and green reflections indicate higher quality. Better models will have a right diopter adjustment, and check to see that both sets of lenses are well collimated. No matter which you chose, I guarantee you'll enjoy these hand-held "twin" telescopes!
Now let's move on to telescopes...
There are three designs. The refractor uses a lens to gather light, the reflector uses a mirror, and the catadioptric uses both. No matter which style you prefer, the object is light gathering ability - not magnification. The larger the aperture, the more light it gathers and the more power it has to resolve. Steer clear of small telescopes you see in department stores and most camera shops, they are almost invariably low quality and for about the same amount of money you can end up with a fine telescope capable of years of use.
The refracting telescope is favored by those who enjoy high power views of terrestrial subjects, as well as the Moon and planets - and provides suitable light gathering ability for plenty of deep sky. Because the eyepiece is located at the end of the scope, it is often necessary to use a right angle attachment to put the eyepiece in a comfortable location. While many claim a refractor is superior for seeing details, keep in mind that this style may put you in some very uncomfortable positions!
The reflecting telescope is the instrument of choice for deep sky observing. Large aperture is far more affordable and the performance on lunar and planetary objects is more dependent on the quality of the optics and seeing conditions - rather than the design. With the eyepiece located on the top side of the body of the telescope, this type of telescope is primarily used by observers who prefer to stand. Even the smallest (114mm) reflector will provide enough deep sky studies to keep the average SkyWatcher entertained for a lifetime! Do they have a flaw? Yes. With large aperture also comes large size, and portability may become an issue. Do not let the word "collimation" frighten you. It is just the act of occasionally adjusting the primary mirror and is no different from tuning a guitar.
The catadioptric design should thereby fulfill the best of both worlds - shouldn't it? The answer is yes - but it doesn't come without drawbacks. This style telescope is very expensive and prone to "dew" up without corrective measures.
Now let's talk mounts...
Here again we have three basic designs - the altazimuth, the equatorial and the dobsonian. The altazimuth swings left/right and up/down - and requires manual adjustment to track. These inexpensive and easy to use mounts are best suited to small refractors. The equatorial design moves in right ascension and declination - the proper movement and angle on the sky. When aligned to the pole, they only require a slight turn of a slow motion control to track and are capable of being fitted with mechanical tracking devices. They come in a variety of weights and sizes suitable for any type telescope and almost all come equipped with setting circles.
The last type of scope is the dobsonian. Much like the altazimuth, it moves up, down, and side-to-side...but requires no tripod. It is nothing more than a simple, well-balanced rocker box. With small aperture dobs, this inexpensive design spells total freedom to travel with your scope, but plan on having a backache while using it. Conversely, larger models have a more comfortable viewing position but lack portability.
So, how to chose?!
More than anything, you must ask yourself what type of observing you enjoy the most and what scope meets your needs - and your budget. There's no point in buying a large dobsonian if you need to travel to a dark sky location to use it. You'll never be happy with a small refractor if you have dark skies outside your backdoor and an itch to galaxy hunt. I own models of every type and there's a reason for each one:
The small refractor (102mm) and its easy, lightweight mount is the perfect companion for travel. It's simple to carry, simple to set up, and provides great views - but not everything I want to see.
The small reflector (114mm) is the workhorse of my fleet. It provides great lunar, solar and double star views - along with the capability of capturing all the Messier objects and a goodly portion of the NGC targets. It's lightweight, portable enough, and I usually have at least two of the three I own always fully assembled and ready to be set outside at a moment's notice. They are all fine performers, but...I could still wish for just a little bit more.
The mid-size catadioptric (150mm) scope is a more tedious set up, but gives outstanding lunar and planetary views. It resolves tough double stars and provides crisp resolution on most star clusters. If astrophotography were a goal of mine - this would be the scope I would choose. But, given the telescope's expense, it's usually carefully packed away and seldom used on a whim.
The larger equatorially mounted reflector (8") is a superb tool for low surface brightness objects. With its big light grasp and resolution, this is a very fine scope to spend an evening (or many!) with. It's fairly easy to transport, a little difficult to set up, but the views are quite worth the time and effort. If I need portable aperture - this is the one I chose. But it still can't quite reach those faint galaxies...
