Date: January 21, 2012

Title: Encore: Have a Plan

Podcaster: Ed Sunder

Organization: Flintstone Stargazing


This podcast originally aired on January 15, 2009:

Description: To get the most out of astronomy, it’s best to start with a plan. While it’s fun to just go outside and observe, it can also be quite frustrating, particularly for the beginner. I’ve found that by spending a few minutes to prepare for your observing session, you can greatly increase the enjoyment you get out of observing.

Bio: Ed has been observing since he first looked through his telescope and saw Jupiter and her moons in June, 2007. Since then he’s observed and imaged the entire Messier catalog and is outside looking at the stars from his driveway pretty much every clear night.

Sponsor: This episode of the “365 Days of Astronomy” podcast is sponsored by — NO ONE. Please consider sponsoring a day two so we can continue to bring me daily ‘infotainment’.


Hi, I’m Ed Sunder and I’m an amateur astronomer in Flintstone Georgia. I’ve been doing astronomy for the past year and a half and recording my journey at my blog,

I’d like to welcome you to the January 15th edition of the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. Today’s post is titled, “Have a Plan”.

It’s now a couple weeks after Christmas and I’m sure there are some people out there who got a telescope and have been trying to figure out how to get the most out of it. If you’re like many, many people who are new to the night sky and telescopes, you’re probably pretty frustrated and maybe near the point of giving up. You’ve been able to find the moon with the scope, probably Venus which is really bright right now (though you haven’t been able to see any details) and maybe even some deep sky stuff, but for most people, it’s hard to see anything, because it’s hard to find anything. I’d like to help you get more out of your time observing and out of your equipment.

When I bought my first telescope a year and a half ago, I pointed it at the brightest light in the sky and was able to see Jupiter and its four largest moons through the scope. I was hooked, but immediately realized after panning the scope around that I didn’t have a clue what I was looking for. I guess to some extent I was looking for sights like what you see on the box your telescope came in. Unfortunately, those images are often from the Hubble or other large telescopes and are way more detailed and colorful than what you’re likely to see. Part of getting started in amateur astronomy is adjusting expectations. That said, there’s a lot of wonderful stuff out there to see with your own eyes. It’s a thrill to know that the light I’m seeing through my scope is light that left these objects ages ago, traveled through space for eons, entered Earth’s atmosphere, bounced off my telescope’s mirrors and into my eye. Just thinking about the travel of those photons is exciting!

Having a Plan. What I try to do is think about and plan my observing sessions before it gets dark. That way, when I go outside, I’m not just sort of wandering aimlessly around the sky (though there are times when that’s nice too!), but instead know what I’m going to be looking for and how to find it.

The first step is check the weather. I generally check the weather in the afternoon on to determine the likely viewing conditions, though I’ll also check out the weather channel or other weather resources. If it’s going to be covered over, there’s no reason to do anything else – all I’ll be able to see is the infamous cloud nebula.

Okay, assuming the weather looks promising, the next thing I want to do is look for any events that are going to be occurring. By events, I mean things like an unusual conjunction (that’s 2 or more objects in the sky abnormally visually near one other), an eclipse (these are rare), a pass of the International Space Station, or some other interesting stellar phenomena. I find out about events mostly using the Internet. Eclipses are known well in advance (like centuries ahead of time) so I generally try to note these things when they are coming up and I’ll plan for them around that time and if there’s going to be even halfway decent weather I’ll always be up for eclipse viewing. Conjunctions aren’t as high on my personal priority list so it needs to be something really interesting to get me to pay much attention to them, but some people are really into them. Conjunctions are also generally known pretty well in advance so you can find out about them on sites like Space Station or satellite passes are relatively common occurrences, but I’m still interested in them and try to make a point to observe them as well. Using, I can enter my location and it will tell me when they will be visible and where. By taking a bit of time before I go out and checking on this site I can make sure that the ISS doesn’t take me by surprise and I miss it. Other phenomena are things like comets and you can normally find out about these on and other equivalent sites. Normally, it takes me about 5-6 minutes to quickly check these sites and see if there’s anything I’m interested in that night.

