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EXPERT OPINION: Stargazing, with Mary Crone Odekon

What kind of telescope is best for getting started with astronomy? Actually, many people buy equipment they end up not using. I think it’s best to just go out and start watching with your naked eye and see if you get in the habit of going out when there’s a clear night. (Of course the weather is a big factor, and it doesn’t always cooperate.) And if you go out a second time a couple of hours later, you’ll really see how everything has shifted posi- tion a bit as the earth rotates through the night.

Then, if you find you’re going out pretty often, get some binoculars and do more watching. After that, you might want to buy a telescope.

Is there anything to see without a telescope? Definitely. If you spend just one hour watching the sky, you have a good chance of seeing one or two shooting stars and one or two satel- lites. You can Google “satellite tracking” to find Web sites that report when especially bright satellites will be over- head. Satellites don’t blink (as airplanes do), and they move across the sky at a very steady rate and then may sud- denly disappear as they enter Earth’s shadow. When the international space station is overhead, it can be very bright.

A lot of things look better in a good pair of binoculars than they do through a telescope. With the wider view, it’s easier to locate par- ticular stars or planets

in the sky, and you can also see a cluster or constellation better, rather than just narrowing in on the one or two brightest stars in it. One of my favorite things to watch is the moon. When it’s not full, the line between the shadowed part and the sunlit part can highlight the craters and mountains, and you really get a sense of it as a sphere and not just a flat disk.

What’s in the sky this time of year? This fall and winter is good for seeing Jupiter. With a small telescope you can see its clouds as hori- zontal stripes, and you can see its four

brightest moons—it looks like a miniature solar system. If you watch each night, you can see the moons change position as they orbit Jupiter.

The Pleiades (or the Seven Sisters or Subaru) star cluster is nice with the naked eye or binoculars. It looks kind of like a tiny version of the Big Dipper. And if the sky is quite dark, you can see the Orion nebula as a fuzzy greenish cloud.

What’s the best guide for where and when to watch? I really like If you can recognize Orion’s Belt or the Big Dipper in the sky, you can look at the Sky - maps charts and see where other interesting ob- jects will be in relation to them.

There are

also informa- tion centers—

like the Ameri- can Association of Variable Star

Observers (www—where serious amateurs can actu-

ally make significant contri- butions to the field. There’s just

so much out there that scientists and observatories can’t possibly monitor it all,

and everything is changing—variable stars, supernovae, asteroids hitting Jupiter... Peo- ple who know the sky and their equipment well enough to measure locations and com- pare brightness can often provide impor- tant observations.

Prof. Mary Crone Odekon is an astro - physicist who has used the Hubble Space Telescope and the giant radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, for her research.



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