Observing with that Christmas telescope
The holiday season is upon us. Most folks are filled with the joy that rises out of mass consumption, but I am feeling a few misgivings. I know that more than a few telescopes and binoculars will be sitting under trees on Dec. 25. Many of these marvelous optical instruments will sit idle until March as their owners huddle with cold-weather dread inside their houses.
The universe is filled with wonderful things to see during the cold, dark days of January. Buy a pair of thermal underwear to throw into the box with your telescope purchase, noble gift givers. While you’re at it, clip this column and pin it to the thermals.
The moon has the advantage of being bright and easy to find. Unfortunately, our celestial neighbor is approaching full moon during Christmas week. Looking at the full moon in a telescope is guaranteed to cause eye strain. By the time the moon shrinks a bit, it’s visible in the morning, which means you’ll have to get up at an ungodly early-morning hour to see it.
The best time to check out Luna is during the couple of weeks right after new moon when it’s not so bright and visible in the early evening.
The first new moon after Christmas is Jan. 13. It won’t be convenient to observe until two days later during the early evening of Jan. 15. Go out at about 6:30 p.m. and look for its beautiful, thin crescent low on the southwestern horizon. (Don’t wait too long to go out that night. The moon will soon set behind the trees.)
Binoculars will show its craters, but that new telescope will give best view. Always observe the moon along the curved line (called the terminator) between the lit and unlit moon. Pointing a telescope solely at the lit portion will produce a quick case of eye fatigue. Look for craters, mountain ranges, and the flat plains of frozen lunar lava called maria.
Each evening during the next week, the moon will get a bit higher in the sky. It will also get a bit fatter. As the terminator marches across the face of the moon, new details will be exposed along its length. Most bookstores sell astronomy books that include lunar maps. It’s fun to identify for yourself the various craters and mountains that you’re seeing each night.
The best telescopic planets are nicely placed for observing during the early evenings of late December and early January.
Jupiter is certainly the best planet to observe in telescope or binoculars. Look for it in late December as the brightest star-like in the southwest. (You can’t miss it.) Binoculars will show three or four of its brightest moons lined up around the planet. A telescope will show the moons and a lot more. Look for the brown cloud bands that look like horizontal zebra stripes stretching all the way around the planet’s disk. At high magnification, look for oval storm systems at the boundaries between the light and brown portions of the planet’s atmosphere.
If all you see is a fuzzy blob, please heed the advice below.
Look for Saturn as a somewhat dimmer point of light in the southeast just before morning twilight.
Sorry, binoculars won’t help you on Saturn. However, even the smallest of telescopes will show the disk of the planets with its fabulous rings around it. At high magnification, look for the shadow of the rings on the planet as a grayish stain. You also might be able to see the largest break in the rings, called Cassini’s Division, as a dark line inside the ring and extending all the way around it.
Above all, be patient when you are observing planets. Allow your telescope to reach the ambient temperature by taking it outside a good hour before you intend to look through it. Many nights, turbulence in the atmosphere will make the view fuzzy. On those nights, content yourself with low magnification and try again the next clear evening.
And that’s just the beginning, budding stargazers. Over the coming weeks, you can revel in the Great Nebula in Orion, a place where stars are born. You can watch a star die by pointing your telescope at the Eskimo Nebula. You can feast your eyes on glorious star clusters and distant galaxies. Watch this space for more details.
I remember well my own jaw-dropping wonder at my first looks through a telescope, and the joy I felt at finding the objects myself. I envy you.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at email@example.com.