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Ouch! A spiral galaxy as viewed edge-on collides with a small blue galaxy. From the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Photo by NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team.


astro101 -- What's in the sky?


Star Maps

One challenge to observing is finding out where things are. A good star map is essential. You can get a current star map for December 2006 or January 2007 from Mercury Magazine of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Meteor Showers

Meteor showers are best observed woth the naked eye. Since meteors fly by so quickly, there is no way to catch them in a telescope. The key to observing meteors is to find a dark spot, away from light pollution. Some upcoming meteor showers include:

The Geminids on December 10 to 13.

The Quadrantids on January 2 to 4.

Objects to observe with a telescope

There are several nighttime objects that can be observed easily with a small telescope.


The Moon

When the Moon is full, it is quite bright. Looking at it through a telescope can even be painful, and some have complained of it causing headaches. We prefer to observe the Moon when it is in a quarter phase (or less), when the Sun is lighting it from the side, causing good shadow detail. The mountains and craters show up much better that way. A full Moon tends to have a washed out appearance. You should be able to see many craters and mountains. With the help of a lunar map, you should be able to identify many of the features.



You should be able to see bands on the planet representing the high and low pressure regions in Jupiter's atmosphere. On occasion,you may be able to see the Great Red Spot, a large swirling storm that has been going on for hundreds of years. The four largest Moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) should be easily seen, looking like faint stars around the planet. If one or more appear missing, they are probably behind the planet. Observe the moons on different nights and you will be able to see that they are revolving around the planet.


The most prominent feature are the rings of Saturn. You should be able to see the Cassini division, a large gap in the rings. Saturn's large moon, Titan should be easily seen.


Mars generally appears as a small red disk. You may be able to see a whitish region on Mars, which is a polar cap. Mars has a thin atmosphere,which slightly obscures the surface detail. You should clearly see its red color, due to iron ore in the rock.


Because of the thick cloud cover on Venus, it is impossible to see the surface. What you should see (especially if you observe it from night to night) is that Venus goes through a full set of phases. It could be new, full, or anything in between.

Uranus & Neptune

When they are out, they should appear through a telescope as small disks, rather than pointlike stars. Otherwise, no detail can generally be picked up with a small telescope. You should be able see the blue/green color of Uranus and the dark blue color of Neptune.

Other bright objects

The Andromeda Galaxy


the Andromeda Galaxy is a large spiral galaxy, similar to our own. It can be seen with binoculars. You should not expect to see spiral structure by looking through a telesope eyepiece. It only becomes visible with long time exposure photographs.

double cluster in Cassiopeia

The Double Cluster in Cassiopeia

These are two "open" clusters, or loose groupings of stars. They can be seen easily with binoculars.

Mizar and Alcor


The star at the bend of the handle of the Big Dipper haas a companion, Alcor,which can be seen with binoculars (or with good vision,with the naked eye). But Mizar itself is a double star -- a fact that can only be revealed with a telesope. The two stars orbit each other -- but you're not likely to notice the motion since they take over ten thousand years to go around.



This is a gorgeous globular cluster, consisting of over 50,000 stars arranged in a ball. It can be found by star hopping through the constellation, Hercules.

Did you know????

In 1974, a radio signal was sent towards M13 from Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. M13 has yet to respond.

The stars shine in Iceland

In an attempt to get more people to appreciate the night sky, the entire city of Reykjavik, Iceland's capital (population 200,000) turned off the lights for thirty minutes on September 28.