The night sky offers so many amazing sights. Between the craters of the Moon, the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons, and our closest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, the spectacle is almost overwhelming. By far the best views come from a telescope, so here’s how to get started exploring the cosmos with yours.
1. Set up your telescope according to the instructions.
This is an obvious first step, but proper setup is important to ensure your viewing experience is as pleasant as possible. There are many different types and models of telescopes, so follow your manual closely as you put yours together. Alignment and calibration are important steps as well and depending on the type of mount you have, the method you use will vary. In the end, you should have a fully functional telescope ready for stargazing.
2. Test it out to see if you can find objects close by.
The best way to test out your telescope is not to wait until it’s dark, but to take it out during the day and make sure you know how to find and focus on objects. Start with something large and nearby, such as the satellite dish on a neighbor’s house. Don’t pick something too close, otherwise you won’t be able to focus on it. Using your finderscope, align the object you’ve chosen in the center of the crosshairs. Then move to your eyepiece and adjust the focus until the object is as clear as you can get it. Doing this a few times with a few different objects will help you become accustomed to your telescope’s controls and quirks.
3. Start setting up 30 minutes before you want to use your telescope at night.
Many people take their telescope outside and start viewing immediately, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, you’ll get the best views after you’ve let the temperature difference between your telescope and the night air equalize. This prevents what are known as “tube currents” that can distort the image. This will also give your eyes a chance to adjust.
4. Look at something easy first, like the Moon.
Every budding astronomer’s initiation into stargazing begins with the Moon. Not only is it the largest object in the sky and therefore the easiest to find, it also presents an amazing sight. Maneuver your telescope in the direction of the Moon, line it up in your finderscope, and with your lowest powered eyepiece in place, take a look. The best area of the Moon to start with is the terminator, which is the division between the portion that’s shadowed and the one that’s bright. At the terminator, the lighting contrast makes details like craters easier to see.
5. Move on to the planets.
After you’ve had your fill of the Moon, try out some planets. The easiest ones to spot will depend on what hemisphere you live in and the time of year. For example, Saturn is at its best in mid summer through early fall. The rings of this gas giant are an incredible sight and can instantly transform astronomy from a hobby into an obsession.
To find planets, you can use the old fashioned method of the finderscope, or you can embrace technology. Many fancier telescopes come with built in computers that have a “Go To” function that will automatically find stellar objects for you.
6. Experiment with different eyepiece magnifications.
Understanding magnification can get a little tricky, which is why it’s best to stick to a low magnification eyepiece like 20mm in the beginning. Once you’re comfortable finding objects, focusing on them, and following them across the sky, you can slowly bump it up. Invest in at least one Barlow lens, which will double the magnification of whichever eyepiece you’re using. Just remember that high magnification can degrade the seeing quality―the object you’re looking at will be bigger, but blurrier. Locating the fine line between maximum magnification and optimal resolution is an art form that comes with practice.