So what can I see?
This is a very common question. Another one is "How far can I see?" This is easier to answer as from a good dark site you can see 2.2 million light years with the naked eye. How far do you want to see? (For the definition of a light year look at the glossary).
Any telescope can see the Moon. It must be the first target that anyone turns their telescope to. It is, after all, the easiest object to find and recognise.
As the Moon is bright, even a small telescope can be used to look at it. In fact, the Moon can be too bright, not so much that it will damage your eyesight but it can mean that if you try to look for something else in the sky, or even if you want to look around where you are observing you may have difficulty. Rather like seeing the spot of a camera's flash gun after your photograph has been taken. A Moon Filter, which reduces the glare, can be fitted to the eyepiece of your telescope. This also increases the contrast of the details on the Moon's surface.
Finding your way around
The easiest way to find your way around the sky is to use a Planisphere, this is a device that shows the sky on any given night in the year. Just rotate the centre to match the date and then line it up to North, what you see in the elipse is whats in the sky that night. To find the planets look on the back select the planet from the list and note the number of degrees, turn the planisphere over and look at the edge and you will find it marked off in degrees, just follow that across to the dotted line and thats where you will find the planet.
The Planisphere comes as part of a boxed set comprising of: Planisphere, Star Chart, Star Finder & Stargazing with a Telescope.
Of the planets, Venus and Jupiter are the easiest to find. Venus is often mistaken as an evening star. This is because it is the first starlike object to be seen after sunset. Looking through a telescope though you can see that it is not a star.
Like the Moon it has phases passing from a slim crescent to almost a full circle. The size also changes and gets bigger as the crescent gets thinner, this is because the planet approaches us. No features are really visible on the surface.
Jupiter is a totally different matter. There is far more to see, both on the planet and surrounding it.
The first thing you will notice is that it is big. Very big. And clearly visible, even in a small pair of binoculars, are the four Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto which orbit the planet. These can be seen in different places every night or during the night if you watch long enough. Sometimes all four will be visible, other times one or more of them may be hidden behind the planet or even behind another moon. If you have a really clear night you could even see the shadow of the moons cross the face of Jupiter itself.
Jupiter rotates very rapidly causing the planet to bulge at the equator, so it is not a true sphere. The features you see on the surface are quite varied and the use of coloured observing filters can make these features stand out from each other. The most famous feature is The Great Red Spot, an enormous storm in the surface of Jupiter.
Then there is Saturn. The most dramatic planet to see. Everyone remembers their first view of Saturn. The ring system really does look like the pictures you see, though not as large. If you ever need to show a friend what it is you get up to in the dark then a look at Saturn is likely to convert them in a moment.
Mars is a harder planet to observe, mainly because it's apparent size is so small. Higher magnifications are needed before anything is seen. A small telescope, such as a 70mm refractor, will show the polar ice caps and some dark areas but as with all observing the bigger the telescope the more detail can be resolved.
The last of the planets Neptune, Uranus and Pluto are very hard to see with a smaller amateur telescope. Uranus and Neptune can show as discs, blue and blue/green in colour but even a telescope with a diameter of 8 inches (200mm) only resolves Pluto as a dim dot.
Interlopers in the Solar System
Still within reach of our home planet are other wanderers of the solar system. These are the rocky and gaseous remains from the birth of our local domain.
Comets are often at the forefront of everyone's mind because of the those like Comet Hale Bopp and Comet Hyakutake. What's more, both of these comets were easily visible to everyone without needing a telescope. However, comets require the use of some optical instrument to reveal them. Many comets are recurrent visitors to the inner solar system, returning in just a few short years. Quite unlike Comet Halley with it's 76 year orbit. Some comets can be seen again and again in the same lifetime.
Asteroids are a different subject. Often very small and with regular orbits they tend to show up in the sky as dim stars. Not very revealing but a rewarding experience. It was an asteroid that caused all the fuss about a collision with Earth a few years ago. It won't actually hit not by a long way but for a while it was close until the orbit had been sufficiently identified. But that's the excitement in astronomy. And remember an asteroid probably wiped out the dinosaurs.
Much smaller objects than the asteroids mentioned above collide with the Earth every day. It often only takes a few minutes outside at night under clear sky's to see a shooting star. Naturally these are not actually stars falling out of the sky but particles of dust and grains that are being swept up by the Earth on it's orbit around the Sun. As these particles hit our atmosphere they burn up with the friction caused with their interaction with the air. The larger the object the brighter the shooting star or meteor.
Meteors can be seen at any time of the year, the best time is after midnight as this is the time of night when you can look into the sky into the direction that we are moving in our orbit. At particular times of year though you can see more than just the occasional shooting star. These nights are when the Earth passes through the dust and debris left by comets on their journey through the solar system. These particles orbit the Sun in a regular path and every year at about the same time the Earth arrives at the spot where these particles reside. What can happen then is a spectacular fire work display. Hundreds sometimes thousands of particles hit the upper atmosphere every hour for a short period. It appears to rain shooting stars, this is a Meteor Shower.
The best way to observe these events is too wrap up warm, sit in a reclining garden chair. Sit back and watch the sky with no more than your eyes with maybe a pair of binoculars to hand. Observing with friends and family increases the fun. I've actually got an entire hotel staff and guests in the car park after midnight to observe such a shower. All you need is patience and clear skies.
The most prominent dates when these showers can be seen are listed below. These showers tend to slowly build to a night when there is the highest level of activity then slowly calm down again. The showers are not always spectacular you just have to watch and wait. The best ones to try for are the Perseids in August and the Leonids in November.
Meteor Alert - FOR BEST VIEVING DATES go to
Taking the Long View
Outside the Solar System there are even more things to see. To most newcomers in astronomy the night's sky consist of the stars and the planets. Other objects to see are groupings of stars called clusters. Open Clusters are stars that fill a large area of sky and the stars are only loosely connected. Sometimes looking through the eyepiece of a telescope it is hard to believe that the stars actually have anything to do with each other.
Globular clusters are much more dramatic. These can be dense packed regions of space with hundreds or thousands of stars. Small telescopes show these clusters as fuzzy balls with larger telescopes revealing more and more of the stars into the centre.
Then there are the nebulae. There are a number of different types. Planetary Nebulae are not in fact anything to do with planets but balls or clouds of glowing gas blown off from a star as it goes through the final stages of it's life. Then there are the nebulae that are regions where new stars are forming and the energy that they are releasing as they start their lives causes the gas in the surrounding area to glow.
A third nebulae isn't. It is actually the opposite. Whereas the previous two are areas of glowing gas these nebulae are areas where there is so much dust in the space between us and the brighter regions behind them that it prevents the light that we can see from reaching us. These areas appear dark against the lighter areas of the surrounding sky. It can look as though you are looking into a hole in space which is exactly what was originally thought before these areas were discovered to be dust.
The stars themselves are also interesting targets to point the telescope to. You can observe the different colours they come in. These colours are actually very revealing about the nature of the star itself. A large number of stars are also in orbit around each other and can been seen very close together in the sky. These double stars can in turn also be in orbit around another star or double star system.
And so far we've only mentioned objects that are in our own Milky Way. The Milky Way is our home galaxy. There are other galaxies to observe and find. Whole islands of stars that orbit around a central nucleus.
So is that enough to see? You will have to spend a lifetime in just seeing everything just once without going back and seeing the favourites again and again. Some people spend their time just observing the Moon or a planet. There is no knowing where it may lead.