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What Objects To Focus On For School Astronomy? 377

IceDiver writes "I am a teacher in a small rural school. My Grade 9 students are doing a unit on astronomy this spring. I have access to a 4" telescope, and would like to give my students a chance to use it. We will probably only be able to attempt observations on a couple of nights because of weather and time restrictions. I am as new to telescope use as my students, so I have no idea what objects would look good through a 4" lens. What observations should I attempt to have my students make? In other words, how can I make best use of my limited equipment and time to give my students the best experience possible?"
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What Objects To Focus On For School Astronomy?

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  • The Sun (Score:5, Funny)

    by dcollins ( 135727 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @04:53PM (#31090484) Homepage

    Advantages: Easy to find in the sky. Viewable during daytime hours.

    • Re:The Sun (Score:5, Informative)

      by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @04:54PM (#31090502) Homepage Journal

      The moon. You can actually look at it without going blind.

      • Re:The Sun (Score:4, Informative)

        by countertrolling ( 1585477 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @04:56PM (#31090536) Journal

        Jupiter and Saturn too. You can even see some of their moons.

        • Re:The Sun (Score:5, Informative)

          by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:03PM (#31090656) Homepage

          With a 4"'er, you're not going to get any detail out of Jupiter or Saturn. No cloud bands on Jupiter -- just the moons as points of light. Saturn will look like this [] or this [] if you're lucky.

          But the moon looks great at any magnification.

          • Re:The Sun (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Animaether ( 411575 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:18PM (#31090874) Journal

            I used my binoculars to go spotting at Jupiter a while back after this image...
   [] ...totally blew me away.

            Screw the sun and moon, The Blue Marble and dozens of infographics of the solar system with "you are here" labels.. that image - and subsequent direct viewing - instilled far more of a sense of being inside a solar system than any of those things.

            That said - I'd go for the moon right afterward as well.. seeing the craters, especially on a waxing or warning moon, is great and can easily be done by kids.

            The aforementioned image happens to have our moon -and- Jupiter + its 4 largest (well, most visible at the time) moons, which just makes it all the more awesome.

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by n3v ( 412497 )

              I've definitely had great luck viewing Jupiter even from my suburban backyard and a cheap telescope. Moons and all..

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by Rei ( 128717 )

              I doubt that photo is unedited. It's probably a HDR reconstruction. Even mostly behind the clouds, the moon should be so bright as to be overexposed if the Galilean moons are also clear and visible in frame.

            • What is really a shame is that such a great image was ruined by saving it as JPG.
            • Re:The Sun (Score:5, Informative)

              by niktemadur ( 793971 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @06:22PM (#31091870)

              I used my binoculars to go spotting at Jupiter a while back after this image... Outstanding picture. ...a sense of being inside a solar system than any of those things.

              About ten years ago, I had a 4" Newtonian telescope, and being a fairly constant reader of Sky & Telescope Magazine, I knew that the Moon was to occult Uranus at a specific date and time. So I pointed my telescope in the right direction and, sure enough, this perfect little green sphere rose from the mountains of the Moon, definitely one of those "wow!" moments.
              At other times, I did also manage to "snag" a couple of the LINEAR comets.

              So my best advice for the budding amateur astronomer is to buy Sky & Telescope Magazine or visit [] to get monthly tips of celestial event watching.

              A friend of mine owns several more serious telescopes, in the 10" - 18" inch range, and what's kept him up at night during the past year is the challenge of "capturing" binary star systems, here's the drill:
              1. Find your target binary in a star atlas. There's tons of them. Some of them are even triple or quadruple star systems.
              2. Point the telescope in the general direction, find your bearings and lock on target. This might take a while.
              3. Increase magnification by changing lenses, until the lesser magnitude companion star pops out. Mission accomplished.
              4. Go for a more difficult (lesser magnitude) system next time around, thereby honing your skills.

              Happy hunting!

            • by beh ( 4759 ) * on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @06:27PM (#31091922)

              I think just looking at the stars is not nearly as great as trying to find out how much you can infer from observations.

              Astronomy is the probably the science which requires the highest level of skill in inferring information, or trying to get at information in a bit round-about way, as it's kind of difficult to actually modify the universe on a large scale just to test a theory. And in my experience, I'd say inference is a skill not nearly taught enough nowadays - astronomy could be the subject for it.

              If you have access to them, the BBC showed a program series called rough science which had a couple of interesting little experiments you could do - like calculating the diameter of a crater on the moon - with the most trivial of things at your disposal, and also trying to come up with a useful margin of error for their own measurements.

              In the same program, they then also had a different group trying to measure the diameter of another crater here on earth (which they took the team to), by making the triangulate a point on the other side of the crater (if no crater at hand, you could do a practice session, trying to find the distance from the current position to a landmark nearby -- without allowing the students to actually just walk/drive over and measure the distance, but to gain that information from their own vantage points. (again, also get them to come up with a margin of error).

              In both cases, in the end compare the student-found results with actual data...

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              Fully agree: Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon.

