Amateur astronomers use the constellations at tools: they are stepping stones to finding where to point their telescopes. Constellations have a long history, however, and many of them have become associated with stories and myths in various cultures–not just ancient Greece and Mesopotamia.
To learn the constellations you need a star map that accounts for the rotation of the earth and its orbit around the sun: a planisphere. The Night Sky is an improved planisphere specially designed to minimize distortion.
The moon’s phase is important for observers. It tells you when the moon will appear in the sky and how bright it will be. If you want to look at faint galaxies or nebulae with a telescope, it is best to observe when the moon is not in the sky, so a Moon Phase Calendar is useful for planning observing trips.
If you want to look at the moon itself, the phase of the moon determines what will be visible. When you want to look at the moon with a telescope or binoculars, the part of the moon along the terminator (the line dividing the dark and light sides) is where the craters show up best because that’s where they cast the longest shadows. Read the article with the first link above for more information and yearly moon calendars you can print out.
The planets in our solar system cannot be included on printed star maps because they move fairly rapidly relative or our observing platform, the Earth. The planets are, however, interesting subjects to observe.
Since both the planets and our observing platform are moving, the apparent motions of the planets are quite complex. It’s rather like watching people strolling through the park from the point of view of a merry-go-round.
The planets are visible in some detail in even small telescopes. Even Binoculars will show the moons of Jupiter. Almost any astronomical telescope will show the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, and the polar caps and subtle dark markings on Mars (when Mars is closest to the earth, near opposition).
Comets are chunks of ice and dust floating through space. They can become spectacular when they pass near the sun and their outer layers evaporate (technically “sublime”), forming a temporary atmosphere (the coma) which can blow away as a tail driven outward from the sun by solar radiation and the solar wind.
Most comets are only visible when they are near the sun, so they must be discovered, charted, and followed on an unannounced schedule. If you are interested in comet observation check NASA’s What’s Observable Tonight page. There you can enter your location and observing time and it will provide a list of observable objects in coordinates of Right Ascension and Degrees of Declination. Using The Night Skychart you will be able to use these coordinates to find reference stars or constellations in the sky that will make it easy to find the objects described on the page.
Meteors are bits of rocky and metallic debris floating through space that hit the earth’s atmosphere (typically at about 90,000 miles per hour!) and burn brightly as they dissipate their energy in a brief flash. A 1-gram meteor 100 miles high, at the top of the atmosphere, can glow with about a million watts of light, making it bright enough to be seen from earth!
Large meteors are typically fragments of asteroids, but the tiny ones are more commonly associated with comets that leave their litter in orbital streams. When the earth passes through a meteor stream all the particles are moving in parallel. Our perspective as we watch them come toward us, makes them appear to radiate from a single point in the sky. These streams of meteors are called meteor showers. The earth cycles through them at predictable intervals. Some of the larger showers can produce hundreds of meteors per hour. Occasionally a meteor storm can bring in hundreds per minute!
A total eclipse of the sun is a wonderful, beautiful, exciting event. Other eclipses are merely interesting, by comparison, but they can be quite interesting if you know how to observe them and what to look for.
Developing a taste for “eclipse chasing” will make a world traveler out of you. Many people do it as a way to see parts of the world they would otherwise never travel to. The Observing Techniques link above takes you to MrEclipse.com, a terrific resource. Learn to observe eclipses safely, and enjoy. Remember, NEVER look directly at the sun without proper safety filters.
Deep Sky Observing
Deep sky observing (observing objects beyond our solar system) is generally the domain of larger telescopes, but an amazing amount can be seen with the unaided eye and/or a simple pair of binoculars under dark sky conditions.
Beginning observers will benefit from a textual description of some of the different Deep Sky objects that can be seen such as Galaxies, Nebula, Globular Clusters, and Supernova for example. After that, a simple atlas will document some of the better known and easier to locate objects. Our own Exploring the Night Sky with Binoculars and Sky Atlas for Small Telescopes and Binoculars are good starters that will have you deep sky observing very quickly. The Messier Catalog is another great list of objects to train your attention on. Once you start observing you should get accustomed to taking notes of what you see in your eyepiece(s). We have included a link to a simple downloadable log sheet above.
Dark Sky Awareness
When it comes to seeing “faint fuzzies”, or even appreciating the beauty of the universe, darkness is the key! That means no moon, but also no street lights, no nearby city lights. The sky would be MUCH darker if we had the same amount of outdoor lighting as today but it was all shielded with the light directed downward.
You don’t light your living room with bare bulbs, you don’t like people coming at you with high beams on, why should we have mercury vapor lamps everywhere with the light shining directly into our eyes (glare) and with a large percentage of it ending up as wasted energy shining up into the sky? Shielded lighting makes sense for everyone! Learn about light pollution at the International Dark-Sky Association at the link above.
You can see satellites any night you look for them. To see them you must be in twilight or dark and the satellite must be in direct sunlight. That means they are best seen shortly after sunset or before sunrise.
Look for polar orbiters moving north or south. These satellites are looking down. They map out a different strip of the earth on each pass. Those not looking down generally orbit from west to east, since the eastward rotation of the earth gives them a boost in that direction upon launch. Certain satellites have large solar panels that reflect sunlight like mirrors and will appear to flash occasionally. The Heavens Above web site does a wonderful job of keeping you up to date with what we have put into the sky.
“Astronomy Picture of the Day” sounds like a trivial site, but it is far from it! The site is one of the best astronomical educational resources on the Internet.
Each day APOD brings you a beautiful and interesting tidbit of astronomy, often in the breaking news category, but always something that will amaze you. Together with a short paragraph of explanation and dozens of links to background on various technical levels these images will broaden your knowledge of astronomical objects and principals in just a few minutes a day. The archive for this site is HUGE: a picture/article per day dating from June, 1995. You might consider making it your home page! Above are a few links to other great resources.