First Spotting of a Comet

Click for full-sized sketch.

July 13th, 2020, 9:40 p.m. local time

Tonight was the first time I ever saw a comet.  I missed Halley’s as a kid in 1986, due to a combination of factors – location, light pollution, and simply not having the freedom as a youth to make the needed, determined effort.  I completely missed Hale–Bopp in 1995.  That was during my college years and probably the low point for my interest in astronomy.

So tonight was special for me, like the first time I saw any of the notable objects via a telescope.  Using my binoculars on this completely clear evening, I scanned several times near the Northwest horizon.  I finally found it, already falling downward into the distant treeline.

After observing the comet for a few minutes, I immediately went inside to draw roughly what I saw.  My crude sketch is attached, but I feel it a fairly good approximation, and better than nothing, at the least.  The comet’s core was bright, yet I could only see a thin faint trail behind it.  This is in contrast to the many photographed images thus far, which show the comet’s tail as an aura starting around the comet itself.  I could not see the comet unaided.

I hope over the next few weeks to photograph the comet, clear evening skies willing.

Relevant observation and drawing info:

  • Celestron binoculars, 8×56, Fov 5.8
  • iPad Mini using Procreate and Apple Pencil
  • Color inversion in PaintShop Pro

Hunting for Galaxy M61

I am under no illusion that seeing galaxies is possible from my location on Earth.  Around 30 miles outside of Chicago is still one of the worst locations for light pollution anywhere.  While I can see the core of the Andromeda Galaxy from my backyard, through binoculars, it appears like a fuzzy star, shown here.  But Andromeda is very close to our Milky Way and on a collusion course with it.  So excluding M31, no other galaxy should be possible to view unaided.

Nonetheless, I was inspired by Roger Powell’s excellent imaging of M61 and particularly his finding of a supernova back in May.  At the least, I thought, I may be able to find the approximate location of M61 and supernova SN 2020 jfo, to say that I “saw” it, if only the black void of area within my telescope’s eyepiece.

As are all of his posted pictures, Roger’s image of M61 is impressive, made possible by very long exposures driven by equitorial tracking to compensate for the Earth’s rotation.  Long exposures of deep sky objects allow the scarce photons from galaxies, millions of light years away, to collect on the camera’s sensor and accumulate, allowing galaxies to take shape in ways impossible by unaided telescope viewing.

So how does one go about finding this galaxy, M61?  Where is it in the sky?  From our perspective on Earth, it resides in the constellation Virgo and near Leo.  On mid June evenings it was up in my Southwest sky.  Here is the location of M61 in my sky (N 41 / W 88) at about 11 p.m. local time a few weeks ago.

Click to see full-sized image.

(As with all images in this particular post, I highly recommend clicking each to see the full picture.  Otherwise, you will be missing details and perspective referenced in the narrative.)

Virgo is a relatively dim constellation in my sky, outside of the star Spica and a few others.  Leo can easily be found by its edge stars of Denebola near Virgo and famous Regulus on the opposite end.  There are a few faint but visible stars between them.  These can be used as “guide stars” to approximate the location of where to point your telescope.

Here is a closer view of that area of space (M61 is denoted by the square brackets):

Click to see full-sized image.

This picture, from Stellarium, makes it almost too easy to find the location, since there are so many much fainter stars that can act as guides.  But what do I really see through my area’s light pollution?  Compensating for pollution, Stellarium provides a view closer to reality:

Click for full-sized image.

This truly is what I have to work with, even on the best of nights and when there is no Moon, like there was for most of mid June.  With so little information in the sky, how can you even hope to get close to an “invisible” object?  Enter imaginary lines and basic geometry.

Click for full-sized image.

M61 lies almost on a straight line between Denebola and another faint but visible star in Virgo, named Porrima.  Looking at the sky, I roughly approximated that M61 was about a third of the distance from Porrima to Denebola.  Further, I noticed, in Stellarium, that Porrima and another visible star form an isosceles triangle with M61.  So assuming these two factors – the straight line and that triangle and where they should intersect – I had a very good idea of the general area where I should point my telescope at!

But even by doing these rough estimates, how would I know if my guess was right?  Fortunately, Stellarium allows you to simulate telescopes, eyepieces, and lenses, so you can get a view at the computer extremely close to what you should actually see.