The dobsonian model (12.5") is my study scope. Far too large to be even remotely considered portable, it spends its life on self-styled transportation. While newer models are much lighter in weight, this scope needed a way of moving it from place to place without killing its owner. Once I had designed a way of transporting it with ease, the whole vista of the heavens opened up. Now I was able to totally resolve clusters, study very faint galaxies, home in on lunar and planetary features, and split intense double stars. The dobsonian design left me with total freedom of movement and after more than a decade of use, I have still not seen everything this scope is capable of.
Of course, I have ridiculously large aperture at my disposal as well, but the 31" is housed in a professional observatory and what it "sees" is almost unfair compared to backyard equipment! And now for the next major issue...
To "GoTo" or not to "GoTo"...
Again, this is a matter of personal preference. It is my honest opinion that you do yourself a disservice by not learning to manually aim a telescope at an object. There is great joy to be had in studying the sky and finding a distant galaxy using nothing more than a map and your own two hands. So many folks have these wonderful systems gathering dust because they found out that it requires perfection in positioning as well as basic sky knowledge to use. Regardless of the claims of how many objects a database contains - only experience will tell you how many of these objects can be seen with your scope and sky conditions!
But do not be angry. There is also a beauty in these systems. For those with limited time, it only takes a little learning to use. Many such systems are also able to identify objects by their coordinates, so they do have their good points.
And so we come to eyepieces...
The bottom line is - you get what you pay for. A highly expensive eyepiece will not turn a bad telescope into a good one, but it will turn a good telescope into an awesome one. My best advice is to start with the mid-range priced optics and a very simple variety of sizes. 32mm is great for wide field views, 25mm and 17mm are fantastic for most work. 12mm, 10mm and 5mm are the powerhouses, and without a drive unit on a telescope often provide so much magnification as to be uncomfortable on most scopes. Like fishing lures in a tackle box, you'll find yourself collecting a variety of eyepieces over the years - and each will favor certain uses. Only experimentation will provide the eyepieces that are right for you and for your telescope.
Now for accessories...
These are the fun things to have, but none of them are necessary to practice astronomy: a sturdy case, a barlow lens, a set of basic color filters, a Moon filter, a polarizing filter, and a nebula filter. Optics cleaning kits are great - but a word to the wise - don't stress about sparkling clean optics. Unless it is more than 20% obstructed you will probably do more harm than good in cleaning. And there are so many little things that make observing fun, and fun to have in your "kit." But what do you really need?
The very best accessories I recommend are a comprehensive Moon map, an easy to read sky chart, a watch, a pad of paper, a mechanical pencil and a red flashlight. These are the most important things you will ever use. While basic maps are provided with this book, you may find charts of your own that you prefer. While note keeping is not a necessity, you'll find more often than not that you'll need it. Basic sketches are easy and you might find that you'll refer to your own notes often. Keep track of what you do, what you use and when you see it... There are many fine observing programs offered through the Astronomical League that provide awards for your study. And who knows?
You just might discover something new...
Ready To Observe...
Let's start with one of the most simple to find and highly rewarding objects to study - the Moon. Its rugged craters, high mountains and vast seas offer some of the finest details to be found in any astronomical target. It changes every night as the terminator - the line between sunset and shadow - progresses over the surface, revealing new details.
Unlike a star chart, Moon feature instructions are based on lunar topography and not our Earthly cardinal directions. While these pages outline what features should be visible on any given night, the position of the terminator may be slightly different for viewers in various time zones.
Let's start by discussing how and when the Moon can be seen...
The Moon and Earth both rotate at exactly the same speed, so we will always see the same "side" - yet its elliptical orbit causes a kind of "wobble" that we refer to as libration. This means there may be times when you can see just a bit more along the Moon's limb - the visible edge. When the Moon's orbit carries it between the Earth and the Sun, this is referred to as "New Moon." It's still there...but we cannot see it.
As its orbit progresses, the Moon will slowly move to its first position, appearing in the night sky just after the Sun sets. The sunlight on the lunar surface will begin its march across the surface, progressing from lunar east to lunar west. At either pole of the Moon is the area called the cusp - the tip of the curve where the terminator ends. This progression of light is called the "waxing" phase.
When the Moon has reached the second position, it is now directly opposite the Sun in our sky and the surface is totally illuminated - "Full Moon." At this time, the Earth is between the Sun and the Moon. Most of the time, the Moon's orbit will either carry it north or south of the Earth's shadow, but about every six months it will slip inside that shadow and a lunar eclipse will occur. When it passes only partially into the cone of shadow it is known as a penumbral eclipse and when it is directly aligned it will be known as a "full" or umbral eclipse.
