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What to see with your shiny new telescope

As the gift-giving season comes to an end, maybe now you’ve got a shiny new telescope to call your own. Congratulations — you’re on your way to discovering many amazing things in the night sky. Be it a long, sleek tube or a compact marvel of computerized wizardry, every new telescope surely has an owner itching to try it out. …

The Moon is one celestial object that never fails to impress when seen in a telescope. It’s our nearest neighbor in space — big, bright, beautifully bleak, and just a quarter million miles away. This makes the Moon a wonderful target for even the most humble astronomical instrument. An amateur telescope can keep you busy on the Moon forever. …

As soon as the sky grows dark you’ll see bright Jupiter well up in the eastern sky. This giant planet outshines every star or planet in the night except Venus. “Jupiter is the king of the planets and the most interesting for a small telescope,” says veteran observer Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope. “It’s big, it’s bright, it has cloud belts, and it has moons that do interesting things.”

Even at 50× or 100×, you should be able to make out two dusky tan bands girding Jupiter’s midsection. These equatorial “belts” and the bright “zone” between them are cloud features akin to jet streams high in the Jovian atmosphere. (Jupiter is a gas giant with no solid surface.) …

The familiar constellation Orion climbs in the southeast after sunset. Look for three bright stars — Orion’s Belt — in a nearly vertical line. Just a few degrees to their south (lower right), you’ll find the Orion Nebula, a luminous cloud of gas and dust where stars are forming by the hundreds. This nebula is plain in any telescope once you get pointed at it, and so is the tight quartet of stars near its center, called the Trapezium. Astronomers sometimes refer to this nebula as Messier 42 (M42), and you might see it labeled this way on a star chart. Located about 1,350 light-years away, it’s the closest massive star-forming nebula to Earth.

Using the three stars in Orion’s Belt, draw an imaginary line to the upper right, past the relatively bright star Aldebaran (the reddish eye of Taurus, the Bull) to a little cluster of stars called the Pleiades. It’s about the size of your fingertip held at arm’s length. …

Through binoculars or a telescope at low magnification, the Pleiades cluster shows dozens of stars. Astronomers have found that the entire cluster has about 500 in all. The Pleiades are bound by gravity as well as by legend. Collectively called an open cluster for their irregular, relatively uncrowded arrangement, the stars populating M45 move together through space. Recent measurements indicate that the cluster is about 440 light-years away — close by astronomical standards.


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