Click for full-sized image.

We get to see what should be our “telescope” view.  Obviously, we won’t see the galaxy as shown; the little graphic is just a marker.  But what we should be able to make out are most of the surrounding stars.  Keep in mind that this image/simulation compensates for the vertical and horizontal image flipping inherent of Newtonian reflector telescopes (essentially, the image appears upside down).

All of these stars are still relatively dim.  However, I noticed there is one “bright” star near M61 that could be used as a guide in my telescope’s mounted viewfinder.  It is just below the area of M61 and named c.Vir.

Click for full-sized image.

So using my telescope’s viewfinder (which is effectively a mini telescope in its own right), I could easily find c.Vir.  And fortunately, given my eyepiece (Q70), c.Vir and M61 could fit within the same view, as shown here by Stellarium:

Click for full-sized image.

Notice that there are three stars very close to c.Vir, two above (actually below, given the telescope’s mirror flip), and one below (actually above).  They form a unique pattern that should be easy to identify.

On June 7th I made my first attempt to locate M61.  I used the drawing application Procreate on my iPad, along with an Apple Pencil.  Sometimes I feel like an Apple commercial (I have mentioned the benefits of my iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch for astronomy previously), but it really is an excellent setup, able to replace traditional pencil and paper.  I need to practice my drawing and using Procreate, but still I was amazed how easy it was to start sketching with little preparation.  Here is the first sketch I took with Procreate, on June 7th:

Click for full-sized sketch.

I used a red background with white pencil, since red light is best to keep your night vision.  Afterward, I replaced, via PaintShop Pro, the red with black to make it easier to see here.  I will only show the black edits of subsequent sketches.  And in subsequent sketches, I replaced the above red with an even darker red, which helped my night vision even more.

Click for full-sized sketch.

Unfortunately, that first night I considered a failure, as I was unable to align my very crude star patterns with anything in the vicinity of M61.  It was after this first night that I went back and truly studied Stellarium, found c.Vir, and memorized the star formations around M61.

My next viewing attempt came on June 14th.  This time, knowing a little more about what I should look for, I drew this sketch:

Click for full-sized sketch.

Aha!  Now we are getting somewhere.  This at least looks somewhat like the simulations in Stellarium.  You must see the full image to identify the fainter stars, particularly near the bottom.

At this stage, I feel it important to note that I was not “cheating” at the telescope.  My PC desktop was inside my house, and I did not reference it while drawing at the telescope.  I had planned to find c.Vir and then star hop “down” (actually up) to find the stars near M61.  The results of that night, about 20 minutes of viewing, are in the above sketch.

In post-analysis I found this image interesting on two fronts.  c.Vir is easily identifiable.  This allowed for an easy star hop down (again, actually up) to M61’s neighborhood.  Zooming into my own sketch, I am fairly confident in identifying the location of M61:

Click for full-sized sketch.

Also identified here is my guess at the location of galaxy NGC 4301.  I referred back to Roger’s M61 image, cross-referenced with Stellarium, to estimate this location within my sketch.  I thought this important as it helps to give perspective in size from my sketches and his picture that started my trek.  Note how many stars Roger captured within this small space!  I assume many of those visible are of the 12+ magnitude range.

The sad news is that, based on my guesses, I saw nothing of M61 directly on June 14th.  But this was not unexpected.  Still, I wanted to give the hunt one last try.  In preparation, I noted the two “anchor” stars (my term) closest to M61, that would allow me to hopefully focus that area with the help of my 2x Barlow lens.  From Stellarium:

Click for full-sized image.

The brighter, HIP 60224, is magnitude 8.15.  The unnamed star below it has a magnitude of 10.35.

On June 15th, I looked at this area of space with the same telescope setup as the prior night, but this time using the Barlow lens to double the magnification.

Click for full-sized sketch.

In this sketch, HIP60224 is the brightest dot, and the unnamed 10.35 star is below it on an angle to the right.  These two, I saw very easily.  What was not easy were the three other stars drawn to their right and above.  I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it was to see these.  I had to use my peripheral vision and stare at the area several times over.  Vibrations in the telescope and atmospheric distortions were obvious.  These stars were clearly at the limits of both my equipment and my own visual abilities, within my light polluted sky.

