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So you’ve got a new telescope – congratulations - you now have spaceship capable of intergalactic time travel! Here are 12 things of increasing difficulty for you to try as you learn the art and science of Astronomy.
1. Observe the Moon
Day or night, the moon is a spectacular and easy space target for any kind of telescope. Test your new telescope on the moons surface, especially the craters along the terminator.
2. Find Jupiter
King of the planets! Train your telescope on this unique gas giant and see if you can find the “Great Red Spot” or it’s 4 largest moons, which should appear in a straight line beside it.
3. Resolve Saturn’s Rings
Arguably even more intriguing to view through a telescope than Jupiter is the slightly smaller classic, Saturn. See if you can make out the rings, then see if you can make out the “Cassini Division” that separates the rings.
4. Check out a Globular Cluster
Try pointing your new telescope to M13, M5, M3 or M92 in the northern hemisphere or Omega Centauri, M13, 47 Tuc, or M22 from the southern hemisphere. Then try and figure out the mystery of where they came from and how they work!
5. Look at the Great Orion Nebula
Set your sights on M42, a favorite target for many for its brightness and size, it will be the easiest nebula to observe, unless you’re in the southern hemisphere where you can also try the Great Carina Nebula which is even bigger and brighter. They don’t call them “great” for nothing!
6. Try “Digiscoping”
Now that you’re starting to get the hang of the telescope you’ve probably already had the idea to put your smartphone camera to the eyepiece and take a photo. This is called digiscoping and with a steady hand and some patience you’ll be able to get a your first real astrophoto! Try any of the targets from the previous items.
7. Use “solar film” to look at the Sun
True solar imaging requires specially tuned solar equipment, but you can still use your telescope to see the sun IF you do it safely with solar film. Baader is the most popular brand and it’s pretty cheap. Just cut out a square and craftily fashion a “cap” to the space-end of your telescope with cardboard and tape. This will let you see sunspots! Check spaceweather.com to see how many are there and see if you can find them in your scope. Be careful on this one, looking at the sun without a filter is only something you can do twice. Once for each eyeball you’ll destroy.
8. Slew to a Comet
At any given time there are a number of comets available to view, but the bright ones are relatively uncommon. Use an app like “SkySafari” to identify if any bright comets are visible from your location and see if you can send your telescope to the coordinates or rough star neighborhood and have a look around for a big ball of ablating ice. The green haze is a dead giveaway. This one is tricky to do but oh - so special!
9. Take a photo with a DSLR Camera
You’ll need a couple of adapters for this, a T-ring for your DSLR model and a T-mount for the rear cell or to drop into where the eyepiece sits. Use your cameras “live view” to focus on a bright star and use a remote shutter switch or timer to avoid shaking the camera when you click. If you can do this, you’re well on the way to some truly stellar astrophotography.
10. Piggyback a DSLR camera
A cheap piggyback adapter will let your DSLR “ride” the telescope as it tracks the rotation of the sky. You aren’t taking a photo through the scope, just sitting on it. This allows you to do longer exposures. Start at 30s then 1 minute, then 2. If your alignment is good, you’ll reveal unseen detail and a multitude of fainter stars that you can’t see with your own eyes.
11. Take a Video of the Moon or Planets
You’re doing great! Use everything you’ve learned to try and take a steady video of the Moon, planets or Sun (with a solar filter). You can then “stack” the best frames from these videos with software. I recommend “AutoStakkert2” which is free. The resulting image should be sharp and clear if your tracking and seeing were good.
12. Create a Stacked Nebula Astrophoto
You’re ready to start producing images of deep space! Try taking long exposures of a bright nebula, like Orion or Carina and aligning and stacking the images in software. “Deep Sky Stacker” is free, but commercial software “Nebulosity” is also very good. A stacked photo has more detail, less noise and you can boost the colour and brightness more in a graphics program. If you’ve got this far, well done! The rest of the universe awaits you.