In the early 17th century Italian Scientist Galileo, using a crude telescope, turned it to look towards the sky instead of distant trees and mountains. What he saw, and what he realized about what he saw, forever changed the way mankind thought about the universe.
Imagine what it must have been like being the first human to see moons revolve around the planet Jupiter or to see the changing phases of Venus! Because of his observations, Galileo correctly realized Earth's movement and position around the Sun, and in doing so, gave birth to modern astronomy. Yet Galileo's telescope was so crude, he could not clearly make out the rings of Saturn.
Galileo's discoveries laid the foundation for understanding the motion and nature of the planets, stars, and galaxies. Building on his foundation, Henrietta Leavitt determined how to measure the distance to stars, Edwin Hubble proposed a glimpse into the origin of the universe, and Albert Einstein unraveled the relationship of time and light. Almost daily, using sophisticated successors to Galileo's crude telescope, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, more and more mysteries of the universe are being solved and understood. We are living in a golden age of astronomy.
Unlike other sciences, astronomy welcomes contributions from amateurs. Much of the knowledge we have on subjects such as comets, meteor showers, variable stars, the Moon and our solar system comes from observations made by amateur astronomers. So as you look through your, keep Galileo in mind. To him, a telescope was not merely a machine made of glass and metal, but something far more — a window through which the beating heart of the universe might be observed.
Listed below are some of the many astronomical objects that can be seen with modern telescopes.
The Moon is, on average, a distance of 239,000 miles (380,000 km) from Earth and is best observed during its crescent or half phase when sunlight strikes the Moon's surface at an angle. It casts shadows and adds a sense of depth to the view. No shadows are seen during a full Moon, causing the overly bright Moon to appear flat and rather uninteresting through the telescope. Be sure to use a neutral Moon filter when observing the Moon. Not only does it protect your eyes from the bright glare of the Moon, but it also helps enhance contrast, providing a more dramatic image.
Using modern telescopes, brilliant detail can be observed on the Moon, including hundreds of lunar craters and maria, described below.
Craters are round meteor impact sites covering most of the Moon's surface. With no atmosphere on the Moon, no weather conditions exist, so the only erosive force is meteor strikes. Under these conditions, lunar craters can last for millions of years.
Maria (plural for mare) are smooth, dark areas scattered across the lunar surface. These dark areas are large ancient impact basins that were filled with lava from the interior of the Moon by the depth and force of a meteor or comet impact.
Twelve Apollo astronauts left their bootprints on the Moon in the late 1960's and early 1970's. However, no telescope on Earth is able to see these footprints or any other artifacts. In fact, the smallest lunar features that may be seen with the largest telescope on Earth are about one-half mile across.
Planets change positions in the sky as they orbit around the Sun. To locate the planets on a given day or month, consult a monthly astronomy magazine such as Sky and Telescope or Astronomy.
Mars is about half the diameter of Earth and appears through the telescope as a tiny reddish orange disk. It may be possible to see a hint of white at one of the planet's polar ice caps. Approximately every two years, when Mars is closest to Earth in its orbit, additional detail and coloring on the planet's surface may be visible.
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and is 11 times the diameter of Earth. The planet appears as a disk with dark lines stretching across the surface. These lines are cloud bands in the atmosphere. Four of Jupiter's moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) can be seen as "star-like" points of light when using even the lowest magnification. These moons orbit Jupiter so that the number of moons visible on any given night changes as they circle around the giant planet.
Saturn is nine times the diameter of Earth and appears as a small, round disk with rings extending out from either side. In 1610, Galileo, the first person to observe Saturn through a telescope, did not understand that what he was seeing were rings. Instead, he believed that Saturn had "ears." Saturn's rings are composed of billions of ice particles ranging in size from a speck of dust to the size of a house. The major division in Saturn's rings, called the Cassini Division, is occasionally visible through some telescopes. Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons can also be seen as a bright, star-like object near the planet.
Star charts can be used to locate constellations, individual stars and deep-sky objects. Examples of various deep-sky objects are given below:
Stars are large gaseous objects that are self-illuminated by nuclear fusion in their core. Because of their vast distances from our solar system, all stars appear as pinpoints of light, irrespective of the size of the telescope used.
Nebulae are vast interstellar clouds of gas and dust where stars are formed. Most impressive of these is the Great Nebula in Orion (M42), a diffuse nebula that appears as a faint wispy gray cloud. M42 is 1,600 light years from Earth.
Open Clusters are loose groupings of young stars, all recently formed from the same diffuse nebula. The Pleiades is an open cluster 410 light years away. Through some telescopes, numerous stars are visible.
Constellations are large, imaginary patterns of stars believed by ancient civilizations to be the celestial equivalent of objects, animals, people, or gods. These patterns are too large to be seen through a telescope. To learn the constellations, start with an easy grouping of stars, such as the Big Dipper in Ursa Major. Then, use a star chart to explore across the sky.
Galaxies are large assemblies of stars, nebulae, and star clusters that are bound by gravity. The most common shape is spiral (such as our own Milky Way), but galaxies can also be elliptical, or even irregular blobs. The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is the closest spiral-type galaxy to our own. This galaxy appears fuzzy and cigar-shaped. It is 2.2 million light years away in the constellation Andromeda, located between the large "W" of Cassiopeia and the great square of Pegasus.