Easy to Spot Objects for New Telescopes

Easy to Spot Objects for New Telescopes

by Rod Kennedy

Many people consider giving telescopes as gifts around the holidays, particularly to students.  Then they have second thoughts, “I don’t know what we would look at.”  The wide expanse of open sky can be intimidating.  Finding interesting things to look at is not as easy as pointing the telescope to a particular place and just seeing what is there.  Fortunately December offers several good targets for new telescopes that are fairly easy to find and bright enough to see.


In the evening sky the moon and two planets are visible in December.  The moon will be best seen in the evening sky after the 15th, when it will be a thin crescent shape.  The moon offers an easy target for telescopes but the moon is best viewed from crescent phase to gibbous phase.  The full moon is not the best time to view the moon with a telescope since the light reflecting off the moon is almost perpendicular to the surface.  This means that the mountains and craters of the moon cast no shadows and therefore appear flat.


Just below the moon, almost lost in the glare of the sun is the planet Mars.  Mars will appear as a red-orange light, about the same brightness as a bright star.  However, because Mars is low on the horizon observers will have to look through a lot more of Earth’s atmosphere, which will drastically reduce the quality and steadiness of the view.  In addition, Earth is orbiting the sun faster than Mars and so is moving away from the red planet.


In the eastern sky we find the planet Jupiter.  Jupiter is unmistakeable since it is far brighter than any stars nearby.  Telescopes show Jupiter as a cream or tan colored disk with 4 bright lights in close orbit around the planet.  These lights are the 4 large moons of Jupiter, the Galilean moons, named for Galileo.  Observers may also be able to see 2 darker bands in Jupiter’s northern and southern hemispheres.  Larger telescopes may also show Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.


Slightly above Jupiter is the Pleiades or Seven Sisters.  This group of stars is an open star cluster, stars that all formed about the same time from the same stellar dust cloud.  The Pleiades are best seen with the lowest possible magnification.  The unaided eye sees from 4 to 6 stars, while telescopes reveal more than two hundred.


Observers who prefer to be out before dawn can see three additional planets.  Looking east about 6:00 am one finds the planets Saturn and Venus and Mercury, extending in a line down toward the horizon.  Venus, like Jupiter, is unmistakable as it is the brightest object in that part of the sky.  Saturn is located higher in the sky, half way between Venus and the star Spica.  Saturn is not nearly as bright as Venus but it is about the same brightness as Spica.  Mercury is the dimmest of the trio but should be easy enough to spot before the sunrise gets too intense.


A telescope can be an intimidating tool without a little guidance.  However, there are plenty of easy to spot objects that are great targets for small telescopes.  Locating these objects is easy because they are also visible to the naked eye, thus making pointing the telescope far easier.  Anything that makes the telescope easier makes standing outside in in the Wyoming night less objectionable.

December 2012 Sky Chart

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