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Point your new telescope at these targets

Starwatch

If you found a new telescope under the Christmas tree, congratulations! You’re launching into what will hopefully be a great adventure that will take you deep into our universe, at least visually.

Last week in Starwatch, I compiled a list of do’s and don’ts that should help you get the most out of your scope. If you don’t follow “the rules,” you can set yourself up for some real frustration. That could land your telescope in a closet forever and that would be a real shame, so make sure you read last week’s column if you haven’t already.

As I told you last week, my best advice is BE PATIENT! Take your time with your new scope and thoroughly read the instructions.

First and foremost, get to know your way around the Butler sky. Your new telescope won’t magically download celestial navigation in your head.

Some telescopes have built-in navigation systems that can really help. There are even some scopes with navigation systems that you can operate using a smartphone app to help you locate your desired target. Nothing, though, beats getting to know your way around the heavens. There are many books, software programs, apps, and websites that can help you make the stars your old friends!

There are some essential things you need to do before you begin.

First, make sure your telescope sits outside on solid ground for at least 30 minutes before you use it. It has to acclimate to the colder outside temperature; otherwise, whatever you gaze at could be a little fuzzy.

Also, make sure that your small finder scope or laser is in sync with the main telescope. For more details on finder scopes, check out the instructions that came with the telescope, and also check out my column from last week.

When it’s finally dark enough, and you’re attempting to get that celestial target in your sights, use a low magnification, wide field eyepiece. Once you find your target, you can go to higher magnification eyepieces, but you will notice diminishing clarity with increasing magnification. This is normal. All telescopes have their limits.

Now, here are some easy targets to get you started.

⦁ The Moon

The moon is approaching full stage this Thursday. Your best views of it will be right around what’s known as the terminator, the line between the sunlit and darkened part of the moon.

With the long shadows, you can see a lot more detail, such as crater walls and mountains, and you can get more of a perspective of how high they are.

In fact, you can often see the tops of the mountains poking out of the shadows on the dark side of the terminator. Even though the moon is very accessible this week, the very best time to view the moon is when it’s between a thin crescent to just over half full.

Full or near full moons like we have this week are challenging because the brightness and the high angle of the sun make seeing details on the surface a lot more difficult.

⦁ Jupiter

Currently, Jupiter is lighting up the high southern sky in the early evening. There are a lot of bright stars in the south half of the sky right now, but Jupiter will be the brightest star-like object by far.

You should be able to resolve the giant planet's disk and easily see up to four of Jupiter’s brighter moons that circle Jupiter in periods of two to 17 days. If it’s clear enough, and the winds are calm both near the ground and aloft, you may also see some of Jupiter’s cloud bands made of ammonia, methane, and other gases.

Again, look at Jupiter with long, continuous views. Make yourself comfortable with a chair or stool. The longer you look at one time the more detail you’ll see.

⦁ Pleiades Star Cluster

This is the best star cluster in the sky. It’s easily seen with the naked eye in the 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!

It’s more visually attractive with a low power magnification and wide field eyepiece. The Pleiades are also very special to view with binoculars.

⦁ The Perseus and Double Star Cluster

This is absolute eye candy! It’s nearly visible to the naked eye, especially in the dark skies of the countryside.

Aim your scope very high in the northwest sky between the constellations Cassiopeia the Queen and Perseus the Hero, as shown in 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! Like the Pleiades, it’s more visually attractive with a low power magnification and wide field eyepiece because you’ll be able to take in all of the glorious sight!

Orion Nebula
Orion Nebula

⦁ 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.

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 four faint stars arranged in a trapezoid. They are very young stars, less than half a million years old, born out of this nebula.

These stars are producing so much ultraviolet radiation that they’re causing the surrounding nebula they were born in to glow like neon lights.

⦁ The Andromeda Galaxy

The next-door neighbor galaxy to our Milky Way is very high in the northwest sky, not far from the Perseus Double Cluster in the constellation Andromeda the Princess.

At first glance, you’ll see a relatively large, bright, fuzzy spot and a smaller, slightly fainter one. The bright fuzzy spot is the nucleus of the main Andromeda Galaxy, and the small fuzzy spot is a nearby satellite galaxy of Andromeda.

If your skies are dark enough, and the seeing conditions are reasonable, you may faintly see part of the structure of the galactic arms of Andromeda, but honestly don’t expect to see much detail.

These two galaxies are more than two million light-years away. There’s a reason the Andromeda Galaxy is at the bottom of my new telescope target list.

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 mikewlynch@comcast.net.

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