In hindsight, I think those three stars are too far to the left of M61 to be near the galaxy’s core or even possibly the supernova.  Thus my exploration for M61, at least in 2020, has come to an end.  The supernova is now too faint and should disappear soon.

As a side trek, since I already had my Barlow and virtual sketchpad available, I decided to look one last time at c.Vir.  Interestingly, I clearly saw a third star next to the earlier pair of two:

Click for full-sized sketch.

The top star of the original two-pair is listed as magnitude 10.05.  I assume this third star is at least magnitude 12, maybe higher.  It was fainter than the other two, though that doesn’t quite come through in the sketch.

Although I did not find M61 or the supernova, it was a lot of fun trying.  And hopefully, I started to learn techniques that will help me to find and sketch other deep sky objects.

For those that made it to the end of this post, thank you very much for reading all the way through!

Sketching the Stars – M3 Globular Cluster

Click for full-sized drawing.

June 16th, 2020, 11:25 p.m. local time

Here is what I hope will be the return of an observation technique I have not done for a while – sketching.  I am actually doing my most recent sketching posts in reverse.  Over the past week, I was hunting for the galaxy M61, and have a small set of sketches that will be part of a larger post.  But for now, last night I decided to have some fun and tried to observe and draw a star cluster for the first time.

My goal was to capture what I truly saw at the telescope.  Yes, the cluster in question here, M3, really does look like just a gray smudge amongst a few dots of sparse stars.  The smudge is actually the core of about a half million stars.  All in all, I think that using a virtual charcoal pencil made a pretty accurate representation of what the cluster did look like to me, under very good viewing conditions for my location.

Using my 254mm (10-inch) Dobsonian, my best 2″ eyepiece along with a 2-times magnification Barlow lens, this was probably the best wide-field view of M3 that I can get.  I could likely use my 1.25″ eyepieces, but finding this star cluster by star hopping would be extremely difficult with such a narrow view.  While M3 is obvious when you find it in a telescope, there are no close guide stars.  The closest bright star is Arcturus in the constellation Boötes.  However, with my recent practice of trying to locate M61 (see future post), it wasn’t too hard to approximate the location between Boötes and Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), which is incredibly large and bright even in my light polluted skies.

How “large” is this star cluster?  It is difficult to give an approximation because not all of the cluster is fully visible here.  But for reference, it is officially listed at 18 arcminutes.  The Moon is about 30 arcminutes.  If I looked at the Full Moon with this eyepiece/lens setup, it would fill up a good portion of the view, but not entirely and with noticeable space to spare.

Using Stellarium, I looked up the surrounding stars and all their magnitudes.  Remember that lower numbers are brighter.  M3 was definitely the brightest object, magnitude 6.20, although the light was spread across the cluster, not concentrated to a single star.  The next brightest star was to the right, named HIP 66890, at magnitude 8.40.

(Interestingly, Stellarium lists HIP 66890 as a double star.  I may have to check it out again to see if I can gleam the second star.)

To the left of M3 are dimmer stars in the 10+ magnitude range.  I have pointed out all of the key stars and M3 below:

Click for full-sized drawing.

I used Procreate on my iPad to draw this sketch, with a dark red background as the canvass and white pencil.  I then removed all red afterward in PaintShop Pro, to give the black background you see here.  I will discuss this setup and usage in more detail in upcoming post on M61.

Venus and the Pleiades in April 2020

Click for full-sized image.

April 5th, 2020, 8:30 p.m. local time

Inspired by other blogs such as Heads UP! taking cool pictures of Venus near the Pleiades, I knew I had to get in on the action myself.

On Sunday night, aside from imaging the Moon, plus another target (stay tuned), the bright planet and star cluster were my primary objective.  Venus is now “above” the Pleiades in our perspective from Earth, but they were still very close to each other as of Sunday.

Observing the Pleiades has been a hobby of mine ever since I built my Dobsonian in late 2016, though I don’t think I have mentioned it directly on this blog.  Even in my light polluted environment, that big scope has the power to illuminate some of the faintest stars in the cluster.  They are all a beautiful blue.

