The sky has a gigantic catalog of objects that can be found with even everyday small telescopes. It’s always fun to showcase the best and brightest of what the heavens have to offer.
At the same time there are also a handful of objects that casual viewers expect to look amazing, but are usually so disappointing that experienced astronomers cringe when constantly asked to show them.
These are objects that I have shown many times to casual viewers, and have seen the results of how great they look based on their reactions. For the objects deemed “disappointing,” I’m not saying you shouldn’t check them out, but after seeing many smiles turn into frowns, it’s a good reason to avoid showing them except for special occasions.
Jupiter is definitely a showstopper. Even in smaller telescopes at low magnification, the disc is easily seen and the four moons are obvious. When viewed at higher magnification, it’s always nice to see the colored patterns from the cloud tops. If the Great Red Spot is visible, it enhances the experience!
The four moons are an added bonus, and they’re always in different positions every night. Because there is so much to see, you can always count on Jupiter to steal the show.
Some are “Team Jupiter,” I’m usually “Team Saturn!”
The rings of Saturn are very striking when first seen, and when viewed at high magnification, Saturn looks just like the pictures you see in your science books! I love seeing the Cassini Division on the rings, and being able to see different shades of yellow on the planet.
There are so many times I’ve heard people gasp at the sight, and they often remark, “it looks fake!” as in what they’re seeing is too good to be true!
Venus is the brightest planet as seen from Earth, and when far enough from the Sun it shines as a brilliant beacon in the sky during twilight hours. It can even be observed with a telescope in broad daylight! Wait, then why is it a let down?
Because many casual viewers are often disappointed when it just looks like a white dot… due to them having no knowledge of the phases or the fact that Venus cloud tops are WHITE! When it reaches crescent phase, it’s fun to show and watch people mistake it for the Moon.
First/Last Quarter Moon
People love looking at the moon, and whether it’s a wide view, or showcasing a specific area, the Moon is always a reliable target to wow the masses!
The key feature that you need when viewing the Moon is shadows! As long as there are shadows visible on the lunar surface, then the Moon is a great telescopic sight! A first/last quarter moon usually showcases the most craters, but crescents are also very nice too!
As the shadows move across the lunar surface by day, this means each day you look at the moon shows different features!
Orion Nebula (M42)
While through a telescope you won’t be able to see the pinkish color as seen from images, but you will still be able to see hints of green, plus the detailed cloud structure surrounding the bright trapezium in the middle. When it’s at its best, this nebula is a must see for any telescope!
Even from a city sky through a large enough telescope, the Orion Nebula is bright enough to show hints of cloud structure! The darker your sky, the more amazing the Orion Nebula looks!
Assuming you have a solar filter, Unless there is an eclipse, transit, or if there are any sunspots to showcase, the Sun is not an ideal target.
Through a white light filter, when there’s nothing happening on the surface, the Sun just appears as a flat, featureless disc. Casual viewers who have never seen the Sun through a filtered telescope expect SOHO quality views, so when all they see is orange, of course their excitement goes out the window.
Solar and Lunar Eclipses
On the flip side, solar eclipses temporarily make the Sun the hottest target in the sky – pun intended! Whether it’s a partial, annular, or especially a total solar eclipse, viewing the sun safely is a great experience!
The same applies with lunar eclipses. Seeing the Moon darken as it enters Earth’s shadow and turn into a famed “blood moon” is both an eerie and beautiful sight. Lunar eclipses can be enjoyed by anyone as long as they’re on the night side of Earth when they happen.
The Double Cluster (NGC 869 & 884)
This is a great telescope target even in cities! There are so many stars visible in this cluster that it can make viewers’ jaws drop – especially when compared to a rather empty light polluted sky.
From a dark sky, sometimes it’s tough to tell the two clusters apart from all the numerous background stars. As it is simply a region in the Milky Way that is rich with stars, this is a sight through a telescope that can inspire, and give people a reason to learn more about the heavens.
Uranus and/or Neptune
Both Uranus and Neptune have a distinct striking color to them, but because of their distance, you won’t see any details like you do with Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus obviously has the slight advantage by virtue of being closer.
You need to view at high (>300x) magnification to even show them as tiny discs (thus very steady seeing conditions), and even then, casual viewers still don’t appreciate the effort made to show the planet, and often just remark on how tiny either one looks, not grasping how far away they actually are.
Hercules Cluster (M13) and/or Sagittarius Cluster (M22)
As I’ve grouped Uranus and Neptune in the same category, I’m doing the same for M13 and M22. They are both bright magnitude 5 globular clusters, and can appear very striking through a modest sized telescope. While M22 is slightly bigger and brighter, M13 has the advantage in being close to zenith during the summer months over northern skies, (which is why I’m not listing ω Centauri, while it’s about 3 times brighter, it’s way further south and not a common target for Southern California audiences).
Either way, when it comes to globular clusters, actually seeing hundreds of resolvable stars rather than a faint round smudge is always going to be awe inspiring.
Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
As the Andromeda Galaxy is the closest and brightest galaxy in the sky, it is a great target for telescopes during the autumn months. While the galaxy itself may not show too many dark lanes unless you have a large enough telescope, you’ll still be able to see the bright central core, surrounded by its less bright arms.
It may at first look like just a faint smudge, but when it comes to galaxies, this is going to be the best and brightest as seen with your eyes.
Unless there’s an eclipse or a close conjunction, no self respecting astronomer cares to show the full moon. There’s two main reasons.
- There’s no shadows, thus the thousands of craters on the surface are washed out and show no definition.
- Unless a lunar filter is being used, brightness of a full moon can put a strain on the eye – especially when viewed in larger telescopes. While it won’t damage your eye, you will definitely feel that focused moonlight in your retinas.
- Through a telescope, a full moon looks very bland and unimpressive.
Usually when the moon is full, telescopes get put away. However, should our telescopes be set up on full moon nights, we will always try and find something else to view!
The Pleiades (M45)
The cluster itself is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, and as a telescope target, showing off the stars that make up the Pleiades is sure to impress. From an urban sky, the bright stars themselves put on a decent display, and from a dark sky, you see way more than just the nine bright stars.
As long as the view in your telescope is wide and doesn’t crop out any of the stars, the Pleiades will always look impressive to casual viewers.
Bode’s Galaxy and Cigar Galaxy (M81 & 82)
These two galaxies, located near the “bowl” of the Big Dipper in Ursa Major, are a terrific target in even smaller telescopes. M81 is the bigger and brighter of the two, while M82 will appear slightly dimmer and more narrow. It’s one thing to see one galaxy in a telescope, but how about two at the same time? That’s what this target offers!
While yes, even under a dark sky the two galaxies appear as fainter smudges at first, but when you realize that faint light is millions of light years away, and you’re seeing two galaxies, this is definitely an inspiring target!
Thanks to all the recent and upcoming missions to Mars, including the possibility of sending a human there, Mars has the most intrigue. On any given night, even when Mars is not visible in the sky, I’m always asked if I can show it. Unfortunately, you could write a book on how many times we’ve seen viewers get super let down after seeing “the real Mars.”
Mars is easily the most disappointing planet to show due to its small size and fluctuating distance. Even when closest to Earth, people expect Mars to look amazingly detailed but that isn’t always the case.
If the seeing conditions allow you to view at high magnification, then you can make out an ice cap and maybe a darker patch or two. But the rest of the time, Mars just looks like a glowing featureless salmon colored orb – not at all like the rusty planet you see in pictures. If it’s further than 100 million miles away, forget it!
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