The next thing I do is to use some astronomy software such as Cart du Ciel or Microsoft Worldwide Telescope and see what kinds of things are available during the time I’ll be outside. Worldwide Telescope in particular is nice because if you set it up to show you the sky as it will be when you’re observing as you pan around it shows thumbnails of the sights that are visible in the area of sky you’re looking at. I can pull up information on these objects – galaxies, nebula and such – and see how big and bright they are. The brighter the object is, the better view I’m likely to have of it. I’ll generally make a list of 3 or 4 things that I want to try to view each night, though there have been some long observing sessions where I’ve seen and imaged maybe 40-50 different objects in a night. The final thing that I’ll do is compare what’s available to a long-term list I maintain of objects I want to observe or image and see if any of these targets are available.

Sometimes there are things you’ll see in a magazine or online that you want to see for yourself but they aren’t visible at this time of year. If you keep a list of these for later, when in a few months the object is visible again, you’ll have a chance to look at it. Another benefit of a long term list is that for some of the more ambitious folks out there it will help you accomplish more challenging goals. This year I decided to view and image the entire Messier catalog of 110 deep sky objects and by working diligently over the span of a couple months I was able to take my final Messier object image in August. By creating a long term plan and then following it, I was able to accomplish a major personal goal and have fun while doing it. Without a plan, I would never have finished.

So now, let’s create a quick plan for tonight, January 15th. First, I’m going to assume the weather’s nice outside. Next, let’s look for any events. Unfortunately, there will be no eclipses tonight, nor any significant conjunctions. Also, I can’t check the ISS position that far in the future, but I’d recommend you check out to see if it will be visible from your location. It doesn’t look like there are any bright comets right now, though that could change and you should look that up – they would be listed on the site. Now that I’ve looked at events, I’ll pull up my software to see what else will be visible. It looks like the Moon won’t be rising until after midnight tonight which should give us a nice dark sky to view other things. That’s good. It appears that if you have a low horizon in the west, you may be able to just barely see Mercury until around 7:45pm. Mercury is a hard target to see and while it has no detail in a telescope, is still one of those things that it’s nice to check off of your list as having seen through a scope. Depending on your visibility, you may be able to see Mercury having phases like the Moon does. You’ll have to look quick though because it will be setting so quick. Next up is Venus. This planet has been dominating the evening sky for the past couple months and is getting larger and larger in the scope. It also by now should be starting to have a bit of a crescent shape as it is starting to pass between the Earth and the Sun. It’s definitely worth your time and won’t set until after 10pm, but you’ll want to probably look at it right after Mercury so you’ll be seeing it higher in the sky, through less of the atmosphere. Okay, that does it for the easily visible planets so now in terms of targets, lets see if we can find a couple deep sky targets that will look good in any telescope to finish out our plan for the evening. It looks like M45, the Pleiades (or the Seven Sisters) will be perfectly positioned for viewing tonight. They will be nearly overhead by 9pm. If you need to know how to find them, just look nearly straight up and you’ll see a grouping of at least 6 stars, really close together, that look like a kind of little dipper. This one’s pretty easy to find visually. If you point your scope at it, you’ll see a bunch of really bright stars and depending on your skies and the size of your scope, you may be able to see a bit of nebulosity, particularly with averted vision. Take some time to look at it, letting your eyes adjust to the dark and you’ll find that after a few minutes, that you’ll start to see more and more details. After you’ve spent some time looking at the Pleiades, you may want to hop over to the Orion Nebula, also known as M42. This is really one of the great sights in the night sky through any telescope. The Orion Nebula is the middle “star” of Orion’s sword, found below the three stars of Orion’s belt. Once you’ve got your telescope on this nebula, it’s unmistakable. To me visually, it generally looks a bit green, but in a camera it’s mostly a brilliant red and blue. This is a wonderful target that you’ll be able to see quite a bit of detail in. Most people note the very close grouping of four stars, known as the Trapezium, in between the sort of “wings” of the nebula, but you can also spend time exploring the nebulous gas and dust lit by these four bright stars. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself drawn back to these two deep sky objects again and again. These two objects also look best at low magnification. While you’re welcome to bump up the magnification to look at details, both objects are at their best when seen as a whole in a low magnification eyepiece. They even look great in binoculars.

So there you go, I’ve created a simple plan in just a few minutes that will give me focus for my observing this evening and help me get the most out of my time with my telescope. I hope this has been useful to you and would like to invite you to my blog at where, assuming I’ve got good weather, I’ll try to put up images of these things.

This has been Ed Sunder wishing you clear skies.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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