For comparison, here is a previously unpublished sketch of the Pleiades I drew a few years ago.  I have flipped it upside down so it aligns with the photo I took on Sunday (Newtonian reflectors like my Dob invert the image).

Image settings for reference:

  • f/5.6
  • 1/2 sec exposure
  • ISO 3200
  • 140mm lens
  • Minor post-processing in PaintShop Pro

Memories of Jupiter

Do you recall the largest planet of all?

Jupiter’s prime viewing season in 2017 has long past, but it should still be visible a little after sunset if you want to get a final glimpse of it this year in the evening sky.

Back in June, when Jupiter was high in the sky, I embarked to sketch the planet a few times, intermingled with on different nights opposite my digital photography of it.  Sketching at the telescope is an art for which I am barely a novice, but I am taking steps to improve my drawing skills in hopes of better future drawings for Jupiter, the Moon, and Mars.

I did mentioned in an earlier blog post or comment that I would post my sketches.  So better late than never, for better or worse, here they are, further below.  Note that I list the eyepiece filters used.  An objective I had this year was to determine which filters are best for seeing Jupiter’s details.  In my final sessions, as I was getting more comfortable making out the planet’s finer details, I decided to test each of my filters so that knew for years to come which filters will help my observations.

It is entirely possible that my filter opinions are just that, and yours may be different.  But if you are inclined to observe Jupiter someday at the telescope, here is my little guide on which filters I prefer.  The numbers, in case you are unfamiliar, as the standard Wratten numbers to denote filter color or type.

  • #12 Yellow – Very good, great band contrast
  • #23 Orange – Very good, can see band contrast
  • #25 Red – Bad, can only see the primary bands a little
  • #58 Green – Good-to-ok for band contrast
  • #80A Blue – N/A, filter was dirty, needed to clean
  • #80A Medium Blue – So-so (maybe results would have been better if Jupiter was higher in the sky?)
  • #96 Neutral – Very good, a little less bright but can see bands easily
  • Mars filter – Good, nice contrast and, in particular, the Great Red Spot really popped out

So I recommend #12 Yellow, #23 Orange, #96 Neutral, and Mars.  I have to recheck my #80A Blue filters next year.

And now, onto the Jupiter sketches…

Jupiter on June 1st, 2017.

Jupiter on June 2nd, 2017.

Jupiter on June 10th, 2017.

Jupiter on June 27th, 2017.

My Hunt for Pluto, Part II: The False Star

Figure 2.1: My sketch of the area surrounding Pluto on September 14th, 2017.

“I really want to try to find Pluto again one more time this season…If I do get a chance, I will post a follow-up next month.” – Me, August 29th

With the Moon safely out of the way and a clear sky opportunity available, last week I resumed my quest to find Pluto.  Much of this post relies on information from my first attempt last month, and so I will be referring to that post frequently.

Recall that I leveraged the easily recognized “teapot” asterism in the constellation Sagittarius to star hop over to the approximate location of Pluto.  The main anchor star in the area of Pluto, both last month and now, is Albaldah.  Albaldah and a few nearby neighbors are the last stars I can see unaided.  So targeting Albaldah with my telescope was the first order of business.

The journey past Albaldah was guided with the help of both the Stellarium app on my tablet as well as my prior post.  I should note here that the “app” version of Stellarium is far less detailed than the PC version when investigating such faint objects in small spaces.  Further, based on my two observation sessions, I now believe there is an error in the PC Stellarium map, which I will explain in a moment.

Using the same 2″ Q70 eyepiece as last month, I quickly found HIP 94372, the 6.35 magnitude “mini-anchor” star near Pluto visible only with my telescope.  From HIP 94372 I located the 8th-magnitude star pattern I nicknamed k-lambda, assuring that I was in the correct vicinity.

At this point I was aggressively looking at the images from my prior blog post, the Stellarium app, and my telescope eyepiece.  I decided early on that it would be best to switch to a higher magnification than the 2″ eyepiece allowed, so I changed to my 1.25″ 14.5mm Planetary.  This eyepiece illuminated a much clearer view around HIP 94372.

Then I began sketching, referring to Stellarium only to assure that I was still in the location I wanted to be and drawing at the correct perspective size.  In my drawing above (Figure 2.1) it is difficult to see which stars are faint and which were really faint to the point that averted vision was necessary to see them.  The three stars I labeled as #1, #2, and #3 were the brightest, forming a triangle.  The three arcs were the approximate boundaries of the eyepiece.

