If you just recently bought your small telescope, I’m sure you’re excited to explore the skies and find out just how much of the universe you can observe. The universe is vast and interesting. Pop culture itself references a lot from outer space; Harry Potter, Star Trek, Big Bang Theory, and many more shows have made references to constellations or objects found in outer space. There is so much to see and so much to learn, and yes, with a small telescope you can discover so much of what the outer space has to offer. We will detail just a few of these great wonders that you should be on the look-out for.
The moon is possibly the most viewed object with a telescope (large or small). Viewing the moon using a small telescope will be a very fulfilling experience. Using a small telescope, you will be able to view some of the moon’s most prominent features, such as the Copernicus Crater. You will also be able to view ejecta plumes, rills, shadows, and other features that can be found on the surface of the moon.
To be able to view the moon’s crater, use half of your telescope’s magnification (this is at about 50X) to avoid having shaky images. This creates the clearest images possible. The moon is also at its ideal viewing point not when it is at full moon but when it is at its quarter. At its first quarter, the moon is at its brightest and the terminator (from the sun) will create beautiful shadows and contrasts when viewed. A full moon is often too bright and makes viewing the moon very difficult.
Do you know how the moon came into existence? A planet the size of Mars crashed into the Earth, fragments created from this crash later joined together within a period of weeks and formed what we now know to be the Moon.
For astronomers starting out, Jupiter is one of their first viewing targets. Being the largest planet in the solar system and the brightest object on the eastern sky, it is one of the easiest objects to spot using a small telescope. Around Jupiter are its four moons, famously known as the Galilean moons: Io, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto. The moon (or natural satellites) are so named because they were found by Galileo Galilei in 1609 or 1610. The moons orbit around Jupiter, so you might not be able to view them all as some of the moons may be hiding behind the planet.
Though the planet is 630 million kilometers away, using just 40 times magnification you will be able to view Jupiter as you would the moon in a night sky. Apart from Jupiter’s moons, the bands of clouds that surround the planet surface and the Great Red Spot will be visible using a small telescope. However, it is important to note that over the course of years the Great Red Spot has dimmed therefore do not fret if you are not able to find it. Smaller telescopes have a harder time.
Around the planet are also clusters of stars that you will be able to observe. Surrounding Jupiter is the Hyades cluster of stars that you will be able to view using your telescope at its lowest magnification. As a bonus, you can also view the Pleiades star cluster with your naked eye. In good conditions, you might also be able to perceive cloud bands around it.
You can also draw the position of Jupiter’s moons and follow them over a period of time for fun. It is important to note that Jupiter has 79 moons. The smaller ones just can’t easily be seen with a small telescope.
Saturn and Its Rings
The picture at the top of this page represents Saturn as seen by the Cassini spacecraft in 2013. In this picture, the spacecraft is behind the planet so the Sun is eclipsed by Saturn. Although you won’t be able to see such stunning images with a telescope from Earth, Saturn is the only planet which ring are visible with a small telescope and they are still stunning.
Any astronomer will highly encourage you to look for Saturn and its rings as one of the first objects to view. On a clear sky, you will be able to see the black Cassini Division and you might also be able to view its striped belts and zones. Using a high-quality small telescope, you might be able to view Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. For the best view of Saturn you need to make sure that the planet is in opposition with the Sun. This means that Earth is on the line you would draw between Saturn and the Sun¹. You will be able to view the planet clearly at this position. Using a yellow filter will also give you more details of Saturn’s rings, belts and zones.
If observed under poor visibility, Saturn’s rings have been said to look like ears. Galileo himself described them as such. He presumed that these ears were moons on the sides of Saturn, however, two years later he noted that they disappeared and after another two years they “reappeared”. If viewing under these conditions, it would be advisable to turn magnification between 100 and 150.
Saturn is probably one of the most vibrant of all planets and has wowed astronomers for years. It is twice as far from the sun as Jupiter and they are approximately the same size. Because of these factors, you may want to increase magnification since it will appear fainter and smaller in your eyepiece. Increasing magnification causes additional air layer disturbances. To limit the interference, try to look at Saturn on a clear and dry day. We build large telescopes atop mountains that are above the cloud layer for that very reason.
¹ Funnily enough, Astrology often speaks of planet alignments. This is the same thing we are talking about here. The Earth is very often aligned with one of the other planets or dwarf planets. However, all eight planet were all aligned in AD 949 and that will only happen again in AD 2492. Opposition allows for a better view of another planet because not as much light from the Sun interferes. However, it has no butterfly effect to speak of.
Found below the belt of Orion, is M42 or what is referred to as Orion’s Nebula. Visible to the naked eye from fall to spring, Orion’s Nebula is a birthplace of stars. It hangs like a sword just below Orion’s belt and using a telescope, you will be able to see gases and dust surrounding it. Orion’s Nebula produces a very bright light that is caused by the array of incredibly hot stars found in it. Its brightness also makes it possible to view from densely populated areas (i.e. with the interference of city street lights). The spectral lines created by this area are from the gases produced by its stars. When observing the area with your telescope, you will also note other small stars and layers of ionized gas.
To easily view the Orion Nebula, you should use your telescope during a new moon or when there is low moonlight. You could also first look for it with binoculars and then zoom in with your telescope. Within M42 is the Trapezium, a quadruple star that you will be able to observe at 40X or 50X magnification. Because it is over an arc minute wide, using a lower magnification will make sure that it is within the field of view of your telescope.
