Astronomy - Your First Telescope

So you bought a telescope. Welcome to the world of astronomy! Now, what are you going to see with it?

Here's a compiled (and obvious) list of what is out there to discover, and what you should expect to find when you do:

- The Moon: The Moon is a target that will show tremendous detail in an decent small scope. Even a telescope as small as 2.4 inches (60mm) will reveal a wealth of detail. You'll be able to see craters, mountains, "seas", and a number of other fine details. The Moon rarely disappoints a first-time viewer, get used to the functions of your telescope by using the moon as a reference.

- Mercury: Mercury is hard to see because it never gets far enough away from the Sun. If you do manage to locate it, at best you will only see the phase (no surface detail can be seen even with large telescopes).

- Venus: Venus is also is also fairly close to the Sun and harder to see. When you do see it expect only to see its phase in a telescope; no surface detail will be seen since the planet's surface is permanently hidden by a thick, white atmosphere.

- Mars: Mars is easily seen in a small telescope, but often a big disappointment to first time viewers. It only reveals subtle detail when it is close to Earth (and this occurs for a period of about 2 months every few years). When Mars is close to Earth, you might see a white polar cap, and perhaps some surface markings.

- Jupiter: Jupiter is the planet that consistently shows the most detail in amateur telescopes. However, even at high magnification Jupiter will only look about the size of some of the medium sized craters on the Moon. On any given night you'd be able to see cloud bands, the 4 Galilean Moons, and maybe the Great Red Spot.

- Saturn: Saturn will show its glorious rings, but the planet will not look too large even at magnification of around 100x. Keen eyed people (with good viewing conditions) might also spot some subtle cloud bands. Saturn's largest moon Titan will also be visible nearby but only as a moderately bright dot.

- Uranus: You'll need to know exactly where to look to find Uranus. At best it will look like a small green dot. Even in large telescopes Uranus shows only as a small, featureless disk.

- Neptune: Like Uranus, you'll need to know exactly where to look, and at best Neptune will look like a somewhat dim small blue dot (it won't really look any different than a star). No amateur scope can see any detail on Neptune.

- Pluto: Pluto is out of the question for a small telescope; it generally requires an experienced observer using at least an 8 inch telescope (in a dark sky with a highly detailed finder chart) just to see it as a very faint dot!

- The Sun: You can look at the Sun with a small telescope. However, you MUST USE A SPECIAL FILTER FOR OBSERVING THE SUN WITH ANY TELESCOPE. Failure to do so will result in permanent blindness. DO NOT attempt solar observation unless you are sure you have the correct special equipment AND you know proper procedures. Rule 1 when looking at the sun with a telescope: when in doubt, don't.

- Stars: Stars will look brighter in a telescope but they will not look any larger. No amateur telescope has anything close to the power required to make a star look larger. They are simply too far away.

- Deep Sky Objects: In addition to planets and the Moon, there are a number of other objects within the reach of a small telescope. These are the so called "deep sky" objects. These include galaxies, star clusters, nebulae, and double stars. However, the quality of the view you will have on these kinds of objects depends to a very large degree on how much light pollution you have in your area (more on light pollution below). To locate most of these objects you'll have to use a star atlas (first you'll have to learn the basic constellations in order to find your way around the sky).

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