              Suggest starting with Jupiter, with focus on its moons and (if you are lucky with your choice of nights) changes in their positions relative to Jupiter. Tie this in with Galileo as the prototypical scientific mind questioning the authorities of his day. (Remember that Galileo came to recognize the Sun's central position in the Solar System after watching the dance of Jupiter's moons).

              Also Saturn. With luck the rings will be evident.

              Save the Moon for last. Nights

          • Re:The Sun (Score:4, Insightful)

            by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:46PM (#31091326) Homepage

            Seeing Saturn as something other than a point of light is worth it. Really. Seeing the disk and rings transforms it from being a bright star that moves, into a place.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by d'oh89 ( 859382 ) *
            That is not true. In a 4" telescope with decent magnification 100-150x you should clearly see all four of the Galilean moons as well as two bands across Jupiter. Now the problem with Jupiter is that it's in Superior Conjunction with the Sun (i.e. you can't see it). However you can see Saturn and Mars in the evening sky. Mars you won't see much, but Saturn will be the thing the kids remember more than anything else. Visit for a good, free star chart to use with the kids. Depending on wh
          • by Kakurenbo Shogun ( 64436 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @06:59PM (#31092334) Homepage
            With my 70mm (2.75") telescope, I can see Saturn's rings more clearly than either of those photos, and 2 cloud bands on Jupiter. What'll influence how well you can see them more than the diameter of your lens is the focal lengths of your telescope and eyepiece and the quality of the lenses. My scope has a 600mm focal length, so with my 9mm eyepiece, I get about 67x magnification (600/9). I have a 2x barlow, which makes the image bigger, but it's not very good quality, so it blurs it so much that it's not worth using.

            I'd recommend Jupiter, Saturn, the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades. They're all super easy to locate once you know where to look (you can see them all with the naked eye...just not very well!). Also, definitely get a good look at the moon. It's more interesting when it's not full, since that gives you more relief. Unless you have a filter, with a 4" main lens, the moon is going to be pretty bright.
        • Re:The Sun (Score:5, Funny)

          by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:05PM (#31090682)

          That's no moon.

          • Re:The Sun (Score:4, Funny)

            by Impy the Impiuos Imp ( 442658 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:39PM (#31091168) Journal

            Of course not. That's usually too low to see through the window.

            > What Objects To Focus On For School Astronomy?

            Here's a suggested lesson plan for questions the teacher could discuss.

            1. Which seasons of the year provide the most productive viewing because there's no steam buildup in the bathroom windows?

            2. Is there a significant difference in viewing quality between a screen and a quadruple set of panes in a slid-open window? Which is better for what kinds of body parts?

            3. Do older women tend to have larger areolae than younger ones? If so, why do you think that is?

            4. Is perky truly "better" than saggy, pendulous ones? What do you actually feel, since nobody is looking and social pressure is off?

            5. Do they tend to be contracted or relaxed before the shower? After? After drying?

            6. How much does your rhythmic viewing activity affect the stability of the image through: A. The shaking of your body? B. The shaking of the telescope itself through the floor?

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by haystor ( 102186 )

          Moon first, it's amazing and easy to find. They'll get to see it in more vivid detail than possible in pictures.

          Jupiter and Saturn are a different experience. They'll be dull and tiny compared to everything we've seen. The rings of Saturn will be visible as well as the 4 big moons of Jupiter. The big "ooh" factor here is that when you zoom in on those two particular "stars", there is a whole lot more to see.

          I've heard people say good things about M42, in Orion, but I've never had much luck, too much lig

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Neighbours' bedroom windows. A much better view.

      • I'm tempted to make Uranus joke... Anyway, Jupiters moons and red spot are pretty cool and and so is Saturn. Download a starmap application or I guess there are some online so you know what's up there and when.
        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          You can't come even close to seeing the red spot with a 4" telescope. Lucky imaging on a good quality 6", maybe. Probably not.

          • Wait a minute. Why would you recommend against Jupiter and Saturn? Didn't Galileo start with less than a 4" scope? Look where that lead us! Sure, we're spoiled by the Hubble images we see all the time, but it's good to know where it all started.
            • by Rei ( 128717 )

              Wait a minute. Why would you recommend against Jupiter and Saturn? Didn't Galileo start with less than a 4" scope? Look where that lead us! Sure, we're spoiled by the Hubble images we see all the time, but it's good to know where it all started.

              Galileo did not discover the Great Red Spot. It was discovered much later by Robert Hooke, using a scope with an aperture of over 5". It took months of painstaking observations to spot and track.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by PedroV100 ( 1497409 )
          after too many Uranus jokes well have to change the name to Urectum
          • How is the Starship Enetrprise like toilet paper? Both circle Uranus looking for Klingons


            Bennet is doing his neighbor's wife when he thinks her husband is coming home. Startled, he jumps up and runs right into the wall, hardon first.

            The woman exclaims "Bennet!"

            He groans "Bent it? I think I broke it!"

      • Re:The Sun (Score:5, Funny)

        by batquux ( 323697 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:13PM (#31090770)

        The moon is more important too, being that it shines at night. The sun only shines during the day when it's light out anyway.