With my sketch partially done, I had to make an assumption – that the small star close to HIP 94372, identified only by the Stellarium PC version, does not exist.  This probably threw me off last month, at least a bit, in determining if I truly had seen Pluto.  It is listed at magnitude 9.10, which should be easily visible, especially at the higher magnification I was now using with the 14.5mm eyepiece.  A 9.10 star should only be slightly dimmer than k-lambda, as well as the three stars forming the main triangle in my sketch.  And the few stars I drew around HIP 94372 are extremely faint, well past magnitude 9.  So either this star does not exist or its magnitude is incorrect in Stellarium.

Figure 2.2: Is this star really there?

Returning to the Pluto hunt, I knew it should be located within the three-star triangle I sketched.  In the figure below from Stellarium, I edited out the false star, as well as flipped the image to correspond to what I drew at the telescope that night.  Pluto is represented as a very, very tiny dot:

Figure 2.3: Pluto and surrounding stars as shown by Stellarium for September14th, 2017.

Remember, again, that most of these stars are very faint.  To help gauge where Pluto might be, I imaged a micro asterism forming a dipper or serpent, which starts at the star HIP 94338:

Figure 2.4: Identifying the serpent and “bright” stars.

I could see this dipper easily at the telescope so long as I knew where HIP 94372 was.  I also knew, then, that Pluto had to be just below (actually above, but the telescope reverses the image) this dipper and between HIP 94372 and HIP 94338.

Did I actually find Pluto?  I identified, at the telescope, three possible candidates, all hard to see without averting my eye a bit.  That night while still at the telescope, I drew an arrow pointing to the one I thought was most likely.  The other two candidates were to the right, the nearest dots above and below the one pointed to by my upward sketched “likely Pluto” arrow (see Figure 2.5).

Here is my sketch again, this time with the serpent/dipper lined, the three bright stars circled in orange, and the dot most likely to be Pluto, as determined afterward by comparing to both versions of Stellarium (iPad and PC):

Figure 2.5: My sketch with the most likely candidate for Pluto circled in yellow.

The best way I can confirm/reconfirm which dot was Pluto would be to sketch the area around HIP 94372 once Pluto has moved significantly.  Unfortunately by next month (after the next Full Moon passes), Sagittarius and Pluto may be too low in the sky for me to draw again, mostly due to the impacts of light pollution as they near the horizon.  And so, true final confirmation may have to wait a good seven to nine months, as the Earth and Pluto revolve around the Sun, beckoning the dwarf planet back into our East sky by late Spring 2018.

How to (and not to) Get Kids Interested in Astronomy

solar-system-01

Through my studying of astronomy and stargazing, as well as interactions with my younger relatives, I have come to opinions on the best methods to introduce children to the wonders of the sky.  Some are obvious, and you will find these in most any Internet advice write-up on the subject.  Others are not so much, and may even be contrary to other guides.  Still, I feel these are sound recommendations based on research, experimenting, and common sense.

First, What NOT to Do!

#1 Expensive Does Not Equal Better!  Do not go out to buy the biggest, most expensive telescope you can afford.  It is nearly a guaranteed waste as far as children’s use.  Any telescope over US $200 is not worth the entry price.  Note that for adults getting into astronomy, this may be viewed slightly differently.  While adults should still not, under any circumstances, spend thousands of dollars on a first telescope, you may factor in your risk sentiment if you want try for a more advanced first scope like a Mak-Cass.

#2 Too-Big Binoculars  Avoid binoculars at first for kids.  I know this may go against popular thought, but hear my reasoning.  Binoculars are (a) bulky, (b) difficult to steady, especially for kids, and (c) not an intuitive learning instrument for children.  In short, binoculars take practice to use correctly, and you don’t want your kids’ first stargazing experiences to be of them thinking they need to hit the gym to hold up those binoculars all night long.

Again for adults, the case for binoculars is different.  As this is meant to be a kids’ article, I will table that discussion for now, and write an adult’s guide to beginning astronomy later.

