When you think of looking up at night, the Moon is probably the first thing that comes to mind. It’s the biggest object in the night sky, and intimately familiar to all of us. It’s fascinating to observe our Moon moving between phases, and seeing its numerous craters and lava plains.
However, our Moon isn’t the only one that’s visible in the sky.
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 could discern Jupiter’s 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 to the naked eye. They appear as bright points of light in the sky. Binoculars reveal 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 visible in your area. The website also gives you viewing tips for each one.
3. Stars and Constellations
Finding constellations is the best way to learn your way around the sky. Constellations are stars grouped into patterns – our zodiac signs are constellations, as well as Orion, The Big Dipper, and the Pleiades. Although they don’t tell fortunes, finding and remembering constellations will sharpen your stargazing skills. They also contain a large variety of stars. 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 Milky Way is one of the most breathtaking sights you can experience with your naked eyes. Unfortunately, it’s almost invisible from urban locations. You need to travel to extremely dark locations, and ensure that it’s a new moon night to see it properly. The Milky Way is not visible throughout the year. It lives in the constellation Sagittarius, so the best time of the year to see it is between June and August. With careful planning, however, you can still spot it between April and October. Use a light pollution map to find a location that’s dark enough, and plan a trip as close to the new moon as possible to get the best view of it.
5. Deep Sky Objects
Deep Sky Objects (DSOs) cover anything that isn’t an individual star or a solar system object. DSOs range from galaxies to star clusters and nebulae (gas clouds). They are tricky to spot with the naked eye, although the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the Beehive Cluster (M44) and a few others are visible in dark locations. The most commonly observed deep sky objects are the Messier catalogue, a set of 110 objects recorded in the 18th century by French astronomer Charles Messier.
DSOs are not the best naked eye target. It’s wise to leave them for when you have binoculars. 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 for yourself. Few things are as powerful as experiencing the vastness of the Universe with your own eyes.