      • Re:The Sun and Stars (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Xeno man ( 1614779 )
        The Moon is probably a great place to start and the rest of this thread suggests several other natural satellites such as Jupiter or Mars but you can also try finding some artificial satellites as well like the International Space Station (ISS) It orbits fast enough that the station is visible several times each day all day long, it's just a matter of tracking it. How much detail you can see I don't know, probably not a lot but the fact that you can see something man made hovering overhead in space is amazi
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by 3dr ( 169908 )

        No doubt, the Moon should be target number one. But not the full moon -- the full moon is fairly uninteresting and you see no detail.

        The best times, IMO, are around first and third quarters, where the terminator shows off the actual surface shape. Even with a 4" scope you'll be able to get much more understanding and visual interest during these times from the Moon's surface.

        I highly suggest taking the scope out prior to this unit to become familiar with the basics and this particular scope's quirks, if you

      • Space stations. Oh, and don't forget to practice bullseyeing womp rats on weekends.
    • Caution: (Score:5, Funny)

      by drainbramage ( 588291 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @04:58PM (#31090566)

      Do NOT look at Sun with remaining eye.

      • Re:Caution: (Score:5, Informative)

        by ddillman ( 267710 ) <> on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:33PM (#31091080) Journal
        You may laugh, but as a youth, I ignored the warnings and watched a solar eclipse without protection. To this day I have a small area in my visual field that is permanently damaged. That was about 32 years ago.
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Andraax ( 87926 )

          Err, you guys know they make solar filters for telescopes? I used to watch sunspots and solar eclipses all the time. My eye sight is still perfect (except for presbyopia now that I'm getting old - hard to focus on up close items).

    • Disadvantages: Can damage telescope. Might not be visible if cloudy. Not as neat as looking at planets or stars. Oh yeah, it also causes instant blindness.

    • Re:The Sun (Score:5, Informative)

      by pluther ( 647209 ) <pluther@usa.ERDOSnet minus math_god> on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:32PM (#31091062) Homepage
      You say it as a joke, but it's quite possible to view the sun with a standard "backyard" telescope.

      Do NOT look directly at the sun through the telescope, of course. Instead, you use the telescope as a projector.

      It takes a minute or two to aim: the trick is to use the shadow from the telescope to aim. When the shadow is smallest, you're pointing the right way.)

      There are lots of web sites describing how to do it, such as this one. [] (I've never used the extra collar like they describe, but it probably wouldn't hurt.)

      It also has the advantage that it's something a small group of people can enjoy at once.

      At night, if it's reasonably dark at all, I'd recommend the moon (always easy to see. Use a moon filter, which probably came with your telescope).

      Also, you should be able to see the Orion Nebula as a wide fuzzy patch. I've seen the banding of Jupiter, as well as its moons, in my 3.5" telescope, though I wasn't able to find the Red Spot, and the rings of Saturn.

      Definitely get a software star chart (there are free ones available online) and a red filter for your flashlight so you don't lose night vision. It makes a surprisingly large difference.

  • easy stuff (Score:4, Informative)

    by An ominous Cow art ( 320322 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @04:56PM (#31090542) Journal

    I'd suggest objects that are very easy to find, so the students don't spend the whole time searching for them.

    Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, M31 (Andromeda galaxy), Orion Nebula (M42) are a good start.

  • Options. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @04:57PM (#31090554) Homepage

    1. The moon.
    2. How about the moon?
    3. You might want to consider the moon.
    4. Have you given any thought to the moon?

    No special filters needed, and it's by *far* the most visually impressive with a small aperture. If you can get appropriate filters, the sun is another good option. Everything else.... you might see phases on some of the larger bodies. And you'll probably be able to see the Jovian moons as points of light. That's about it. Perhaps a faint blur for the Andromeda galaxy if you're in a good location.

    But the moon looks awesome even through a small scope.

    • Indeed. And by "appropriate filters" Rei means go to the local university and borrow an H-alpha etalon (interference filter). Not, "get some red glass from Edmund Scientific."

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      I have to second the Moon. Deep space objects will tend to be fuzzy blobs at best. Jupiter, Mars, and maybe Saturn would come next.
      Maybe the North Star or the Pleiades to show them just how many stars are really there. Of course do it yourself first so you don't disappoint.

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Ooh, forgot about the Pleiades. Sure, they're just points of light, but they're a bunch of clustered pretty blue points of light. :)

    • s/aperture/focal length/g

    • Also, if the conditions are juuuust right, it can hit your eye like a big pizza pie. Which is quite something through a telescope.
    • Everything else.... you might see phases on some of the larger bodies. And you'll probably be able to see the Jovian moons as points of light. That's about it. Perhaps a faint blur for the Andromeda galaxy if you're in a good location.

      I think you understate what you can see through a small telescope. 4" is still a great deal larger than any binoculars - but the Galilean satellites, the phases of Venus and the Andromeda Galaxy are quite clear in my old 10x50 set. A 4" telescope might well be able to distin

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by syousef ( 465911 )

      I've managed good photos using a point and shoot digicam with it's lens similar in size, using small cheap telescopes. You do need to have manual controls and manual focus on the camera, and have some idea how to use them. You also need to be willing to try different settings and ways of focusing.

