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How to get the most out of your first night observing with your first telescope, including what to observe, when to observe, how to find things and which eyepieces to use.
Observational Astronomy Series
  1. Stargazing Basics
  2. Dark Eye Adaption - How We See In the Dark
  3. Light Pollution
  4. Using Star Charts and Measuring Distance
  5. Top Tips for Binocular Astronomy
  6. Moon Watching - How to Observe the Moon
  7. Buying Your First Telescope
  8. Your First Night With Your First Telescope
  9. Sky Orientation through a Telescope
  10. Polar Alignment of an Equatorial Telescope Mount
  11. All About Telescope Eyepieces
  12. Useful Astronomy Filters for Astrophotography
  13. How to Photograph Constellations

To get the most out of your first night observing with your first telescope, there are a few things you should take the time to carry out before carrying your new telescope outside and pointing it starwards expecting to see the heavens revealed in all their glory.

My First Telescope

My First Telescope

Credit: Tim Trott

You can divide these into three categories - getting to know your equipment, getting to know your observing site and getting to know the night sky.

Getting to Know Your First Telescope

Setting Up Telescope During Daylight Hours

Setting Up Telescope During Daylight Hours

First of all, have a go at setting up your first telescope during daylight hours, and in the warm, to get the feel for it and how all the parts together. You don't want to be fumbling around in the dark wondering how everything fits together while the starry skies are glistening above you.

When you come to set up the mount and the tripod, you should make sure you know how to make the setup sturdy and secure, how to level the legs. It's also a good idea to work out how you should be orientating the mount for observing - on some tripods, one of the legs needs to be pointing north. If you have a motor drive, it is also worth knowing how to align the mount with the night sky, so that you do not need to keep moving the telescope during observations.

Getting to Know Your Observing Site

This leads on to the place you intend to observe from. If that's from your garden, then it's worth finding out which direction is which with a compass, and consider whether the view in any direction is affected by tall trees, buildings or bright lights. If these do affect the view, and a location where the effect is minimised. It's also worth remembering that while a clear northern view is useful for aligning to the Pole Star, the best horizon to have clear is a southerly one.

Choice of observing location is important

Choice of observing location is important

Getting to Know the Night Sky

You may already have some knowledge of the stars and constellations, through naked-eye stargazing or from using binoculars, and while it's useful to know something about the sky before you start observing, your first telescope is a great way to get to know the night sky better. You should certainly have access to a good star map, or even better an interactive planetarium software such as the excellent and free Stellarium.

Near Full Moon

Near Full Moon

The most obvious, and easiest, first target is the Moon. Through a telescope, the barren landscape becomes filled with craters, mountain ranges, rilles and other amazing features. It is easy to locate in the sky and will allow you to get used to aiming your telescope. Just remember that because the Moon is so bright it will affect your night vision, so you are probably better off observing the Moon first, then getting your eyes dark adapted.

Depending on the time of year, the two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, are very good to look at with a small telescope. They are also easy to locate, often being the brightest object in the sky after the Moon and are easily identifiable with a low power eyepiece. Mars is also a good target but can be a little more difficult to locate.

M42 - Great Orion Nebula

M42 - Great Orion Nebula

Another easy target to aim for is the Great Orion Nebula, low on the South Eastern horizon. Through a small telescope, you should be able to make out some nebulosity which forms the curved shape of the nebula, while a larger telescope may reveal a bit more detail and structure to the Sword of Orion.

A Few Points to Remember

At this early stage of using a small telescope, don't expect to see views like the ones you see in the magazines, books of Hubble images. Even with high magnifications, planets, galaxies and nebulae will still look small, but just remember that you are looking at them through your telescope, which is picking up photons of light that have been travelling light years through space to get to you, and that sense of wonder and satisfaction won't be far behind.

Jupiter and it's Moons

Jupiter and it's Moons

Always start with a low power magnification and work your way up towards a higher magnification. The larger the millimetre number (e.g. 25mm) the lower the magnification. Lower magnification gives you a wider field of view and a better chance of locating objects. Once you have located your target, you can swap the low power eyepiece for a higher power.

Before going outside, get your eyes accustomed to the dark by turning the lights out in the house. This way your eyes can get adjusted to the dark, while you remain warm. Remember to only use a red light torch!

Above all, wrap up warm (if it's winter) and have fun!

Tutorial Series

This post is part of the series Observational Astronomy. Use the links below to advance to the next tutorial in the couse, or go back and see the previous in the tutorial series.

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