When you think of looking up at night, the Moon is probably the first thing that comes to mind. It’s the biggest thing in the night sky, we’re all familiar with it, and it’s fascinating to observe it moving between phases and seeing its craters.
However, our Moon isn’t the only one you can see.
A pair of binoculars or a small telescope will clearly reveal Jupiter’s four Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto) as tiny spots in the sky around Jupiter. With a larger telescope and clear viewing conditions, you might be able to discern the brighter non-Galilean moons like Himalia and Amalthea.
A medium sized telescope will also get you a few of Saturn’s moons (Titan, Rhea, Enceladus, Dione).
2. The Planets
All the planets except Uranus and Neptune are clearly visible for anyone to see. Without any instruments, they just appear as bright points of light in the sky. Throw binoculars into the mix and you can observe the phases of Venus, the red colour of Mars, some moons of Saturn and Jupiter, as well as Uranus and Neptune.
A telescope will yield remarkable details – the rings of Saturn and bands on Jupiter are breathtaking!
Visit timeanddate.com’s astronomy section to see what planets are up in your area. They also give you tips on the best way to view them.
3. Stars and Constellations
Finding constellations is a fun way to learn your way around the sky. Constellations are just stars grouped into patterns – our zodiac signs are constellations, as well as Orion, The Big Dipper, and any other names you might have heard. Although they are useless at telling fortunes, finding and remembering their shapes will sharpen your stargazing skills. You can also find lots of interesting stars inside specific constellations – Orion, for instance, houses the ancient red Betelgeuse as well as the blue youngster Rigel. Orion’s sword is also home to the Orion Nebula – a hot, dense cloud of gas where stars are formed.
4. The Milky Way
The most breathtaking thing you can experience with your naked eyes is the Milky Way. Unfortunately it’s almost invisible from standard city locations – you need to travel to extremely dark locations and ensure a new moon. It’s also not visible throughout the year – it’s centered in the constellation Sagittarius, so the best time of the year to see it is between June and August. With careful planning, you stand a fair chance of seeing it between April and October. Use a light pollution map to find a location that’s dark enough, and avoid the full moon at all costs if you want to see it!
5. Deep Sky Objects
Deep Sky Objects (DSOs) are basically anything that isn’t an individual star or a solar system object. These range from galaxies to star clusters and nebulae (gas clouds). They are generally difficult to spot with the naked eye, although the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the Beehive Cluster (M44) and a few others are visible in dark enough locations. The most commonly known deep sky objects are the Messier catalogue, a set of 110 objects recorded in the 18th century by French astronomer Charles Messier.
DSOs are best left for when you have a pair of binoculars – in fact, the American Astronomical League has an entire observing program dedicated to viewing DSOs through binoculars.
Pick an object that stands out to you from the list above, then take steps to find and observe it. Few things are as powerful as experiencing the vastness of the Universe with your own eyes.