December 29, 2003
Richard Tresch Fienberg, Editor in Chief
855-638-5388 x144, [email protected]
Note to Editors/Producers: This release is accompanied by high-quality photographs and illustrations and an animation.
Every holiday season, hundreds of thousands of shiny new telescopes are given to good girls and boys (and moms and dads) around the world. 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. So why wait? Winter evenings often feature crisp, transparent skies with a dazzling canopy of stars and planets.
"Most telescopes provide fine views of the Moon and bright planets," advises Richard Tresch Fienberg, editor in chief of Sky & Telescope magazine, "and these are traditionally the first celestial targets tracked down by budding starwatchers." The Moon and Saturn are probably the most spectacular objects of all, and by good luck both are particularly well placed in the evening sky right now.
When Galileo first turned his telescope to the Moon in 1609, he was expecting to see the smooth orb predicted by ancient Greek philosophers. What he saw instead was a body covered with mountains, valleys, and craters. In one glance, Galileo turned our whole view of the universe upside-down. Suddenly Earth stopped seeming so unique; the Moon was obviously a body much like our own world.
Anyone can relive Galileo's experience — even the smallest telescope, at the lowest possible magnification, will reveal hundreds of mountains and craters on the Moon. The most interesting place to look is along the terminator, the sunrise-sunset line that divides the Moon's bright and dark parts. This is where the lunar shadows are most obvious, casting mountains and craters into dramatic relief. The Moon is visible in the evening sky throughout the last week of December and the first week of January, part of the cycle of phases that it repeats every month.
Saturn and Its Rings
The beautiful ringed planet Saturn rises around sunset, and you can spot it low in the east after the sky gets fully dark. Saturn is the bright "star" to the left of the constellation Orion, and it is now brighter than any star in that part of the sky except for Sirius, which rises a couple of hours later and will be considerably lower. The nearly full Moon is next to Saturn on January 6th.
On New Year's Eve, Saturn makes its closest approach to us in 29 years, passing 748,300,000 miles from Earth. This distance is only marginally closer than it was on December 17, 2002 (748,500,000 miles). By good luck, Saturn's rings are also tilted toward Earth at nearly their maximum possible angle and actually outshine the planet itself. All these factors combine to make Saturn as bright as it ever gets. Don't despair if it's cloudy on New Year's Eve, because Saturn will remain bright and easy to observe well into April.
Many veteran skywatchers credit their first telescopic view of Saturn with sparking a lifelong interest in astronomy, and it's easy to see why. Even the smallest telescope reveals the planet's pale-yellow globe completely encircled by the dazzlingly white rings, which consist of countless icy particles ranging in size from small grains to large boulders. If the air is steady, use a magnification of 100x or more to spot a dark, narrow gap in the rings. Called the Cassini Division, this dark thread separates the inner B ring from the outer and slightly narrower A ring. Keep an eye out for a little "star" in Saturn's vicinity; that's Titan, the planet's largest moon.
Jupiter and Its Moons
Stay out a little later, past 10 p.m., and you'll see Jupiter slowly climbing above the east-northeast horizon. Right now this giant planet appears five times brighter than Saturn — in fact, it outshines every star in the sky. Using a telescopic magnification of at least 100x, you should be able to make out a pair of dusky bands girding Jupiter's midsection. These dark equatorial "belts" and the bright "zone" between them are cloud features akin to jet streams high in the Jovian atmosphere. Telescopes with main mirrors or lenses at least 6 inches across may reveal the famous Great Red Spot, a huge cyclonic storm larger than Earth, which has been rather pale in recent years and can be easily overlooked.
While watching Jupiter, your eye will immediately be drawn to a series of moons roughly aligned with the planet's "stripes." These are the Galilean satellites, named for the famous Italian astronomer who discovered them in 1610. Over time you'll notice their movement as they shuttle around Jupiter. Sometimes not all four moons are visible: occasionally one of them ducks behind the planet or is hidden in its shadow. In larger telescopes they (or their shadows) can be glimpsed crossing Jupiter's disk.
Other Sky Sights
There's more to the night sky than planets, of course, and some of the best celestial treats are on display on December and January evenings. The familiar constellation Orion, the Hunter, climbs in the east after sunset. Look for a distinctive trio of bright stars in a nearly vertical line: the Hunter's Belt. Just a few degrees to their south (lower right), you'll find the Orion Nebula, a luminous, swirling cloud of gas and dust where stars are forming by the hundreds. This nebula is obvious in any telescope, and a high-magnification eyepiece should reveal a tight quartet of stars near its center called the Trapezium.
If you follow the line of Orion's belt up, away from the horizon, you come first to the bright yellow-orange star Aldebaran and then to a tight knot of stars called the Pleiades. This grouping is also known as the Seven Sisters, and in Japanese it's called Subaru — look for them on this automaker's logo! 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 stars in all.
"To get the most from your new telescope, be patient," advises Fienberg. "Spend time with each object, and get to know it. Much of what the universe has to offer is sublime." Too many first-time telescope users expect an explosion of Hubble-like color through the eyepiece, he explains, when in fact our night vision sees almost everything as shades of gray.
More tips on skywatching and how to get the most out of your telescope can be found in our online Observing section. You can even create a customized sky chart for your location, showing the stars and planets for any time or date.
Graphics and an Animation
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Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sky Publishing Corp. was founded in 1941 by Charles A. Federer Jr. and Helen Spence Federer, the original editors of Sky & Telescope magazine. In addition to S&T and SkyandTelescope.com, the company publishes two annuals — SkyWatch and Beautiful Universe — as well as books, star atlases, calendars, posters, prints, globes, and other fine astronomy products.