The Solar System

The Sun: There are special solar telescopes for safely viewing the Sun, but these are not for beginners. With an ordinary scope the Sun can only be safely viewed either indirectly by projecting the image on to a screen or card, or by fitting a proper solar filter over the main lens or mirror.  


Failure to do any of these, or any attempt at looking at the Sun directly will result in permanent eye damage.


Until you are sure that Astronomy is for you then to view the Sun we suggest you go to the

Space Weather web site 

where you can get daily reports on the Sunspots, flares, eruptions, etc.


The Moon: At Star Parties a view of the Moon through a small scope or even binoculars is guardanteed to get a WOW from first time viewers, especially if the phase is less than half.  It is least interesting when full, or nearly full because it is so bright then that you really need a Moon filter to properly see the detail, and its light will often make it very difficult to view any other objects.  At other times it will always provide splendid views from any binocular or size of telescope.


One of the main areas of interest is along what is called the Terminator.  This is the 'line' between the darkness and light where the mountains and craters stand out quite vividly.  And with a program such as Virtual Moon  you will enable you to discover all the features that you can see including the areas where the Apollo and Surveyor and other spacecraft have landed.


Venus is another easy to see object.  Unfortunately all you will really see is a disc of various sizes and in various phases as the planet is covered in clouds.  These will change a bit from time to time and there are other phenomena that occur, but it is not really that interesting for beginners.


Mercury is very difficult to see because it is never very far from the Sun and thus will appear low down in the horizon either just after dusk or just before dawn. It is too small an object to see any detail other than its phase.


The red planet Mars can sometimes be very bright, outshining every object except Venus, but it can also become quite dim, like a 2nd magnitude star.  Under good conditions you will be able to see the dark areas and even the polar caps, so it can be quite rewarding to watch and observe.  However, for the next few months at the end of 2014 and through 2015 it is an early morning object and it doesn't rise very far above the horizon.


Jupiter is another object guaranteed to elicit the WOW response.  Often called the Amateurs planet as it is visible every year and a splendid object both to view and image.  Even with a small scope  you should be able to see the dark bands and the 4 main satellites which Gallileo saw when he first looked through his telescope  - and maybe other features like the great red spot if you are lucky and viewing conditions are good.  The satellites quickly change their positions over a matter of hours and the astronomy magazines will graphically list these so that you can work out which is which.  Sometimes they cast their shadows on Jupiter itself.  At other times you can see them emerging or disappearing behind Jupiter.


Saturn is always a magnificent sight to see, especially if the rings are tilted so that they are 'open' rather than edge-on which is the case at the moment.  But in a small scope you will need high magnification to see the rings as anything other than little ticks sticking out from the planet.   On very good nights you may also be able to see bands across the planet and maybe even the Cassini division between the rings.  Of the satellites probably only Titan will be visible in a small scope, if you are lucky.  Again, the magazines will list the positions so that you can try to find it and perhaps some of the others if you are very lucky.


Uranus and Neptune will only be visible as very small disks without any detail and if the viewing is not good it can be difficult to be absolutely sure that you have actually found them or just another star.  And the dwarf planet Pluto is far too faint to be seen in anything but the very largest amateur telescope.  


The exact positions of all of the above and whether they are visible or not can be found using a computer program such as Stellarium .  And magazines such as the Sky at Night and Astronomy Now will have star charts for every month and give detailed information as to exactly what you may be able to see, including the positions of the  main satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.


The Stars