      Here's what I did years ago with a 3MP camera, and my first scope which is worse than what you described: [] []

    • not the full moon (Score:5, Informative)

      by maxwells_deamon ( 221474 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @06:20PM (#31091844) Homepage

      Many people think that the best time to look at the moon is when it is full. This is the worst time to use a telescope other than when it is cloudy. It is washed out and flat. Try with no more than 1/2 moon then you can see the rough surface due to the shadows. It is worth looking at when full but far better otherwise

      The next most important thing is to practice where you will be setting up. You need to be familiar with the sky. Find the planets beforehand so you can point out the ones that are up and some of the major constellations. Remember planets move around a bit as well. If you are some where that is humid, it can be helpful to have a bright spotlight. You can point out locations in the sky. Show them where the Zodiac is (the constellations that the sun rises in and the planets move through). Jupiter and Saturn are also good. If clear and dark enough you can show them the milky way.

      Lastly I would hope you have a plan of what to say. I talk about Galileo and the arguments that were being made about the sky before the telescope was pointed at the sky. The moon was thought to be basically featureless and round. Point out the moon and ask them to look at it for a minute. No one had seen a much better view than you are seeing now.
      Someone (probably Galileo) first pointed a telescope at the moon and then saw this Prepare for a gasp when they look.

      Everything went around the earth, then Jupiter, “see the little dots they move around” and you can see this from night to night in a pattern

      One more thing. if your scope does not have a motor mount you will need to frequently move it to make up for the turning of the earth. Also people will bump it and the next person will see nothing but black. This is tricky as they will not tell you if they do not see anything.

  • Book to read (Score:5, Informative)

    by SteveAstro ( 209000 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @04:59PM (#31090584)

    A great book for beginners is Turn Left at Orion, by Guy Consolmagno []

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by hguorbray ( 967940 )
      also recommended

      the star hustler -Jack Horkheimer

      his shows highlight whatever celestial events or objects are upcoming

      -I'm just sayin
  • Planets and Clusters (Score:3, Informative)

    by m85476585 ( 884822 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:00PM (#31090606)
    Planets and clusters are probably the easiest objects to find with a 4" telescope (same size as mine). Planets are really easy to find since you can usually spot them, and you should be able to see some detail- moons around Jupiter, and Saturn's rings.

    Clusters (globular, open, etc) may be a bit harder to find and harder to see, but some of them are impressive with even a 4" telescope. The Messier objects shouldn't be too hard to find with a star chart.
    • Clusters (globular, open, etc) may be a bit harder to find and harder to see, but some of them are impressive with even a 4" telescope. The Messier objects shouldn't be too hard to find with a star chart.

      I have no experience with 4" telescopes (I have my own 50mm binoculars, and I mooch off my friends who have 8" scopes and one awesome 20"). I would think globular clusters are one of the most immediately impressive objects to look at, but some are brighter than others. I know in my binos most are just fuz

  • by zippthorne ( 748122 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:01PM (#31090610) Journal

    Different things are visible at different times, although a four inch telescope is really only going to be able to see the the brightest objects. A little better than binoculars, but surprisingly little better after you account for the perception boost binoculars get by letting you use both eyes.

    If you're talking about a nearby observation opportunity, then let me recommend Sky & Telescope - At a Glance [] and Human Spaceflight Realtime Data [] as sources of interesting things to look for. You can also nearly always find a satellite or two around dusk, if you know where to look. Nasa has some pages about that as well.

    Make sure you have some information to talk about about everything you plan to look at, since most of the class will be standing around the telescope rather than actually looking through it at any given time.

  • by Mayhem178 ( 920970 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:01PM (#31090612)
    You didn't mention the location of your school (probably wisely); however, it would be useful to know at least the vague region in which you live, as it impacts what's visible at different times of the year.

    The moon, Venus, and Mars are good places to start. NASA has a "Near-Earth Object" program ( that may be of interest to you.

    Also, while man-made objects aren't necessarily directly related to astronomy, the International Space Station is also quite visible with the naked eye; I'm sure a telescope would make the observation much better. Again, this depends on your location and when the ISS will be visible there.
    • Also, while man-made objects aren't necessarily directly related to astronomy, the International Space Station is also quite visible with the naked eye; I'm sure a telescope would make the observation much better.

      I've never tried looking at the ISS with a telescope, but I've seen it going overhead and it usually seems to be going pretty fast. Seems like it'd be a huge pain to track!

  • by andersen ( 10283 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:01PM (#31090616) Homepage

    The Moon. Jupiter and its moons. Saturn. Venus. The Orion Nebula. The Andromeda Galaxy.

    And get out there and look at the dramatic and easy stuff. Jupiter and its moons is really cool to watch. And you just can't go wrong with the moon. All of the things I listed above should be easy to find with a small telescope. Looking for much more is going to be frustrating and boring for a group of students. Looking at stars is going to be very boring (stars look like points of light, even with the best telescopes). Go grab a copy of to help you find things and you should be good to go.

    • by Latent Heat ( 558884 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @06:21PM (#31091854)
      My idea is to start with near and work out towards far. My other idea is to tell the story behind what they are looking at and why these things are important.

