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Astronomy Series: Tips for Exploring the Sky

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by Andrew Burton (subscribe)
I am a Freelance Writer-Photographer and Novelist. I travel to find inspiration, wherever the distant horizons lead.
Published May 5th 2015
A night filled with countless stars or by the Moon's glow
Southern Cross as seen from Mount Moliagul , Victoria
The Southern Cross seen from the summit of Mount Moliagul, brighter constellations really stand out on moonlit nights, making learning easier.

What we see on any given night will depend on having a clear view of clear skies, and still atmospheric conditions. When the stars twinkle a great deal, it means the atmosphere is unstable as high level wind and temperature differences wreak havoc with viewing conditions.

You will see countless stars on still nights when away from the lights of cities and towns. You will see more through your telescope and when seeing conditions are poor, the telescope's viewed image will really shimmer. For a better understanding of the best times for good seeing conditions click here.

The relative brightness of stars is called magnitude and if you think of this as descending order, then the first order or first magnitude stars are the brightest. Other than the Sun, the brightest star seen from Earth is called Sirius A, located in the northern skies in the constellation of Canis Major (the Big Dog; Orion the Hunter has two hunting dogs). The faintest stars visible to the unaided eye are 6th magnitude. The Sun, Moon and brighter planets have a negative magnitude as they are brighter than Sirius A.
 
Scorpio rises, Mount Moliagul.
Scorpio rises to dominate the winter skies, find Saturn below the claws. Simply follow the question mark line of stars to the 4 in a straight line. The 4th star at the bottom left of the claws is Saturn.

 
When you first gaze skyward with a telescope, small faint fuzzy patches in the sky will often appear as sprays of diamonds which makes great viewing. Some of the easier ones to find at the moment are M6 and M7 (listed by Charles Messier), which are open type star clusters located next to the tail end of Scorpio, which is rising just after dark.

They are just visible with the naked eye as fuzzy patches and as small sprays of stars in binoculars. What you see with a good telescope at low power will surprise you.
 
Alpha Centauri.
Alpha Centauri, the right hand star of the 2 just above the trees centre photo.
Next to the Southern Cross are the two pointers, which are the bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri, further away is a fainter star and which is close to a globular star cluster> Globular clusters are where the stars appears so closely packed that they appear as a ball of light. It would take a good telescope to discern the outer stars of a globular cluster. To learn more click here.
Omega Centauri.
Omega Centauri is located near the pointers of the Crux.
Alpha Centauri is visible as two separate stars, even in a small telescope. The faint red dwarf (a super nova or exploding star remnant) is Proxima Centauri and is the closest of the triple system to Earth.

Another point of interest is scientists believe to have found a planet circling the secondary star of the 2 major stars in the system. Time to send Will Robinson and the Jupiter 2.

For more information click here. To learn about the Robinson's saga click here.

Omega Centauri is a globular type cluster and is best viewed with a telescope. It will appear as a fuzzy blob unless you have a huge telescope and do a time lapse photograph. It is the largest of its kind and can just be spotted on a dark night with no moon and by someone with good vision.

The planets visible to the unaided eye are easy to pick once you know the major stars and constellations. For May this year, just go out and find the three brightest 'stars' about 7pm and you will see Venus blazing in the west just before it sets, Jupiter in the North, which is nearly as bright and Saturn rising in the east. If trees or buildings impede your view, wait until about 830pm for Scorpio and Saturn to be well above the Horizon. Note that the planets will move through the constellations and this can be noticed from week to week.

This is due to the fact all the planets including Earth revolve around the Sun. The rise and set times of the visible planets, the Moon and Sun courtesy of the Melbourne Planetarium are listed if you click here.
 
Venus setting in the west.
Venus setting in the west in May. Venus out shines the other planets and Jupiter comes close at times.

When you venture out with your first telescope, it really is a night of breath taking sights as you discover the heavens! My first telescope was a tiny 40mm 'refractor' and I spotted the rings of Saturn and its largest moon Titan. I found Jupiter and its 4 Galliean moons, those discovered by Galileo the Italian Astronomer circa 1610. Venus on close approach may appear as a crescent when close to the horizon, small albeit, but it was another startling revelation (note that planetary orbits around the sun are not circular). Mars is another easily spotted planet, but is currently a morning event.
Click here for an interative star chart to find the planets. I found this chart easy to read.
 
A star chart or planisphere.
A star chart, or planisphere cross referenced with books or websites, will help you navigate the night's sky. They can be used all year for the country in which they are designated.
 
Late summer and Taurus the bull swings toward the west.
Late summer and Taurus the bull swings toward the west. If your favorite object has set before the sun, such as Pleiades, it will also rise before the sun, if you can drag yourself out in the cold that early! Pleiades seen here is just up and left of the photo's centre.
When you go out to make some observations, try and be away from house lights and if possible away from towns and cities. Use a torch with red cellophane or cloth over the end, to dim the light. It will take your eyes time to adjust to darkness and after about 30 minutes away from bright light, your observations will be at their best. A bright torch will decrease your night vision.

As you learn the constellations built upon mythological beasts and characters, a whole story of ancient cultures comes to life and the night sky becomes an interesting maize of discovery. I hope you love it. The next article will cover a number of objects to find with a telescope. Enjoy what has been awaiting your curiosity long before you were born.
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Why? To learn how to use a telescope and see the heavens like never before.
When: All year round, just rug-up for winter!
Where: Australia wide.
Cost: The initial cost for a telescope is around $120!
Your Comment
Lots of interesting tips here, including how long it takes our eyes to adjust to different lighting conditions.
by Jenny Rossiter (score: 3|3945) 1139 days ago
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