Astronomy Telescope

Congratulations! You've just been given your first telescope for Christmas (or you know there's one sitting there for you under the tree). It's an exciting thing to own your own telescope and there are a lot of celestial delights you'll want to have a look at, out there in the night skies. So now that you have your new telescope, what will there be to look at in the late December skies? Before you bundle up and rush out the door, telescope in hand to scan the skies, read on for a little information on what you may be able to spot out in space between Christmas and New Year's Day.

You'll be glad to know that this is an excellent time of year to get a look at some of our neighbors in the solar system. With a relatively powerful telescope and clear skies, you'll be able to enjoy a good look at Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The best planetary views of the month of December are of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. If your up to see the New Year in, you should make sure to spend at least a little quality time with your telescope before going to bed. These are sights well worth staying up for. In the first hours of the New Year, you'll be able to marvel at views of the red planet Mars and the ringed giant Saturn.

Jupiter is one to catch in the early evening as it heads towards the western horizon, closely aligned (within a handspan) as it is with the planet Neptune, with its tiny green disk being as hard to find as its cousin Uranus. Jupiter on the other hand is easy to see & can be discerned as a visible disc with a good pair of binoculars. Turn a telescope on Jupiter as Galileo did 400 years ago and you will be amazed at what you see. Not just Jupiter's 2 dark colored cloud bands, but also the ever changing patterns of its large moons Europa, Callisto, Io and Ganymede.

Mars will appear to the naked eye as a very bright star with a slight orange tint by the end of December. You can see Mars just next to the constellation of Leo throughout the month. Through a good telescope you should be able to easily see the planet's northern polar icecap as well as some of its characteristic dark lines. By late evening (Approximately 10 pm local time) Mars is getting high enough in the eastern sky to be observable. Mark your calendar for January 29th as well - this date marks the opposition of Mars, something which only happens roughly every two years and two months. The Earth passes in between the Sun and Mars, offering an especially good time to see our closest planetary neighbor up close through your telescope.

Getting a good look at the ringed gas giant Saturn is a treat you won't want to miss. Even though you'll need to stay up late at night (or wake up very early) with Saturn rising close to midnight. You'll have the best view of this planet and its rings. Saturn sits in the constellation of Virgo all through December. With a good scope you'll be able to get a look at its famous ring system, although they may look a little less spectacular at this angle than you may have hoped, as Saturn's rings are almost edge on to us now - but of course we can't all have our own personal Cassini probes.

In late December you'll also be able to see some of the other planets in the solar system: Uranus can be spotted in the constellation Aquarius at around 35 degrees elevation mid evening. Although to actually pick it out against the background stars you will need a star chart! Through a telescope (the only way you will see it), you should be able to see this distant planet as a greenish/blue disc, though it's unfortunately much too far away to see it's thin rings or the details of its clouds.

Mercury will be visible through a good telescope during the last week of December, with the best time to view being just after the skies have darkened, low in the western skies. In fact by the 20th December Mercury had already reached its greatest "elongation" or distance above our horizon. The planet will be seen in partial illumination as a thin crescent in the final days of December.

Venus can be seen just before sunrise in the Eastern skies. This planet is normally bright enough to be seen with the naked eye but though a telescope will reveal it's circular shape and hazy colors rather than simply appearing as a bright star as it would when viewing it with the eyes alone. In fact you cannot really miss picking out Venus, being approximately 200% brighter than any anything else in the night sky, though at the moment this is made more difficult as Venus will disappear into the glare of the sunrise by the 11th of January.

As you can see there's plenty to enjoy as you first use your new telescope - just keep looking up!

Ian Maclean - Author, Presenter and Science Show host
Homepages: http://www.nightskysecrets.com and http://www.askthescienceguru.com
Discover the hidden secrets of the night sky for yourself.
On my nightskysecrets homepage you will be able to download a fr*ee copy of my Audio "Night Sky Secrets - Revealed" plus pick up a f r e e subscription to nightskysecrets, where you will be kept up to date with all the latest events you can see in the night sky and the find all the essential tools you need to begin your journey of discovery across the night sky.
At askthescienceguru you can download and subscribe to the RSS feed or just listen to the latest podcasts from my weekly radio show "The Science Hour"

What is the best website reference for astronomy begginers?

I just want to learn initially all the basics of astronomy. For example, learning how to track position of planets, constellations, star groupings, comets etc., use of basic astronomy telescopes, orientations of the night sky, units of measures, etc. thanks

The University of Texas McDonald Observatory has a website called "www.stardate.org" which has a lot of information and resources.

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