The first light in your Christmas telescope
If you woke up Christmas morning and found a telescope by the tree, congratulations!
You may be tempted to put off using your new telescope until it warms up a bit, but you're making a big mistake. Winter stargazing is incredible in Butler. The night skies are truly magical with the great winter constellations and the celestial treasures within them. Bundle up and prepare to be dazzled!
I'll get to some of the better telescope targets for that new scope of yours in just a bit.
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 and foremost, get to know your way around the sky. That new telescope of yours won't magically download celestial navigation in your head. Some telescopes have built-in navigation systems that can help, but nothing beats getting to know the constellations. There are many books and websites that'll help you make the stars your old friends. There are also excellent smartphone apps that can be invaluable. Some apps are better than others. I really like Sky Guide. Just hold your phone toward the sky and get to know the stellar neighborhood. Ensure that the screen on your phone is switched over to the red night view to help you keep your night vision.
An essential thing to remember, especially this time of year, is to make sure your telescope sits outside for at least 30 minutes before using it. It has to acclimate to colder outside temperatures; otherwise, whatever you gaze at could be a little fuzzy and you could become discouraged.
It's also imperative to set up your scope on solid ground. Decks don't work very well because even if they're super stable, the image through your scope is subject to vibration, especially if other folks are out with you.
Never set up your telescope inside your house by a window, even if you open the window up. That never works.
Make sure your small finder telescope or another finding device like a laser is 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 telescope with low magnification after you get it centered in the finder scope. It's best to get the finder and telescope synced up using a fixed land object.
Another important thing is to initially use a low magnification, wide-field eyepiece when you're searching for a sky target. Once you find your target, you can go to a higher magnification eyepiece. You will notice diminishing clarity with increasing magnification. All telescopes have their limits.
Now for some easy starter targets.
The best place to aim your scope on the moon has a dubious name, the terminator. It's the line between the sunlit and darkened part of the moon. Because of the longer shadows found there, you can see many more details, like craters and mountains. It really gives you perspective about how high some of these mountains are, and some are so high they shoot above the dark side of the terminator.
It's the best star cluster in the sky and easily seen with the naked eye in the mid-to-high eastern sky. You can see dozens of very young stars over 400 light-years away through even a small telescope. One light-year equals almost six trillion miles!The Perseus and Double Star ClusterIt's magical! Aim your telescope very high in the sky between Cassiopeia the Queen and Perseus the Hero, as you can see on the diagram. It's one of my very favorites to view, as you'll see two distinct clusters of stars side by side, and they're both 7,000 light-years away. You'll love what you see!
It's a must-see with your telescope. You can easily find it with the naked eye. It'll resemble a fuzzy middle star in the three stars that make up Orion the Hunter's sword. Through your scope, you'll see a blob with a little bit of a greenish tint to it. That's a giant cloud of hydrogen gas around 1,500 light-years away. Within the cloud, you should be able to see four faint stars arranged in a trapezoid. They are very young stars that were born out of the nebula. These stars produce so much ultraviolet radiation that they're causing the surrounding gas to glow like a neon light.
The Andromeda Galaxy is nearly overhead in the constellation Andromeda the Princess. Check out the December and January star maps on my website www.lynchandthestars.com for details that will help you find the next-door neighbor galaxy to our Milky Way.I have one more piece of advice for you. 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-sweet moments of clarity.Atmospheric blurring due to winds is referred to by amateur astronomers as “bad seeing.” One indication of possible bad seeing conditions you can see at a glance is how much the stars are twinkling. The more they twinkle, the more bad seeing you have. If everything looks fuzzy in your telescope try looking another night. Again, when using telescopes, you need to stay patient!Enjoy that new telescope and take your time!Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.