This gift-giving season, maybe you got a shiny new telescope to call your own. Congratulations — you could be on your way to discovering many, many amazing, far things in the night sky — most of them so far and faint that just finding and detecting them is the challenge. Whether your new scope is a long, sleek tube or a compact marvel of computerized wizardry, surely you're itching to try it out.
"Here are three important tips for getting started," advises Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine.
"First, get your scope all set up indoors, read the instructions, and get to know how it works — how it moves, how to change eyepieces, what all the parts are, and so on — in warmth and comfort. So you don't have to figure out unfamiliar knobs, settings, and adjustments for the first time in the cold dark.
"Second, take it outside in the daytime and get familiar with how it works on distant scenes — treetops, buildings — to get a good sense of what it actually does. For instance, you'll find that its lowest magnification gives the brightest, sharpest, and widest views, with the least amount of the wiggles. The telescope's lowest power also makes it easiest to find what you're trying to aim at. So, you'll always want to start off with the lowest power. Switch to a higher power after only you've found your target, got it centered, and had a good first look.
"Also, if the telescope has a little finderscope on the side, daytime is the easiest time to 'align' the finderscope. Point the main telescope at a distant treetop or landmark, center it in the view, and then look through the finderscope. Use the finderscope's adjustment screws to get the crosshairs centered on the same treetop. Then recheck through the main telescope to make sure its aim didn't get bumped.
"Third," he adds, "be patient. Spend time with each sky object you're able to find, and really get to know it." Too many first-time telescope users expect Hubble-like brightness and color in the eyepiece — when in fact most astronomical objects are very dim to the human eye. And our night vision sees almost everything as shades of gray. Much of what the universe has to offer is subtle, and, once again, extremely far away.
On the other hand, the Moon and planets are bright and easy to find! These make excellent first targets for new telescopic observers. Sky & Telescope's This Week's Sky at a Glance always has suggestions for both telescope and naked-eye viewing of the brightest stars and planets.
Here are some suggestions for starting off.
New-Telescope Delight: The Moon
The Moon is one celestial object that never fails to impress in even the most humble scope. It’s our nearest neighbor in space — big, bright, starkly bleak, and just a quarter million miles away. An amateur telescope and a good Moon map can keep you busy on the Moon forever.
As luck would have it, on the night of December 25, 2015, the Moon is full. In some respects, this is actually the worst time for telescopic Moon viewing, because its full sunlit face lacks shadows to cast mountains and craters into sharp relief. But there's still plenty of interesting things to see — check out our guide to viewing the full Moon by lunar scientist (and S&T contributing editor) Charles A. Wood.
By the way, if the Moon looks too bright to view comfortably, and you don't have a dark "Moon filter" to screw into your eyepiece, you can just slip on some sunglasses (really!).
On the following nights, the Moon wanes away from full phase. Each night it rises in the east about an hour later. Mountains and craters will come into stark relief along the line dividing lunar day and night, called the terminator, which creeps around the edge into view after full Moon. Near the terminator, sunlight come