      Jupiter and its moons are important because of Galileo, and Galileo used Jupiter and moons as an analogy for the Copernican helio-centric model. Venus can also serve that purpose if it is showing a crescent -- the phases of Venus were further support for Copernicus according to Galileao.

      Next, point out objects such as the Big Dipper. It actually is a star cluster, only we are too close to it to notice. Work your way out to the Pleiades and the Bee Hive. You can point out that the Pleiades appear on the hood ornament of a popular Japanese car as "Subaru" is the name for the Pleiades in Japan.

      Depending on season, try the Orion Nebula as an active formation region of a star cluster, some of the more distance "galactic" star clusters in the Milky Way. Revert to the naked eye and point out the Milky Way (if able depending on light pollution and weather) and the "dark rifts" in the Milky Way (those are not the absence of stars, rather they are the presence of dust -- the heavy elements out of which you and I are made out of and where are heavy elements came from).

      Next, try for a globular cluster such as M-13. Tell the story of Harlow Shapley and the discovery that the center of the Milky Way is in Sagittarius instead of us being in the center.

      Finally, wrap up with a view of M-31, and explain how Edwin Hubble discovered Cephiad variables in it and discovered it to be remote. Point out Polaris (the North Star) and explain that it is a Cephiad -- that it is a reasonably distant star, but we see it because of its high luminosity. Tell the story of Hubble's discovery of the "spirals" as being "island universes" like our Milky Way, red shift, and what I call the "Copernican Revolution of the 20th Century", where M-31 was the stepping stone to finding out how freakin' large the Universe is and how we are such a small speck in it.

      Also, moderate expectations of what they are going to see. Explain that large telescopes taking long photographic or CCD time exposures can show much more dramatic views of the same objects, but they are looking at what they see in those famous pictures with their own eyeball, first hand, through your telescope. Also give them a primer on averted vision on how to see faint objects. Finally, explain that through the telescope what they are seeing of M-31 is mainly the central core, and that M-31 is a much vaster and fainter object that extends well beyond the telescope field.

  • That kind of depends on where you are. If you're viewing from way out on the edge of town with nothing but farmland in all directions then you'll be able to see some pretty impressive things like the rings of Saturn, Jupiter's moons, the canals on Mars, the mote in Murcheson's Eye, C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate... That kind of thing.

    On the other hand if you're in downtown LA you might want to show them some of the stars in the Big Dipper, or see how much of Orion's belt you can

    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      It's sad how light polluted even farmland is these days. I live in eastern Iowa. I mean, you'd think, "Iowa! You must have great viewing conditions, right?"

      Mediocre at best. [].

      How much we've polluted our night skies is tragic. If you want a low Bortle limit in the US, you have to go to remote parts of the desert southwest or rockies. And I hate to think of it, but I doubt even that will be the case by the time our kids reach our age.

  • There are tons of books about this topic, especially about objects which can be viewed through binoculars or small telescopes. Consolmagno's "Turn left at Orion" provides a great introduction and has a really cool map of the moon. My recommendation with a 4" scope would be obviously the Moon surface, Jupiter and its moons, Saturn (you can see the ring in a 4" scope!), Andromeda, Orion Nebula, and possibly some colorful stars. Despite the great excitement many astronomers have for their craft, most of the "
  • There's a whole bunch of ways to approach it, but my favorite is to dig up the Messier objects - [] - visible in your sky and just run down what you have available. Tried and true, fairly well known, and they're tough enough you have to actually look for them, but mostly easily enough to find that the students can find success. Another bonus: There are fantastic images available online and you can dig up a pile of photos that will help them see what they're looking

  • by seanvaandering ( 604658 ) <> on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:03PM (#31090654)
    Here is a good beginners guide to finding objects and telescope use: []
  • A four-inch scope (like the classic Edmund Astroscan that I started with) can show good examples of all the major object types in the night sky.

    The moon looks great in any kind of telescope. Get a moon filter and expect to spend some time on it.

    If the scope and eyepiece are decent, the rings of Saturn and the Galilean moons of Jupiter should be easy targets, and cloud bands on Jupiter just about visible, though you won't see much detail. Likewise Mars. . . Easy to see the planet, but no details. Phases

  • Some Suggestions... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Astronomerguy ( 1541977 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:10PM (#31090748)
    The moon, particularly when it's NOT full, as there is more detail to see when it's not full. Someone mentioned Jupiter and it's moons. Observe them over several nights, have your students sketch what they see, discuss why the moons are in different positions each night/hour. Get a copy of "Skyways" from the Royal AStronomical Society of Canada - it's a resource for teachers ( The Pleiades star cluster is always beautiful. Saturn will be high in the south east and is always nice even in a small telescope. Mars will be high in Cancer next to the Bee-hive cluster. Both are wonderful small-scope objects and will be very close together. The three bright galaxies in Leo, "The Leo Triplet" ( will all fit in a field of view nicely. Good luck!
  • by CyberBill ( 526285 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:10PM (#31090750)
    Hi, I help run an astronomy group (San Diego Astronomy Association) and I think I can help you out - feel free to contact me directly if you have questions.