#3 Meteor Shower Hype  Stargazers get excited when meteor showers come around annually, but let’s be frank – they usually require a boring wait and almost never live up to expectations.  While older folks like me may have no problem sitting in the dark at 4 a.m. enjoying the sky, younger people and particularly kids will not be so patient.  I feel it is best to avoid meteor showers altogether unless you can appropriately time box the event with realistic expectations of what may be seen.

orion-nebula-02#4 Bright, Colorful Objects Need Not Apply  We all know of those wondrous images of nebulae and galaxies with countless stars that look so magnificent and vibrant.  But what you need to understand is that those pictures are achieved from intense post-processing of many long-exposure camera images.  This isn’t to say those images are a lie, only that it is impossible for the human eye to view them like that from any telescope.  These objects are thousands and millions of light years from us, and the photons (light) from them are extremely limited.  The techniques used to get amazing pictures of deep sky objects capture as many photons as possible, usually over hours of imaging exposure, well beyond what our eyes could ever hope to see.  Think of paint slowly dripping onto a canvas to eventually form a picture.

Most deep sky objects as seen through a telescope will likely be gray.

Before Proceeding, A Public Service Announcement…

As a general warning, NEVER use an optical device to look directly at the Sun unless it has a proper solar filter secured to the front (not the eyepiece side, but to the other, big end).  Permanent eye damage can result!  My advice for solar viewing with telescopes is to SKIP IT, at least at first, until you the responsible adult are familiar with your telescope and understand how to properly attach and use a solar filter.  Focusing on only the nighttime sky is more than enough for kids when starting out.

My Steps for Children’s Astronomy

#1 Just Look Up  It’s easiest and costs nothing to step outside on a clear, dark night and enjoy our galaxy’s showcase.  Granted, your mileage will vary based on light pollution, with extremely dark skies making objects even beyond our galaxy, like the Andromeda Galaxy, visible to the unaided eye.  But still, have them see the Moon, bright planets, and bright constellations and star patterns (asterisms).  A variety of star map apps for your phone or tablet can help to locate what is in the current night sky.  If you are reading this in Winter (in the Northern Hemisphere), by all means focus on Orion the Hunter!

Again in the Northern Hemisphere, the Big Dipper (Bear), part of Ursa Major, is always visible at least in part year-round, so it makes a great first star pattern for kids to learn (after Orion, which is not always viewable).

#2 Get a Star Finder Dial/Map  You likely know what I am talking about – those pinwheel star maps that you rotate to see the visible stars for your time of year (normally at a preset time of night).  They are inexpensive and a good entry point for kids to learn about what they are seeing above.

#3 Get an Children’s Beginners Astronomy Book  It probably makes sense to acquire this along with the pinwheel star map.  I am not promoting any particular book, and I trust it is not too hard these days to do an Internet search to find several good books that offer beginner’s lessons on astronomy.  A perquisite should be good pictures, especially of the constellations, so that kids can relate what they are seeing to what is shown in the book.

#4 Persistence  Keep letting the kids see the night sky when possible, but without overdoing it.  Try for good nights on the weekends.  At the very least, show them the changing phases of the Moon.

Are the kids still interested by this point?  If so, now you can consider buying a telescope!

# 5 Buy a Good First Telescope  You will want to get a good beginner’s refractor telescope from one of the “big three” merchants in the U.S. (may be different in Europe and elsewhere).  These are Celestron, Meade, and Orion.  I am not promoting any brand or company, so I will just say to go for a 60-70mm refractor with two eyepieces (high and low power), and offer up one suggestion from each:

celestron-astromaster-lt-70

Celestron AstroMaster LT 70AZ

meade-infinity-70mm

Meade Infinity 70mm

orion-starblast-70

Orion StarBlast 70

Also, get a 25% Moon filter along with the telescope (I think 25% makes more sense for a refractor’s small aperture, versus the normal 13%, but you could get by with 13% too; 25% and 13% are just indicators of the total amount of light let through, so 25% only shows a quarter of the total visible light).  This will dim the Moon, making features easier to see and only costs about $20.  Remember to use the Moon filter only for the Moon!  It will otherwise make planets (except Venus, see below), stars, and deep space objects too dark for the human eye to enjoy.

