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Holiday Astronomical targets for beginners

Posted by Ed Moreno   12/16/2004 12:00AM

With the holidays resulting in a great number of new presents of the optical variety under the old holiday shrub, I thought it might be useful for some of you to have some tips on avoiding frustration when experiencing your “First-light” experience either as the giver, or the receiver of a new telescope.

Of course the most important thing to do is to read the manual first, right???? Well, yes and no. Enthusiasm is going to make you dyslexic. Sorry, it happens.

So given that you won’t read the manual first, how do you really prepare to ensure an enjoyable first-light?

All of the things like learning how the mount works, or learning how to set up your telescope aside, the most important tip I can give you to ensuring that your “First-light” experience is enjoyable is to select the right kind of observing targets for your "First-Light", and here is really the focus of this article.

Of course you are going to be tempted to point your new telescope at the moon, because it is going to be a VERY prominent target on Christmas night! But sadly, because the moon is going to be almost full, it will actually be a POOR target for a new telescope. There are two reasons for this: It will be too bright to comfortably observe (trust me) and the features will be washed out because there won’t be shadows! So this year, the moon would NOT be a good first target. Save it for another three weeks when it is back in its first quarter. When the moon is in phases, it is FAR more spectacular to view telescopically than when it is full. To look at the full moon in even a very expensive telescope is disappointing to many.

Also, because the moon is going to be full, it is going to wash out many faint deep-sky objects. So, what do you look for?

Here are my suggestions: For you Holiday “First-Light”, I suggest that you concentrate on one specific kind of object – bright clusters! These can be observed well even in fairly bright sky conditions, such as full moon, or even moderately light polluted sky.

In particular, I am going to recommend two specific targets that can be glorious sights even in the conditions that will be present during the holidays: M45, the Pleiades, and the Double Cluster in Perseus. Both of these objects are INCREDIBLE sights in even a small telescope, and both can provide good viewing experiences that will hold the observers attention. The key to really good observing is to take time to REALLY study an object. The MORE YOU LOOK, THE MORE YOU SEE, so because the bright sky during the holiday is going to make for less than great observing, then challenge yourself (or the receiver of the gift) to find more and more in these objects. Avoid the temptation to just glance at them and move on, because this year, the conditions just won’t support it. So to make the first experience VALUABLE by studying these objects so you can prove to yourself that studying an object brings out hidden nuance and detail! This way, you also develop a good observing habit, which is to really LOOK at the objects on your observing list. This way, in another week when the moon comes up later, you can apply these new skills to more and more objects.

If you are a “Giver”, I encourage you to “Pre-locate” these objects in the next few days so you can find them on the big night (unless you are going to be giving a computerized scope to the lucky loved-one). Go to the local library or look on-line for charts. You can down-load a WONDREFUL free star chart called Cartes Du Ciel from the web that will help you locate them. Google it, and download, then use the location function (Select “Find” from the “Search” pull down).

The first object I recommend is M45 (the Pleiades). This is an object that is EASY to locate, because it is visible to the un-aided eye. It is VERY large, so use low powers to observe it initially, then move to higher power to see other details. Sometimes, a little more magnification will help tease out other stars. Roam around this object. There are numerous FAINT stars to be found. Study each area and you will see more and more faint members.

Once you have cut your teeth, another great object this night will be the Double Cluster. It is a bit more challanging to find in a telescope than the Pliedes, but finding things is part of the thrill in astronomy. Look for NGC 869 in Cartes Du Ciel. The other member will fall in the same low-power view, so you only have to find one to find the other. Now normally, you might be able to see these with the naked eye from a dark site on a moonless night, but not during the holiday this year, because the moon will make this difficult. But the Double Cluster is rather easy to locate by just following the line on a chart from Delta Cass (Ruckba) to Alpha Peruses (Mirfak). The cluster itself lies just about mid-way between these stars. Just use your lowest power eyepiece and using your finder, sight on the line, then sweep around this area, and you should find it. When you do, hold on! It is FANTASTIC. Again, apply your new observing skills. Frame both clusters with your low power eyepiece, and then use higher powers to start finding faint members. When done, I recommend simply sweeping the scope in the direction of Mirfak because the sky is quite rich in stars here due to the Milky Way.

Two other objects that will also garner praise are the Double Star Alberio, and the quadruple star system called the Trapszium.

Alberio is getting ready to set in the evening, so don’t wait to late to look for it. You will find it at the base of the summer cross (the constellation Cygnus) near the western horizon. It doesn’t set until mid-evening, but don’t wait until it gets below the trees! This is considered by many to be the most beautiful double in the sky! It is totally unmistakable in the eyepiece, and the color contrast is striking.

Next, go to the Great Orion Nebula (M42) in Orion, which due to the close vicinity of the moon will be VERY pale on Christmas night, so don’t be disappointed. In fact, use this as an opportunity to find it so you can view it later. But deep inside the nebula is a quadruple star system know as the Trapezium. What a lovely sight! So now you get to see a fainter multiple star system. And if M42 is washed out, this will give you a good frame of reference for comparison a week later when the moon is out of the way! Again Sweeping north and south along the “Sword” and up through the belt of Orion will present you with many more bright groupings of stars. But don't forget to go back to M42 in about a week or so, because it is simply one of the most incredible objects in the sky!

All too often, I hear of people that are either frustrated at not being able to find something on their “First-Light” night, or are disappointed because of what they DON”T see when they do manage to locate something. By providing you with some ideas for really great targets, I hope that I can encourage you to prepare a bit for your first light so that is is both memorable, and so that it helps you generate a passion for observing.

If you are a parent giving a telescope to a youth, I think this is especially important. Get your chart and locate the areas of sky that these objects are in so that you can find them before the moon alters the way the sky looks later in the month. The Pleiades and Orion’s sword are easy to locate now, as is Alberio in Cygnus. The Double Cluster is hard to actually pinpoint without a telescope, but locating the line where they lie is easy.

Astronomy is part science, part hobby, and part philosophy. Though they are far away, we are connected to the stars in an almost mystical way. Amateur astronomy is perhaps the best way to nurture that connection. And being connected to them enriches many of us in ways that defy description. And to make your “First-light” more meaningful, don’t forget to THINK about what you are seeing, and ask yourselves some really provocative questions… Are we alone? Will we ever know for sure? Where did it all come from, and where will it all go? Where does Mankind fit into the grandeur of it all? And so many more…

Best wishes to you, yours, and all for a wonderful holiday,

And Semper Fidelis to my brothers and sisters in the sand. You know who you are. Please come home to your country, to your friends, and to your families safe and sound. And to all others fighting in the war that I opposed, I want you to know that I support YOU and always have, and want you to know that others are aware and appreciate the sacrifices you are making. You have my respect, and my gratidude. Thank you. And for you, may the stars in the sky over Iraq and Afghanistan be particularly bright.

I wish you Peace.