Gateway to the Stars February 2016

Nick Jarvis

One of the central purposes of Gateway to the Stars is to dispense practical advice for those interested in using telescopes and/or binoculars to study the night sky (and sometimes the daytime sky, too). That’s especially important this month because we’ll be showcasing many different celestial targets that are not only beautiful to look at, but also astronomically important, and easily viewed through the kinds of telescopes a normal hobbyist, or even a student, might have.

Oftentimes, the easiest targets for amateur astronomers are the Moon and the planets, because they’re so bright and easy to find. And as luck would have it, all five of the visible planets are putting on a spectacular display in the pre-dawn hours right now. Mercury, Venus, and Saturn will be hugging the ground just before sunrise, and stretching above them are Mars, Jupiter, and the Moon, forming a long, straight convoy that arches up overhead, hopefully catching your eye, your interest, and your imagination.

The planets are so easy for small telescopes to spot because they are so bright, which makes it easy to see their distinct shapes and colors. In particular, the rings of Saturn, and the moonlike phases of Venus are definitely things to watch out for, and definitely sights to be seen and that you’ll never forget.

Saturn-27-03-04 by Rochus Hess, taken with a 10-inch Newtonian telescope.

Telescope performance starts to really matter when you’re looking for the fainter, deep-sky objects such as star clusters and gas clouds in our galaxy, or other distant galaxies. Oftentimes, objects like this only look like dim, amorphous smudges. But fortunately, this month there are actually several excellent deep-sky targets that still look very nice in most amateur telescopes.?

With even a modest pair of binoculars, it is possible to locate the open clusters M35, M44 a.k.a. The Beehive, the Double Cluster in Perseus, and the famous Pleiades and Hyades clusters, all of which are high overhead at this time of year. With binoculars, it’s also possible to get an impressive view of the Orion Nebula, and even to see our nearest neighboring galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy. Each of these will be a nice treat through an amateur telescope, since they’re bright enough to begin to appreciate their shapes and features.

And when you’re observing through a telescope, it is not enough just to know where to look; getting the most out of your telescope requires some basic knowledge on how to make the best use of your equipment, and also knowledge on how to make the best use out of your eyes. As part of our discussion on telescopic observing, we will learn about how to use different tools and techniques to get the best possible views, no matter what you’re trying to look at.

The Pleiades Star Cluster is one of the best known Open Clusters

The Pleiades Star Cluster is one of the best known Open Clusters

And as always, the live show environment is a great place to ask questions about anything and everything you’ve ever wondered about the sky. So come ready with all of your questions about observing the night sky.

Gateway to the Stars? is hosted by Nick Jarvis on Saturday, February 6th at 6:45pm in the Hansen Dome Theater. Tickets are $2, or free for planetarium members. Buy tickets here, or at the Clark Planetarium ticket desk.?

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