We spent this Thanksgiving in a quiet northernly locale with a few friends. It was low key and relaxing. Since clear skies were forecast, I thought it would be fun to bring over a small telescope I have and do some stargazing. Full of turkey and other goodies, we headed to a clearing where we could see the night sky. It was dark. It had also snowed the day before and the ice was melting and falling in chunks from the trees that surrounded us, making plopping noises that would occasionally freak us out. The Milky Way snaked its way across the sky and there was a shitload of stars. Jupiter was high in the sky and was super bright. Using a high-magnification eyepiece we peered at it and you could clearly make out the four Galilean moons – Europa and Io on one side, Ganymede on the other and Callisto dangling right next to the planet. You could also make out the bands on Jupiter’s surface. Galileo found these moons in the 1600’s and described them in his book Sidereus Nuncius, so it was cool to replicate some 17th century science. We could even make out three of the moons with binoculars.
We then pointed our telescope West, somewhere about half way between Jupiter and the constellation Cassiopeia, above Pegasus, where we found the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, about 2.5 light-years away, and is roughly of about the same size. Even thought it is bright, I had always had trouble spotting it from urban locations due to light pollution. And every time I’d found it, it looked like an unimpressive smudge. But where we were you could see it with the naked eye and was impressive even with binoculars. On the telescope it was beautiful. I used a 35mm eyepiece to get a wide view and even then it barely fit in the field of view. You could even make out some detail in its structure, which was groovy.
Next up, was the Pleiades. The Pleiades is a star cluster which can be found by tracing a straight line from the direction that Orion’s belt points to. The Japanese named this cluster Subaru, thus the logo in Subaru cars. With the naked eye most people can see 5 or 6 stars (I just see a blur) but with a telescope you can resolve hundreds. This was also one of Galileo’s observations. The Pleiades are actually prettiest when seen with binoculars, since you can fit the whole thing into your field of view.
By then we were getting cold, so we ran inside for a few sips of bourbon before heading back out. When we returned, Orion was high in the sky, offering a nice view of the Orion nebula. If you look at Orion’s belt, there is a smudgy-looking thing right next to it, where his sword or whatever would be. That is the Orion Neubula, which is an area of massive star formation. Again, this object is pretty impressive with binoculars. With the telescope we could sort of see the trapezium, which is a small cluster of stars contained within the nebula.
Finally, we aimed our scope at Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star. It is huge, if centered within the solar system, its size would reach roughly the orbit of Jupiter. To find Betelgeuse, look perpendicular to Orion’s belt. On one side you will see a bright blue star named Rigel. On the opposite side is a bright red star. That’s Betelgeuse. In the telescope, Betelgeuse stood like a flaming red ruby in the center of a field of stars, staring back at us from 640 light-years away (now I’m getting all Carl Sagan-y), making a nice conclusion to our viewing session.
I first became interested in amateur astronomy during graduate school. During this time there were two very bright comets which showed up in the sky: Hyakutake and the somewhat less impressive Hale-Bopp. A friend recommended using binoculars to see them and I was impressed how much detail you could actually see. Then I was taking a microscopy course, and the professor showed some pictures he took of the comets with a telescope he built himself (a 16-inch reflector, he even ground his own mirror). The pictures were some NASA-quality shit. This totally sold me. So I got a subscription to Sky and Telescope, bought a copy of “Turn Left at Orion” (highly, highly recommended – this is the most useful observing handbook ever) and got myself a $50 pair of binoculars. It is quite impressive what you can spot with binoculars once you know where to look. A cheap pair of binoculars is far superior and has a better field of view than the telescope Galileo used. So you should be able to see Saturn’s rings, craters on the moon, Jupiter’s moons, etc. with your binoculars. After a couple of years I’d saved up some money and bought a 6-inch reflector and soon after a used small 3-inch refractor (which is much more portable). Since I had kids and started my job my astronomy hobby has gone somewhat by the wayside, but after this weekend I was inspired to pull out the big scope and start observing again. If you want to get hooked to, next time the moon is at it’s half, go outside and look at it with your binoculars. You’ll be impressed, trust me.