    Right now I would recommend showing off:
    The Pleiades (M45) - []
    The Great Orion Nebula (M42) - []
    The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) - []

    You can also check out the planets - right now Mars is pretty close and bright, but it isn't much to look at through a 4" telescope. You can show off Saturn, but it doesn't rise until kind of late. You should be able to see the rings, but right now they are edge-on.

    Depending on where you are located, you may also be able to check out some smaller galaxies and nebula. Also, depending on where you are located, get in contact with an astronomy group and see if you can visit a local amateur observatory. We have a site about an hour from down town San Diego where we have a 22" telescope available for public viewing once a month and we also have public events held almost weekly where we bring telescopes generally around 10" in size (I bring my 16" on clear nights).

    Others have joked about using your telescope to point at the Sun - obviously don't do it. Even pointing the scope at the Sun will permanently destroy eyepieces and coatings on optics - and if you happen to look through it, say good bye to your vision. Permanently. However, if you can get yourself a solar filter to put over the telescope, you can safely observe the Sun - which is pretty interesting. You should be able to see sun spots and perhaps prominences with the right kind of filter.

    Good luck, and clear skies! :)
  • by ( 20754 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:13PM (#31090776)
    Link to general visibility -- []

    Your geographical location doesn't matter too much in spring, as you'll get plenty of viewing along the ecliptic.

    I think the linked site is for northern hemisphere. Hope your kids understand ecliptic before you're done.

    More links like it? google terms: planets visibility 2010
  • Although it isn't actually looking at the objects with your own telescope, all of the data that the Hubble Space Telescope creates is free to the public. To use the data you will need a copy of Adobe Photoshop, but once you have that it can be great fun to create the same sort of images you see from the Hubble Heritage site. To use the data (that you get in fits format) in Photoshop, you need to download the "Fits Liberator" from the [] site (check the projects tab). You can t
    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      NASA Image of the Day Gallery [] has some fantastic photos of stars, nebulas, planets (including the Earth), moons, galaxies, spacecraft, the ISS, the Hubble (and things it has photographed) etc. They're available in very high resolution and some are breathtaking.

      No Photoshop needed for that one.

  • Always start off with stars the students will recognize immediately. Rajnikant, Kamalahasan, Shivaji, MGR, Saroja Devi, T R Rajakumari, T K Thyagarajabhagavadhar, N S Krishnan ...
  • Get accustomed to setting up and taking down your telescope in the dark. You probably want a couple of flashlights with red filters to reduce night vision loss. Your students might be able to bring a few more binoculars or telescopes so that your students have something to do other than wait their turn at the telescope. Finally, I see a few links to sites about amateur astronomy. These can be pretty useful since there are a number of unintuitive things about telescope observer that would be better for you t
  • Venus (Score:5, Informative)

    by PhreakOfTime ( 588141 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:15PM (#31090834) Homepage

    Venus will become an evening star in the next few months. If your observations are over a few weeks, it would be an excellent evening target as it will go through its phases, much like our own moon does. If the observations are around twilight, you can even have them attempt to see Venus while the sun is still up by looking in the same part of the sky when the sun is up. It gets harder with age(sigh) but I remember easily being able to do it when I was around the age of grade 9.

    The Moon focus on the shadow line, or a time when its around 1 week bfore a full moon, as the terminator(shadow) will show excellent surface relief of features.

    Jupiter will be probably be only an early morning target during that time, so thats probably out.

    Saturn isnt going to be a very good target, other than to show it as a planet, because it is in the part of its orbit where the rings are tilted almost edge on to earth.

    Globular Clusters M13 in Hercules would be an excellent target.

    Planetary Nebula The 'ring nebula' in the constellation Lyra will be a excellent target for evening viewing, if its late enough, as from most locations in the US it appears almost at the zenith

    Double Stars Even through a 4" scope you can see some amazing color contrasts. Albireo in the constellation Cygnus is one of the best, with one red, one blue star. Also, you can go in to some detail about the different types of telescopes, and their functions.

    But most importantly, focus on the history of Astronomy itself. There is a rich history over thousands of years of astronomers that have taken us all the way to where we are now, and we wouldnt be here without those giants of the past; Gallileo Gallelie, Nikolas Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Charles Messier(hes the 'M' in all those objects...M13, M31, etc), Edwin Hubble, Edmund Halley.

    I envy you. Have Fun!

  • by Dr. Evil ( 3501 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:17PM (#31090864)

    In grade 10 the most impressive viewing I had was a daytime viewing of Jupiter. We looked at multiple planets during the day, it was very cool. It was an elective astronomy class though, so everyone there was very interested.

    The moon is good, but planets, depending on what is in the sky, would also be very cool. You can really see that Mars is red.

    Show them whatever inner planets are visible this time of year and they'll probably never forget it. Venus, Mars and Jupiter are awesome... and show them how you found them in the sky.