This quadruple star formation is an accidental alignment of similar stars that are so close together and spread to be about the same size as Jupiter.
Excitingly, some astronomers presume that a black hole can be found in the general area where the Trapezium can be found!
Note: the M in M42 comes from Messier. The astronomer who first described 110 astrological objects in his catalogue published in 1771. Charles had no idea that those, as he called them, “really fuzzy stars”, were actually clouds of gas, nebulae, or even galaxies.
The Andromeda Galaxy
The closest galaxy to our own, Andromeda is the most distant sky object that humans can view with their naked eye. Found within the constellation Andromeda, this white patch can be found 10 degrees southwest of the Cassiopeia. The M31 (Andromeda Galaxy), is nearly the same size as our galaxy and it is said that it is on a collision course with the Milky Way in only 4 billion years. The Milky Way is however still larger than Andromeda and contains more dark matter. Andromeda is filled with black holes, pulsars, and a trillion stars.
To view it easily, you will need a star chart to help you locate it between Pegasus and Cassiopeia. It is best to view this galaxy from areas of low light pollution since it can be very difficult to view especially for beginners.
To find this galaxy, a good tip would is to extend the pointy parts of Cassiopeia three times. It is best observed under a night sky during Summer, Fall, and Winter seasons.
Viewing Mars will require your patience. Our red planet neighbor comes close enough for detailed viewing once every 780 days. Although, you can still look for it at any other time period, you won’t see as many details of the surface.
To easily view Mars with your telescope, use a red light filter. It will help you view details on its surface. You should also view it when it is opposite to the Sun in a dark night sky (i.e. New Moon in the country side). For the best resolution, view it on a dust-free night. Haze and dust will blur your images.
The binary star² Beta Cygni, also known as Albireo is hiding out in the constellation Cygnus. This star may seem like one large object, however, these are two stars found 380 light years apart from each other. From your telescope, you will observe that one star is bright orange, while the other star is blue. This object is an easy viewing especially for beginners as they find it unique and rewarding once they spot it.
For easy viewing, you should use a star chart to help you find the Cygnus constellation also known as The Swan. You will find the brightest star in the constellation, Deneb, which is also the tail of the constellation. Directly opposite Deneb is the head of the Swan and that is where you will find Albireo. Your magnification should also be at about 100X for you to view the division between the two stars. When viewing bright stars, some astronomers recommend that you put your lens out of focus. This makes the colors more prominent.
The brighter star in Albireo is has a companion star, that companion is unfortunately so close to Albireo that we can’t visible see it (even with large telescopes.) We’ve found it using interferometry, changes to the light spectrum of the main star which suggest that another object goes in front of the star once in a while.
Albireo is the fifth brightest star in its constellation.
² The term “binary star” is generally reserved to a star system composed of two stars orbiting one another. Since the stars are 380 light years apart, they are not considered to orbit each other (or one the other). But we still often reference Beta Cygni as a binary star since when looking at them we see them so close to each other. That being said the correct designation is “double star system”. Note that the distance along (380 light years) doesn’t mean that the stars are not forming a binary start system, but at this point it looks like their motions are not synchronized.
Hercules Globular Cluster
Approximately 25,000 million light years away, and 150 light years wide, the Hercules Globular Cluster is a pretty easy find for small telescopes. This is one of the few objects that are best viewed during a new moon. It is best seen in the Northern Hemisphere and during the summer period. To locate this cluster, look out for its trademark trapezoid keystone that’s how you can spot it in the constellation. It is about 20 degrees west of the constellation Lyra. The Keystone is four stars in the constellation that form a trapezoid shape. A star map might be needed to help you better identify this cluster.
The Hercules Globular Cluster is almost as old as the universe itself.
Mizar and Alcor are a delight for stargazers, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. They are more popularly known as the Big Dipper. Found in the constellation Ursa Major, the big dipper consists of seven stars and is used to guide people to the Northern Star, Polaris. When observed through a small telescope, you will identify two stars, Mizar and Alcor. The brighter star being Mizar and the dimmer star being Alcor. Some people have been able to view these stars with their bare eyes. On a clear sky and at higher magnification, you will note that Mizar is not alone. It has a companion star.
The Mizar – Alcor system is one that you should consider viewing with a larger telescope. There are four stars belonging to the Mizar system and two stars belonging to the Alcor system that cannot be viewed using a small telescope. These stars are gravitationally linked and this makes Mizar and Alcor a 6-star system.
Note: Our lone Sun, is actually the exception. In the Universe there are more star system with 2 or more stars than systems like ours with just one star. A little more and Jupiter could have been a Star as well in which case our system would also have been a binary star system. Could life how appeared on Earth if that had happened is a question which is still open.
Double Cluster (NGC 869 & NGC 884)
It has been considered to be one of the best clusters to observe with a small telescope. This is according to William Olcott, 1929. The contrast of colors created by these stars makes viewing this cluster a breathtaking experience. This cluster is actually two independent and open clusters that are 800 light years apart. This cluster can be found in the constellation Perseus. To help you find it, you may first want to look for the Cassiopeia constellation.
An interesting fact about this double cluster is that it was observed by the Greeks as early as 130 BC. However, its nature was properly defined only with the invention of the telescope.
The universe is calling. Take out your telescope and see how many of these you can find and tell us what you learned and how your experience was.
For even more objects to look for, checkout this Astronomy Guide. It includes many of the objects you can see this and next year with special events when they happen.
You know of a special event in the near future? Please post a comment about it below.