January SkyTalk | What Can I See With My Telescope? – Part 1

As an astronomy author and speaker, I’m often asked two questions: “What kind of telescope should I buy?” and “What can I see with it?” We’ve covered selecting a telescope in a past Sky Talk installment. (In summary, if you buy from a respected source like Scientifics, you can be assured of getting as quality instrument. And all three types of telescopes—refactors, reflectors and catadoptics—give good performance, each having its advantages.) As to what to look at, here beginning this month and continuing next month is a celestial roundup of both solar system and deep-sky treasures. (Note: to locate the five bright naked-eye planets discussed below, consult the table on the back of your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator.)


Despite the fact that this is the only star we can see up-close and view fascinating details like sunspots on its surface, there is always hesitation in talking about looking at our Daytime Star. Without proper filters placed over the front of the telescope—NOT its eyepiece—and capping its finder, serious eye damage can result. Many “stargazers” thus prefer to look at stars at night where safety is never an issue!


This seems to be everybody favorite object and with good reason. No problem finding it (!), and its alien surface is covered with mountains and craters and “seas” in a never-ending display of light and shadow as the Moon cycles through its phases each month. There are also occasional lunar eclipses to watch and occultations (the covering up and uncovering) of planets and stars in its pathway as this Queen of Night moves ever-eastward in its orbit.


This rapidly moving elusive little world never strays far from the Sun, where it becomes visible for a week or two after sunset in the western sky or before sunrise in the morning one. Its most interesting feature is that it goes through phases like the Moon.


This radiant planet is the third brightest object in the heavens after the Sun and Moon. Like Mercury, it goes through phases but at a much slower pace and can remain visible in the evening or morning sky for months. And it appears bigger in the telescope, coming closer to us and being larger than little Mercury.


This infamous world is the most disappointing of the naked-eye planets, appearing most of the time as an orange blob with a hint of a white top and some elusive dark markings. But when close to us during one of its oppositions, fascinating surface details become visible—including one or other of its white polar ice caps, blue-green markings, orange deserts, subtle clouds, and even occasional dust storms.


Here’s the most active and exciting of all the planets thanks to its system of four bright Galilean satellites (those discovered by Galileo). Their never-ending nightly dance around the giant planet is a joy to behold—as they disappear and reappear into and out of Jupiter’s shadow (eclipses), pass in front of the planet (transits) and pass behind it (occultations). Jupiter’s colorful cloud belts contain fascinating detail and you can see the planet slowing rotating since it spins on its axis in less than 10 hours despite its huge size (11 times the diameter of Earth).


This is the iconic image of astronomy and the most other-worldly-looking of all the planets with its majestic ice-ring system. Seeing it for the first time elicits all kinds of emotions from shock to tears of joy to awe. The ringed planet has a system of satellites like Jupiter but nowhere near as bright or as dynamic, its biggest moon Titan requiring over two weeks to circle the planet.

Uranus & Neptune:

These two outermost worlds can be seen even in small telescopes, with Uranus looking like a tiny green pea and Neptune a bluish dot. While not spectacular sights, it’s still a thrill to be looking out to the edge of the solar system.


There are always comets in the sky but most are faint and disappointing. Every so often, however, a bright one comes along sprouting a long scimitar-like tail as it slowly heads sunward over a period of weeks.


— James Mullaney

Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.