  • As other posters have mentioned, the moon is definitely something you should go for - it's big, bright, easy to find and quite impressive through a small telescope. Plus it's got historical significance for the role it played in Galileo's observations. Jupiter is another obvious target (also with historical significance). If you have enough time between your observing opportunities you can get the kids to draw the positions of the Galilean moons at the first session and then see that they've moved at the

  • by syousef ( 465911 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:18PM (#31090878) Journal

    Some suggestions:

    - Start with the planets, and bright messier objects (brighter than magnitude 4 to start with). Don't waste too much time on fainter deep sky objects - you need a larger scope (bigger aperture) and/or low light pollution.
    - Take a look at the zodical constellations and plan ahead to look at what's visible at the time of year your course is on.
    - Get a planisphere, and a book or two.
    - Take a look at the free astronomy software out there - especially Cartes Du Ceil/Skycharts, Celestia, Stellarium. There's excellent paid stuff too but start with what's free.
    - Get in touch with your local astronomy club and talk to them - some of them will have been in it for decades and will intimately know what's viewable from your location for a given time of year. You might even be able to get one to come out for an observing night.
    - Look up the brightest stars in wikipedia
    - Find a local professional astronomer and ask if they know of any school programs your school can get involved in. There may be a chance to get the kids to do some real science
    - Get a hold of a cheap pair of 7x50 binoculars. Binoculars are easier to use than a telescope, can be mounted to a camera tripod if you wish, and easier to learn to use before stepping up to a scope.
    - Create some basic analogue setting circles for your telescope and learn to align it so you can be sure you know what you're looking at
    - Make sure your kids know what they're looking at. Kids are use to big visuals and if they don't understand what they're seeing even the most impressive sites like Saturn's rings will be a let down

    The web is your friend. Lots out there. Not all related to observing. Google beginner astronomy.

  • by SengirV ( 203400 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:25PM (#31090958)

    1) The moon - easiest to find, everyone enjoys seeing it up close for the 1st time. Focus on Tycho crater and terminator.
    2) Saturn and Jupiter - next in line of ease. details apparent in even the smallest of scopes. You might get lucky and see Saturns rings at a large angle, or a transit of one of Jupiter's moons.
    3) Venus and mars - Though not that difficult to find, the detail, other than venus's phases can be a little disappointing.
    4) Some of the easier Messier objects -
      - Globular clusters - once you practice, they are easy to find in binoculars. Will be very surprising to students who are unfamiliar with Globular Clusters.
      - Open clusters - Pleiades for example
      - Galaxies - Andromeda would be the easiest, next in line is probably M81, M83

    Once you get down to #4, you really need to practice finding them before attempting it for the 1st time in front of the students.

  • Why not let your students choose some/all of the targets, subject to final vetting (or pre-screening) by you? In this way they gain a feeling of ownership over the process and generally become more invested in the subject matter. You could even point them to Stellarium [] for free home planetarium software to plan their observations.

    Whatever you decide to observe, your students will get more out of it if they are actively involved -- i.e., no passive observing. If you have several nights, you could look at

  • I teach astronomy courses to university students. The best object by far to look at is the Moon, as others have said.

    1. it's big and bright, so you can't miss it
    2. students can compare the view through the telescope to the view with their naked eyes
    3. students can compare the view through the telescope to the view through binoculars

    I've written a number of outdoor lab exercises for introductory astro students which would be perfectly appropriate for your students. You can read one on the []

  • Focus on the sky (Score:3, Informative)

    by Strange Ranger ( 454494 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:30PM (#31091036)
    My advice is to focus mostly on the sky rather than the telescope. You don't want to have "telescope class".

    Invite students to bring binoculars. Find and identify all the constellations you can. They're not just for astrology, they're a great way to orient yourself to the sky.
    Plus they're interesting and historical and you can see them with the naked eye. If you have 2 nights, find a planet on the first night and note it's position. On your next night out you can note how it "wandered". "Planet" being greek for "wanderer". Be sure to check out the Big Dipper. One it's stars [] is an optical binary as well as a telescopic binary. There's a nice little story to be told about ancient people using it to test eyesight. It's a great thing to look at with the naked eye, binoculars, and then the telescope, showing how each tool works relative to the other. Since most of the kids won't have telescopes at home, these are great lessons in how neat astronomy is with just your eyes and/or binoculars. They don't need a telescope to be interested.

    If you or somebody in your class has an iphone there are great astronomy apps []. StarMap and Distant Suns are both very good and offer free versions that work great in the field.

    Also, blankets and tarps are a good thing to bring along. Looking at the sky with the naked eye or binoculars is much more enjoyable lying on one's back. Craning necks is a good way to lose interest fast.

    Have Fun!!
  • The Tellus Science Museum [] in Northwest Georgia has a nice planetarium [].

    I wasn't to impressed with the kids program since you can basically get the same show on PBS, however the "Live Tour of Tonights Sky" is impressive.

    Georgia Tech does a lot of stuff with them and there are some nice exhibits. If you haven't been I'd recommend it.
  • As someone previously mentioned,

    "Turn Left at Orion" would be a good resource, because everything in TLaO is viewable through a 4" telescope. Further, there are pencil drawings of what one should see through the scope, which is a much more accurate depiction than what a person sees in magazines such as "Sky and Telescope" and "Astronomy".

