Tumbleweed Observatory's

Astronomy Hints



How Stargazers Observe Stars, Galaxies, Nebulae, and Double Stars

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Stargazing with Binoculars and Telescope

Planets and the moon are almost always an attraction for beginning stargazers. But astronomy holds a lot for the amateur astronomer. While planetary observing requires primarily long focus optics, good seeing, and high magnification, star observing is more varied. Some types of star observing require the same considerations as planetary work, but other types of observing require different considerations.

To get started in stargazing, you need a map, like the star map for tonight shown above, but perhaps larger. This one was obtained from the Xephem planetarium program, a great tool for any stargazer. But there are other tools, like the Kstars planetarium program, and perhaps the even more popular Stellarium planetarium program. There's also NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, chock full of information and diagrams to get you started.

Then you need some optics. Not a lot to get started really, but at least a pair of binoculars, say a 7x50 pair. That means a pair with magnification of 7 times and lens diameter of 50mm. It's tempting to get bigger, but hand-holding a pair of binoculars that magnify over 10 times is daunting at best, and bigger binoculars get heavy faster than you can realize. You can put your binoculars on a tripod and see better, with much less fatigue, as shown on the Binoculars Tutorial web page.

You can also get started in stargazing with a small telescope, it doesn't have to be a big one. Something like a 60mm Refractor is a good choice. With such a telescope, you get something that sets up easily, thermally stabilizes quickly, and requires very little maintenance. Yet many double stars and star clusters are with easy reach of such a telescope.

A lot of stargazers start with, and continue to view (I do) the many items in the popular star catalogs, shown in summary at Star Catalog Data. I was working to get familiar with Google Sheets, and created the Star Data sheet to illustrate the pivot table function.

Messier TypeNumberAverage Mag
Bright Nebula36.00
Cluster w/Nebula34.63
Diffuse Nebula18.00
Double Star18.40
Globular Cluster297.06
Nova Remnant18.40
Open Cluster275.77
Planetary Nebula49.05
Spherical Galaxy108.89
Spiral Galaxy308.67
Star Cloud14.60
Grand Total1107.34

The Star Catalog data has pivot table summary sheets for each of three popular star lists, available through the tabs at the top of the spreadsheet. The summary table of the Messier list is shown above. As you can see if you examine it, there are a couple dozen open clusters available that are visible in even small telescopes, and over 100 when all three lists of the Star Catalog summary sheets are considered. The summary tables on the Star Catalog Data spreadsheet also reveal that among object types, the open clusters are among the brightest objects, again making them ideal for binocular and small telescope astronomers.

Also available for the Messier catalog is a nice collection of public domain images at The Two Micron All Sky Survey at IPAC. A quick look at these images will help you recognize the items when you run across them. You'll recognize the globular clusters when you see them, and most open clusters. But a few, like Messier 29, may escape notice if you aren't familiar with their looks.

Incidentally, if you want to use one of the quickest ways to locate targets from any of the three lists in the spreadsheet, I highly recommend that you try out the Star Pointer utility. If you have setting circles on your telescope mount, or are willing to make some, star pointer tells you where to point your telescope to locate any object. It works with altazimuth or equatorial mounts, and will save your location data in a cookie for quicker use next time, if you allow it. See the About Star Pointer web page for details.

If you want to try making some setting circles for your telescope mount, you can download the Setting Circle Template to assist you in making your own setting circles. Just adjust the diagram's size with a computer program, or with a copy machine, glue it onto a thin piece of metal or wood, Then mount it to your particular telescope mount. That's what I did for both axes of my tripod, shown in the above image of my Pipe Fitting Tripod.

The Practical Side Of Stargazing

It turns out, rather than for just their beauty, amateur astronomers have another good reason to stargaze. Looking at a single star image under high magnification can help you qualitatively test and align your telescope optics, whether you use your telescope for planetary work, star observing, or both.

If you are using star testing to examine or align your telescope, you need good seeing, optics that are cooled down, and high magnification.

Observing moderately bright stars under good seeing with high magnification can tell you a lot about the quality and alignment of your telescope. You can, for example, identify an over corrected or under corrected objective, spherical aberration, turned down edge (for mirrors), and astigmatism errors just by examining out of focus star images. In fact, if you don't own a laser alignment tool, observing a star at high magnification is a good way to tweak up your instrument's alignment.

Star testing is done by examining a magnified star image with the eyepiece racked both inside and outside of focus, and comparing the resulting images.

Refractor Star Image

If you are using a star test to align your optics, you're making using of the natural diffraction image (illustrated above) that appears in a de-focused star target. You might find the star alignment procedure difficult with a telescope that doesn't have a clock drive. By the time you go to the business end of your telescope to make an adjustment and return to the eyepiece, the star may not even still be in your field of view. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you can resolve this issue by using Polaris as your alignment star.

A good website that shows the kind of star images produced by different optics errors is Star Testing Astronomical Telescopes.