Now the Moon is heading towards its third position and moving back towards the Sun. It will rise later each night and the terminator will now progress across the surface in the same direction - east to west - but this time the features will be seen at lunar sunset instead of sunrise! This is known as the "waning" phase. It will become slimmer each night as it heads toward the rising Sun.
At first, the lunar landscape will look quite confusing - but keep in mind that lunar north has fewer craters than lunar south. As you study the Moon from month to month, craters will become more familiar to you and it won't be long until you know their names and can often tell what features will be visible - without even looking!
Just like the Sun and Moon, the planets dance along an orderly path in the sky known as the ecliptic plane. Their progression against the background stars will seem slowest when they are the furthest away. During an observing season, it's possible to watch as the Earth overtakes a planet, much like running past an object on a racetrack. As we approach it, it will seem to slow down, stand still, and then move backwards as we go by. Once we have passed, it will then appear to resume forward motion.
Since Mercury and Venus are on the inside track of our racecourse, they move much more quickly around the Sun than the outer planets do. They will always appear just ahead of the rising Sun, or just after the setting Sun - and like our Moon - will go through phases as they progress in their orbits.
Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are three of the most highly observed planets, and at times, can offer up wonderful details to the telescope. But do not be disappointed if you do not see fantastic things on your first night out! There are many things to be considered when viewing these planets. Stop first to consider their distance at any given time, and the effect of our own atmosphere on observing conditions. Do not be discouraged! Large binoculars and the smallest of telescopes will reveal Jupiter's equatorial bands and clockwork movement of the four Galilean Moons...even the rings of Saturn! As aperture - the size of the optics - increases, so does the amount of detail that can be seen... But even the largest of telescopes cannot compensate for poor viewing conditions!
The outer planets - Uranus, Neptune and Pluto - also follow the ecliptic plane. Both Uranus' and Neptune's movements can be followed with binoculars, but even large telescopes offer little detail due to their great distance. Pluto is an observing challenge, requiring extensive map and study work, but it's a highly rewarding experience for the mid-to-large telescope.
Of course, there are other things within our own solar system that can also be easily studied - such as asteroids, comets and satellites. Given the nature of this book - which was created without the use of a planetarium program - these types of studies are best undertaken with the aid of either software or magazines such as Sky and Telescope or Astronomy. There are also on-line tools available to assist you and you'll find reference to all of these in the resource area.
You'll also enjoy meteor showers throughout this observing year as well. While the dates that we pass through these cometary debris streams are predictable, the fall rate - the estimated amount that can be seen in a given time - is not. As a rule of thumb, you can see any given meteor shower from either hemisphere if you can see the constellation of the radiant - the general area from which they appear to originate. Keep in mind that ambient light plays a huge role in how many meteors can be seen - and the darker the skies, the better your chance for success.
This is the term given to objects that reside outside of our solar system. These include single stars, multiple star systems, open or "galactic" star clusters, globular clusters, nebulae and distant galaxies. While many of these objects are within reach of small binoculars, just as many reside at the outer limits of the capabilities of a large telescope. It wouldn't be such a delightfully challenging hobby if everything were easy!
There are a few things to keep in mind as you begin exploring deep sky and the most important is sky conditions. Even the largest of telescopes will have difficultly catching a faint galaxy through light polluted skies or during poor atmospheric conditions ("bad seeing"). Nothing is a better teacher than experience and it won't take long before you learn what your equipment is capable of.
For example, from a dark sky site with favorable atmosphere, it is entirely possible to see the majority of the Messier catalog of objects with a pair of 5x30 binoculars...or even some objects with just the unaided eye. But binoculars are not the Hubble telescope and you need to understand what you might expect to see! A nebula will appear as a faint glowing cloud, a globular cluster as a round contrast change, and a star cluster as a "patch" of concentration. None of these will be particularly large given the fact that binoculars offer a wide field of view and little magnification. But how wonderful it is to use such simple equipment to view things so many light-years away!
A small to large telescope will increase that light grasp and allow you to see progressively fainter and fainter objects - and in greater detail. Instead of a round "smudgie" when looking at a globular cluster, individual stars will appear. A single bright star will reveal its tiny companion, nebulae will unfold and the light of distant galaxies suddenly will become much closer... But all of this is dependant on one single thing - sky conditions.
