Easy Targets for New Telescopes
by Rod Kennedy
Happy New Year fellow sky watchers! Obviously the world didn’t end on December 21st so now we can turn our attention back to the skies for learning and appreciating. Observers who received telescopes as holiday gifts are likely anxious to take them out and see what they can do. If you can tolerate the winter temperatures and winds January offers some targets that are easy to find and wonderful to look at.
The easiest target for any telescope is the Moon. It is big, easy to locate and offers plenty of interesting features to study. The best dates to observe the Moon will be from January 14th through the 22nd. The Moon will be waxing (appearing to grow larger) over this time and the sunlight will be hitting the surface at an angle. This makes the lunar features such as mountains and craters stand out in sharp relief. The days around the full Moon are not especially good for lunar observing because the sunlight is hitting it at almost a 90 degree angle, which makes the surface look flat and featureless. The night of the 21st will be a wonderful time to point that new telescope toward the Moon as it will be just one degree away from Jupiter. Naturally, Jupiter is much further away in space, but both the Moon and Jupiter will be within the same field of view. A low power eyepiece will be best for seeing both the Moon and Jupiter at the same time.
Jupiter is also easy to find. Simply look for a very bright object high in the south east in the constellation Taurus. Small telescopes easily reveal the four large moons of Jupiter. Known and the Galilean Moons, these large satellites were first discovered by Galileo in January of the year 1610. Larger telescopes will reveal the various colored cloud bands and sharp eyed observers may even be able to see Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a storm that has raged for more than 400 years.
Not far from Jupiter is the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. This is possibly the most famous of all star clusters and is easily spotted with the unaided eye. The Pleiades is best seen with low power. The stars are scattered over a fairly large field of view, and high power will only show the tight nucleus of central stars.
Turning the telescope to the constellation Orion the Hunter, we find the three bright stars in a line known as Orion’s Belt. Below his belt is a faint line of stars that marks his sword. The central “star” of the sword is not a star at all, but the famous Orion Nebula,. Through a small telescope the Orion Nebula is a faint, fuzzy cloud with 4 bright new stars at the center. This small cluster of new stars is known as the Trapezium and were all formed at roughly the same time. When observing the Orion Nebula many people complain “It doesn’t look like the picture in the magazine.” This is because the images in a book or magazine are all long exposure photos that are often composites of images taken through red, green and blue filters. Don’t let this discourage you however, the Orion Nebula is still a wondrous sight in any telescope.
The Moon, Jupiter, Pleiades and Orion Nebula are all easy objects to locate using a small telescope. This makes them great targets for new telescope users, which means you can spend more time observing and less time pointing the telescope. This is an important thing in the middle of January when fingers stiffen from the cold and the wind makes the eyes water. However, even short observing sessions are more fun if they have been successful.