Star aligning is a technique I've used a lot. It is sometimes a touchy procedure, however. Often I either bump my telescope or make too big an adjustment and cause the star to be moved out of the field of view. If you want a quicker and easier alignment method, you probably want an alignment tool. You can read up on how to align or collimate Newtonian reflector optics at the Collimation Tutorial web page.

Double Star Observing

Aside from the large number of open clusters easily available to small telescope users, another type of star work within reach is double star observing.

What are double stars?

Double stars are star pairs (sometimes even more multiples than pairs) where the component stars are so close together that to the naked eye they appear as a single star. They may be so close that they even appear to be a single star with a small telescope.

The stars may be locked together gravitationally, or they may be actually very far apart and independent and just happen to be along the same line of sight.

Double star observing is fun for a number of reasons. I use double stars (or binary stars as they are sometimes called) primarily to compare and evaluate optics. I get my best double star views with a long refractor, like the Celestron AstroMaster 70 EQ Refractor Telescope. Particularly I use my Long Focus 60mm telescope. I have bigger telescopes of reflector design that can, on good nights, resolve closer doubles, but nothing seems to deliver the text book double star images like a long focus refractor.

Observing close doubles under good conditions gives some indication of optical quality. If a double separation is just over the theoretical resolution of your telescope and can be cleanly split, your telescope's optics are near perfect. If not, maybe doing some star testing can help identify the problem. Also, if you have trouble separating doubles around the resolution limit of your telescope, don't despair. Rather just enjoy the view. It could be that seeing conditions just aren't good enough at the time of your optics test. The double components may be too dissimilar to make the difficult separation easy.

Doubles are also interesting objects to observe because of the variability. Often the component stars are different colors, or different magnitudes. These variations give each double its own identity. The following table presents just a handful of double stars, but ones I find enjoyable. They all have components that are separated by 2 arc-seconds or more, and have magnitudes within reach of a 60mm telescope. Each star name is a link that will bring up a small constellation map with a reticule symbol over the location of the star.


Star Cluster, Galaxy, and Nebulae

For more general star, galaxy, and nebula observing, seeing is not much of a concern, but transparency is. You'll be straining to see the faintest details of interesting objects, and nearly every photon matters.

It's with this general star observing that aperture is of great importance. The bigger the aperture of the telescope you use, the brighter objects will be, and the more objects you will ultimately be able to see. However, if you get such a big telescope that it becomes too much of a bother to use, you've gone too far.

I use my 60mm telescope for some star cluster and nebulae observing, but more often I use my 6 Inch Newtonian, which is basically the same as the Celestron Omni XLT - 150. For me the short focus Newtonian is great for these objects, being of significant aperture, but easy to set up because of it's stubby design. I know of others who have a lot of fun with an even more portable reflector telescope, the Orion 10015 StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector Telescope (Teal) , a very compact and popular design for star observing.

atmospheric scintillation example

You can check out the Telescope Tutorial for more details on how optical performance relates to aperture. For here I'll just mention that detail resolution is proportional to the diameter of a telescope, and limited by atmospheric phenomenon, as shown at left. Light gathering power, all important for star observing, is proportional to telescope diameter squared. So for star observing, diameter is especially important.

Again I refer you to the Messier summary table shown before. There you'll see the number of each type of object, and you'll see that while the average magnitude of the open clusters in the Messier list is 5.77, the average magnitude of spherical galaxies in the list is 8.89 -- much dimmer. So galaxy hunters go for big aperture, 6 inch and above. Some very experienced observers can see most of the Messier list galaxies with a 60mm refractor, but they observe from dark sites, and know all of the optimization tricks.

Star Observing Hints

Most star observing is done at relatively low power. Open clusters, the Andromeda galaxy, and some nebulae are large enough in apparent size that low power (less than 100x) is best. For such observing, a clock drive isn't necessary.

Planetary nebulae, globular clusters, and some galaxies will generally work best at moderate power, perhaps 100x to 150x. But even at this magnification, a clock drive isn't a necessity.

Transparency is usually best when objects are well above the horizon. While not as critical as with planetary observing, a cooled down telescope will help you get better views.

If you live in a large city, you may need to find an observing site that has better transparency. Another constraint caused by cities is all the lights. While not strictly affecting transparency, stray light definitely restricts the ability to see dim objects. A different location may provide darker skies.

Let your eyes become fully dark adjusted for observing stars. You'll be surprised how much more detail you can see with fully dark-adapted eyes.

You may be one of those observers adept at the star-hopping technique of locating targets. If you are using charts between observations, use a red light to observe your charts. Eyes are less affected by red light, and you'll loose less of your night vision if you use a red beam. If you use a computer screen for star charts, see if it has a night vision mode, which will again display primarily with red light on a black background.

If you're not an effective star-hopper and happen to have setting circles on your telescope (Altazimuth or Equatorial), then I again urge you to check out the Star Pointer web page for a handy way to find targets. Star Pointer generates a table of visible star objects for your location which is updated about every 30 seconds to give you accurate coordinates for each target in the table. Tables can be generated for any one of a number of popular star target lists, such as the Messier, Caldwell, and Herschel 400. Check it out. It's even handy if you happen to have a computer guided telescope, in that it presents at a glance the targets that are currently visible.