Experience is the greatest teacher. You cannot expect a small telescope to reveal an 11th magnitude galaxy, yet under the right conditions it is possible for it to reach beyond its theoretical limitations. Do not stop trying because you've had a few disappointments - learning comes with time. The eye must be trained to pick up on very faint things and the best advice I can offer you is my three P's for success - Practice, Patience and Persistence.
You can learn to identify lunar features. You can learn how to read a star chart and find the positions in the sky. If you are having problems with something? Improvise. If the equatorial mount on your telescope puts you in an awkward position? Pick it up at turn it around. I assure you that the "polar alignment police" will not come to get you. If your small dobsonian telescope is hard on your back? Set it up on something! If the legs on the tripod are too high or you can't stand for a long period of time? Lower them and find a stool. If you live in a light polluted area, it won't stop your love of the Moon and the planets and perhaps there will be a time and place that will allow you to get away to a dark sky location.
The telescope that is loved the most is the one that gets used. If at all possible, consider keeping it fully assembled where it may be set outside at a moment's notice - such as in a garage, an outdoor shed, or near a door. You will be far more likely to spend 15 minutes with the Moon, or a half hour out of your busy schedule with deep sky if you do not have to go through complicated set up procedures. Forget the stress factor. Unless you are using a "GoTo" model, a drive system, setting circles, or planning on photography it is not necessary to have everything perfectly aligned to enjoy the night sky or your telescope! If you reach the end of a slow motion cable's extent? Turn it back and reset the scope on the object. The only hard and fast rule in practicing amateur astronomy is to enjoy what you are doing.
If it is not practical in your circumstance to keep a telescope assembled - then consider even an inexpensive pair of binoculars. If you think you can't afford them - then think again. Many very suitable pairs of binoculars can be had for about the price of an extra large pizza! These small, handheld "twin telescopes" will increase your love of astronomy and whet your appetite for more.
Ready... Set... Go!
Now we have our equipment, our maps, and our notes... What's next? This is probably the most important step for any observer - allowing your eyes time to dark adapt. Picture yourself walking into a dark room. You can see nothing when you first enter, but after several minutes your eyes begin to adjust and you can "see" the sofa you are about to stumble over! This is absolutely true for viewing the night sky. When you go out from a brightly lit room to the outdoors, at first you will only see the brighter stars, but after several minutes you will see that many more begin to appear.
Everyone's eyes adjust at different rates. For some, it may only be a matter of minutes before you are able to spot faint objects, but for others it may take a lot longer. This is why you might find a faint galaxy, only to drag a friend or family member away from the television and discover they can't see it! Avoid bright lights, televisions and computer screens as much as possible before observing. Darken the room or wear sunglasses. While this may sound silly, you'll find it will greatly increase your chances of finding that difficult galaxy or faint comet!
This is also why astronomers use red flashlights or red lighting... It helps to preserve night vision while reading a map, taking notes or preparing to observe. If you do not have one, take a look around you at what might suffice. Keychain lights often come in red and are sufficiently bright to read a map. Even a bit of red cellophane rubberbanded over a penlight will do!
There are also two techniques that will help increase your observing abilities. The first is called averted vision. While it might seem strange to ask you to view an object without looking directly at it, you'll find you're avoiding the low sensitivity patch on your retina and faint objects will appear in greater contrast. The second is tapping the eyepiece gently. Movement, even slight, will make a low contrast target easier to spot. Be sure to keep both eyes open to avoid eyestrain!
So, what else do we need before we begin to observe? While the art of note taking or sketching is not for everyone, it's something I highly recommend. Even if it's nothing more than a pocket notebook and a pencil stub, you are on your way. Imagine seeing Jupiter and its moons for the very first time! By having a handy way of taking notes, it takes very little effort to draw a circle and a few dots and indicate on your notes which direction they move across the eyepiece field. Just this simple bit of information is enough to let you later identify which moons were in what position!
The same will hold true of everything you observe. By writing down dates and times - along with seeing conditions - it won't be very long until you are able to accurately assess what can be seen on any given night. You'll quickly discover that the first night you could see M44 unaided was also the first night you spotted M33 in binoculars! These notes are yours, and no one will come to "grade" them. They are all a part of learning...
And you can learn!
Now let's be comfortable with ourselves, who we are, what we have and what we know. There's a whole wonderful night sky filled with things to explore! Our equipment is ready and we are ready. So let's head out under the stars, because...
Here's what's up!