Why a refractor?  It is the most basic of telescopes and requires little if any maintenance.  Reflectors need ongoing maintenance, called collimation, which may be a bit too much for kids just starting out (and the adults supporting them).  Collimating a telescope is not hard, but it is also not a core activity to enjoying astronomy.  Any other telescope variety, like Maksutov-Cassegrains, SCTs, and apochromatic refractors are too advanced and/or expensive for young beginners.

A side benefit to simple refractors is that they may be used for daytime terrestrial viewing as well.

#6 Set YOUR Expectations of the Telescope  As the responsible adult, learn how to operate your telescope.  This seems basic, but you should understand how to quickly adjust the telescope, as objects move very fast in the sky.

What will you see?  Refractors offer a very wide view, which is nice when viewing groups or stars or the surroundings of the Orion Nebula.  They will reveal small but still discernible views of the planets.  All of these views are perfectly fine for beginners.  Always start with your low-power eyepiece (e.g. 25mm) and switch to the high-power (e.g. 10mm) to zoom in.

#7 Show Them the Stars  Use the telescope on bright stars.  You and your kids will be amazed at how each of these gems look, as well as noticing the surrounding faint stars only visible through the telescope.  As an added treat, look for double-stars – stars that look like one to the eye but are actually two stars in the telescope!

#8 Show the Partial Moon  Use the telescope on the Moon.  Focus not on the full Moon but on the phases.  Those are the most interesting through a telescope because you can see the crater shadows.

moon-20160709-03

#9  And Last, Show the Planets  I am recommending to focus on the planets last only because they will appear small through a 60-70mm refractor.  But they will still be impressive in their own rights.

Here is a breakdown of the what to expect with each planet:

  • Mercury – this planet is so elusive I recommend not searching for it with a telescope, for beginner kids.  If you have ideal conditions of clear skies and with Mercury at an ideal distance above the horizon (dawn or dusk), then you can give looking for it a try, though keep in mind it will be very tiny in your telescope.  I also don’t recommend viewing Mercury to eliminate any chance of looking at either the rising or setting Sun.
  • Venus – it will be very bright and never a full disc, being anywhere from about 80% to a thin crecent.  You will only be able to make out the shape and not planetary features.  Hint: if you do have a Moon filter, Venus is the one planet you can try it on.
  • Mars – this planet’s brightness will vary the most.  When Mars is at opposition to Earth, it will be very bright, even rivaling Venus.  You may be able to see some planetary features, like the dark mara and polar icecaps.  When Mars is far away, it is very dim, and very small in any telescope.  These extremes are due to Mars being small and its wildly varying distances from Earth.
  • saturn-20160805Jupiter– the largest planet will consistently look like a bright star.  Though small, you will see up to the full four Galilean moons and the planet’s cloud bands.
  • Saturn – will appear like a faint star.  Through the telescope, you should be able to see its rings.
  • Uranus – too faint to find with a beginner’s telescope, or at least it is not worth the effort.
  • Neptune – ignore this planet as it is too dim and distant for beginner’s astronomy.
  • Pluto (the non-planet planet) – searching for and finding Pluto requires an advanced technique, so ignore it as well.

#10 Try Sketching  Wait, what?  Sketching?  Yes, I really believe that sketching both the direct sky as well as through the telescope will be a surprisingly fun activity for children.  It does not take a lot to do but requires a bit of preparation:

  1. Get a small red flashlight (one per child so there is no fighting over one flashlight).  Red is needed to keep our eyes acclimated to the dark.
  2. Obtain a solid writing pad with paper and pencil (one set for each kid, of course).
  3. Optionally for telescope sketches, use a compass to draw a big circle to frame the eyepiece view.
  4. Some kids will prefer to sketch the open sky’s star patterns while others will want to focus on the telescope view.  Either approach is fine!
  5. Instruct the children to start by drawing the brightest stars first in recognized patterns like lines, triangles, and rectangles.
  6. Once the bright stars are complete, they can turn their attention to filling in the details of the fainter stars between the bright ones, if they so wish.  Many children will be proud of their work from just sketching Orion’s primary stars, as an example.
  7. Make sure each kid writes the date and time of their sketch on their drawing, as well as a short description of what they drew.

I hope these ideas help in getting your kids interested in astronomy.  If you have any comments on my guide, or suggestions, please leave a comment below.