If you have a pesky street light or porch light that's giving trouble, consider using a towel or your coat to drape over your head when at the eyepiece. This will block out the troublesome stray light. If your telescope is portable, you may be able to move it to a position where your house, garage, or a shed can block a pesky streetlight or porch light.

You might consider using a nebulae filter, like the Solomark 1.25-inch Narrowband 10nm Oxygen-iii Nebula Eyepiece Filter. These filters work by screening out wavelengths that interfere with seeing nebula features. Keep in mind, however, that since these filters screen out light, they don't work as well on smaller aperture telescopes. I don't think the investment is worth it if your telescope is smaller than an 8 inch.

For very dim objects, learn to use averted vision to help discern faint details. Averted vision describes the technique of looking away from the dim details you want to see, and examining them as best you can with your peripheral vision. The center of your vision is best for details, but your peripheral vision is more light sensitive. Experiment to find which way to avert your vision to find the most light sensitive portion of your eye.

What Telescopes are Best for Stargazing?

Equatorial Newtonian

If you are new to amateur astronomy-- start with a decent pair of binoculars. You can get a good functional pair like the Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15x70 Binoculars with Tripod Adapter , for under $100. Try for 50mm diameter or better. And don't get too high a magnification. You'll find you can't hold them still well enough over about 10x unless you mount them on some kind of tripod. I generally use my Barska 70mm Binoculars, which are basically the same as the aforementioned Celestron SkyMasters. Check out the Binocular Tutorial page for more information.

You may find you can get by for some time with a couple of pair of binoculars, like a 7x50 for spotting objects and a 10x50 or 15x70 for a bit higher magnification. Or you can spend a bit more and get a zoom binocular.

As to telescope type, there are a couple of considerations. Dobsonian telescopes can certainly give the most aperture for the dollar. An 8 inch Dobsonian, like the Orion 8945 SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope , can go for under $500, while an 8 inch Cassegrain will generally cost $1500 and up.

Of my telescopes, I use most the 6 Inch Newtonian, which has the largest aperture of my instruments. Next used, for it's convenience, is my 60mm Carton Refractor. It can't bring in some of the dimmer targets like my 6 inch, but shows superlative star images, and is exceedingly easy to use. Third on my list is my Celestron NexStar 5 SE Telescope , which is handy for locating the many hard to find objects. The computerized mount takes me right to targets I often can't easily find any other way.

While more aperture will let you see more stars, aperture isn't the only thing you want to think about. As a beginner, you may want to consider a compromise between aperture and ease of use. You can purchase 5 inch or so Newtonian reflectors or 3.5 to 8 inch Cassegrains with computerized clock drives. These units are more portable, and the computerized clock drives and extensive star catalogs let the telescopes locate objects for you.

That being said, I point out that there are two kind of popular Cassegrain telescopes available for the beginner astronomer. See the Cassegrain Tutorial for more details. Suffice to say, I would argue that for stargazing, a Newtonian or Schmidt Cassegrain would be better than a Maksutov. The Maksutov has a very large f ratio (around f/15), which provides too narrow a field of view for some star objects.

Purists will argue that you should learn the constellations, and then learn how to star hop to find objects with your telescope. Others will say it wastes too much time, and computerized mount telescopes allow you to see many more objects in an evening.

I think it all depends upon the observer and how he or she enjoys the hobby. You may find that the ability to see several objects in an evening because of the telescope's computerized drive is more important than a large aperture.

You may also find that portability plays an important part to you. If you are a youngster, elderly, or handicapped, you may find that the difficulty of working with a large telescope out weighs its benefits. You may find that for good views you have to travel to a different site. For these and other reasons, you may want to temper the urge to get a behemoth telescope. I've been involved with astronomy for over 40 years, and I currently own nothing bigger than a 6 inch Newtonian.

You might want to take time and consider which telescope design matches up to your anticipated observing. For finding deep space objects such as galaxies, you'll likely want to concentrate on the wide-field and general purpose telescopes, the larger aperture the better.

For small objects like globular clusters and double stars, you'd likely be best served by telescopes of longer focal length, such as a refractor, Cassegrain, or Maksutov. Again, the larger instruments will let you see dimmer objects.

Star Photography

Star photography, as with star observing, is quite varied in technique. Constellations, rich star fields, and some extensive nebulae can be photographed with simply a guided camera. You can use either the barn door mount or the piggyback method. See the Observing Comets for descriptions of those types of photography. I've taken a few star object pictures using my Piggyback Camera Mount

For photos of clusters, globular clusters, and galaxies you'll need to photograph through your telescope. This is a most difficult kind of photography. To do it you need a clock driven telescope and either an auto-guider or a guide scope mounted along side your main instrument.

Time exposures are a must here, typically several minutes. While this kind of work can still be done with a standard film camera, if you have the money you may want to buy a specially designed CCD camera for telescope astronomy.

Use this astro-customized search engine to find astrophotography cameras and accessories.

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