    I would certainly plan ahead. There are really four categories of targets easily accesible with a 4" scope: (a) moon, (b) planets (really, just Saturn and Jupiter) (c) *s

  • "Turn Left at Orion" by Guy Consolmagno. Great book oriented toward small telescopes in the 60mm-100mm range.

    The moon is of course a great target -- crescent is best. Jupiter is terrific, and even if your scope is a mess the Galilean moons are certainly easy to see and of historical importance. I've been able to count bands pretty easily with my 90mm refractor, but I've modded it to improve contrast. Cheap Chinese refractors often have exposed screws and shiny forward surfaces that can be fixed with Shar

  • If you're asking that question it makes me think you're not very versed in using a telescope. Which has some problems.

    4" lens is pretty much meaningless as far as getting help. Is this an APO refractor? Newtonian? What kind of mount and is it motorized (I wouldn't want an adult to see through very high magnification on a non-motorized mount let alone a kid) ? These variables really change what I would try to view.

    There are tons of sites/programs that will map out a viewing session for you for a given
  • Variables? (Score:3, Informative)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:38PM (#31091152)

    I know its not a one night job, but maybe some visual observations of variables for extra credit thru the entire year?

    Yeah it is a bit late to start now:

    You'll be spending alot of time at the AAVSO website, may as well start here: []

    Basically, you learn two skills, star hopping from beta cep to tau cep, and then you compare the brightness of tau cep with its neighbors which have fixed, known magnitudes to estimate tau cep magnitude today. []

    It has the virtue of being free, if nothing else.

  • by pz ( 113803 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:38PM (#31091156) Journal

    I had looked at the moon forever with the naked eye, and a few times through a couple of lenses, including a backyard telescope. Then, because there was going to be an occultation, I had a chance to look at Jupiter through a pair of binocs. I was blown away that something that close had that much structure -- you could see just scads of moons!

    To instil a sense of Science, give the kids tools that they can use well beyond your classes. To this day, when I see Orion in the night sky, he seems like an old friend. When I see Mars waxing and waning, it helps me keep track of time through its two year cycle. Have them look at impressive things, but make sure you give them the tools to find the same objects with their naked eyes. Unless these kids become astronomers, they'll spend at most a few hours behind glass, but will have the rest of their lives to look up at the night sky with their eyes.

    One of the coolest things I've learned as a closet amateur astronomer is that the dark side of the moon is illuminated by backwash from the earth, or earthshine. OK, that makes sense if you think about it. But this fact was known almost 100 years ago, and we have a nearly complete record of the brightness of the dark side of the moon since then. That record is important because earthshine is directly related to the amount of terrestrial cloud cover, and that is related to climate. I wish I had known that as a kid, because I'd often wondered why you could see the dark side of the moon better (brighter) on some nights than on others.

  • First, The universe is, on a large scale uniform. That basically means the sky will look the same in any telescope: Black with white dots. That in itself in an important fact worth seeing, but quite boring.

    Second, The images on Google Sky and other all star surveys have spoiled us, and we all expect spectacular full color images. What you actually see will never meet this. Expect some disappointment.

    With expectations set, I would focus on what is not uniform: First tie it all in with Google earth, and histo

  • It takes several nights (and several hours per night) of viewing, but the most dramatic "wow, there's really stuff happening up there!" class project I've seen is calculating the orbital periods of Jupiter's moons. With just a 'scope, if you look at Jupiter, and then use a stopwatch to find the times for each of the moons going out of frame, and then have your kids plot those points out on graph paper. Do this at hour intervals for 3 nights running, you can then fit sine curves to the points and see what th

  • Ask NASA: (Score:3, Informative)

    by oneiros27 ( 46144 ) on Wednesday February 10, 2010 @05:45PM (#31091310) Homepage

    NASA has a website for educators:


    Most missions have a public outreach person who will send materials to teachers for use in their classroom.

    And for those joking about looking at the sun, see :


  • Try coordinating your location with []. They track lots (all?) the satellites and large debris, including some cool tumbling ones, so maybe you can find something there. They track the flares that come from reflections off solar panels too, but I've had no luck to seeing them using their location data.

    Only problem I foresee is that with a 4" telescope, unless there's some kind of tracking mechanism, regardless of what you're looking at, cycling through a bunch of kids will be di

  • Keep an eye out for open bedroom windows in the evening hours, you might catch a glimpse of some heavenly bodies. There's also the chance of some not so heavenly bodies, some as damaging to your eyes as the sun. So viewer beware!
  • Start with some of the Free software - stellarium and such. That way you can work in the classroom, in the day time, and since it is Free they can take it home as well.

    As for what to view at night, well, the sky is hte limit. Use the software to help ID what you are seeing, use the software to find things that would be cool to see (Orions Nebula, Mars, Jupiter, etc.)

  • If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, there's an app called 'Planets' which is free and makes it very easy to locate the planets: []

    The app gives you the azimuth and elevation of the various planets. Venus and Mercury are tough because they are pretty much always in the general direction of the sun due to the geography of the whole situation. The sun being so bright, it's hard to see them.

    Mars and Jupiter are pretty good bets I think.

    Not sure how powerful a 4" telescope is, b

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