Dawn Comet. The comet C/2009 R1 (McNaught) is now having its period of best visibility, as it crosses Perseus low in the northeast just before the start of dawn. It's 5th magnitude and brightening. Binoculars are showing it nicely, but a telescope does better. See our article and finder chart.
Friday, June 11
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Want to become a better amateur astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.
For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential magazine of astronomy. Or download our free Getting Started in Astronomy booklet (which only has bimonthly maps).
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you must have a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The standards are the Pocket Sky Atlas, which shows stars to magnitude 7.6; the larger Sky Atlas 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 8.5); and the even larger and deeper Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And read how to use your charts effectively.
You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, or the more detailed and descriptive Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner or the classic if dated Burnham's Celestial Handbook.
Can a computerized telescope take their place? I don't think so — not for beginners, anyway, and especially not on mounts that are less than top-quality mechanically. As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."
This Week's Planet Roundup
Mercury (about magnitude –0.7) is having a poor apparition very low in the east-northeast at dawn. As the sky grows bright, scan for it with binoculars very far lower left of Jupiter. Don't confuse it with twinkly Capella, which is far to Mercury's left and perhaps (depending on your latitude) higher.
Venus (magnitude –4.0, moving from Gemini into Cancer) is the bright Evening Star shining in the west-northwest during and just after twilight. Look for Pollux and Castor to its right or lower right.
In a telescope, Venus is still a small (14-arcsecond) gibbous disk. It's so dazzling, in its brilliant illumination by the Sun, that you'll have the cleanest telescopic views of it in the bright blue sky before sunset — if you can find it then. Not until late summer does Venus assume its larger and more dramatic crescent phase.
Mars (magnitude +1.2, in Leo) still forms a striking pair with bluer Regulus (magnitude +1.4) at the beginning of the week, but every day it's moving farther to Regulus's east. The star to their upper right is Gamma Leonis, not much dimmer.
In a telescope Mars is just a very tiny blob, 5.8 arcseconds in diameter.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.4, below the Circlet of Pisces) rises around 1 or 2 a.m. daylight saving time and shines high in the southeast before dawn. Nothing else there is nearly so bright. See our articles about Jupiter's disappearing South Equatorial Belt and about the apparent meteor in its atmosphere that was filmed on June 3rd.
Jupiter's Great Red Spot is near System II longitude 150°. Assuming it stays there, here's a list to print out of all the Great Red Spot's predicted transit times for the rest of 2010.
Saturn (magnitude +1.1, in the head of Virgo) glows in the southwest during evening. The diagonal line of Saturn, Mars, and Venus is shrinking week by week. The three planets will bunch up low in the sunset in early August.
In a telescope Saturn's rings are tilted a mere 1.8° from edge-on. Not until 2024 will the rings again appear this thin. Note the thin black shadow-line that the rings cast on Saturn's globe.
Uranus (magnitude 5.9) is within about 1° of Jupiter. In a telescope Uranus is only 3.5 arcseconds wide, compared to Jupiter's 40″.
Neptune (magnitude 7.9, at the Aquarius-Capricornus border) is in view during early morning hours well to Jupiter's west. See our finder charts for Uranus and Neptune in 2010.
Pluto (magnitude 14, in northwestern Sagittarius) is highest in the south after midnight. See our Pluto finder charts for 2010.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon or zenith — including the words up, down, right, and left — are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) equals Universal Time (also known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 4 hours.
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