Jupiter, not so up close and not so personal

By Phil Plait | September 21, 2010 11:30 am

cassini_jupiterSo you’ve probably heard that tonight, Jupiter is as close to Earth as it’ll get in many years. While this is true, and pretty cool — and I certainly don’t want to damp enthusiasm for anyone wanting to go outside and see it! — I want to make sure you understand what this means.

First of all, this whole thing is happening because Jupiter is at opposition: that is, it’s directly opposite the Sun in the sky. A better way to think of this is that the Earth is passing very nearly directly between the Sun and Jupiter, so from the Earth we see them on opposite sides of the sky. At this point, the Earth is as close to Jupiter as it can get for that particular orbit. Both Earth’s and Jupiter’s orbits are slightly elliptical, so sometimes Jupiter gets a bit closer to us at opposition than other times; this year is the best in decades. It’s about 590 million km (355 million miles) away. That’s still a pretty long way!

But Jupiter is a big planet, 140,000 km (86,000 miles) across, almost 11 times wider than the Earth! It’s also a whitish color, so it reflects a lot of sunlight. Its size, reflectivity, and close distance together make it a very bright object in the sky. If you go outside any time after sunset tonight you’ll see it in the east, a luminous beacon glowing brilliantly.

However, some people have been saying that tonight is the best night to see it, and we won’t get a chance to see it like this again for years. Shades of the Mars Hoax! In reality, it doesn’t matter if you go out tonight, or wait a few days. While technically Jupiter is closest right now, it’s not like it’ll be a lot farther away tomorrow night. Here’s why.

Jupiter takes about 12 years to go around the Sun, while Earth takes one. So we can assume Jupiter isn’t moving at all for the moment. If Jupiter, the Earth, and the Sun all lie on a line tonight, then tomorrow night Earth will have moved a little bit off that line (so will Jupiter, but much less). Using a little trig, I was able to figure out that the distance the Earth has moved away from Jupiter in one day is about 23,000 km (14,000 miles).

That’s not a whole lot compared to Jupiter’s vast distance. Adding an additional 23,000 km is really a piddly amount. Even with a big telescope it would be almost impossible to measure any difference!

So if you go out tonight, or tomorrow, or in October, by eye you won’t see any difference. But don’t let that stop you! Even through a pair of binoculars Jupiter is a magnificent sight: you can easily spot its four big moons, first discovered by Galileo almost exactly 400 years ago, and you can even spot one of Jupiter’s dark bands on its cloud tops (the other disappeared months ago, but may reappear any time).

As an added bonus, Uranus is not far from Jupiter right now; I spotted it easily the other night using just my binoculars. It appears as a pale bluish-green star near the bigger planet. Star charts for this aren’t easy to find, but I went to YourSky, put in my latitude and longitude, then clicked on the link for Uranus in the planet table displayed. That might help.

So maybe the bad news is you can’t see any difference in Jupiter tonight and tomorrow night, but if you go and see it tonight you’ll know it’s a teensy bit closer than it was yesterday, or will be tomorrow. And the good news is that if it’s cloudy where you are, it won’t matter much to wait a few days! In fact, in a few weeks Jupiter will be up higher at sunset, and easier to observe earlier. So this is win-win!

Get outside when you can and take a look at this mighty planet, and remember that even though it’s so far away, it’s still an incredibly bright and beautiful sight in the night sky.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Debunking
MORE ABOUT: Jupiter, observing, Uranus

Comments (69)

  1. Phewww. This is good news as I don’t have time to look tonight. Great explanation!

  2. fredR

    I think you got your units confused in paragraph 6…

    “Adding an additional 23,000 miles…”

    based on the prior paragraph it should be 23,000 km.

  3. Got a nice picture of it using just my Canon PowerShot G10 (non-DSLR) and a tripod. It’s always an amazing subject to photograph or look at through a ‘scope. Gotta love the King of Planets!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/spaceplatypus/5010066467/

  4. bigjohn756

    Will it be as big as the full moon? Huh? Huh?

    BTW, this year I got no emails about Mars being close in August. I got one last year, so maybe it’s dying out. Or, maybe these people simply don’t send them to me anymore because I just explain what is really happening every time. I get a kick out of thinking about all of these simple minded folks going out in the evening and waiting for Mars to come looming over the horizon even though it didn’t happen the year before or the year before that, etc., etc..

  5. My siter’s boyfriend’s cousin’s best friend got an email that said Jupiter will be as big as the moon tonight. Honestly!

    :P

  6. Chris

    The one pain in this is that the moon is nearly full and near Jupiter so it takes a little of the glory away. Also if you have a decent digital camera with good zoom, you can actually take a photo of the moons of Jupiter and Uranus without a telescope. I have a 12x zoom and a “starry sky” option which keeps the shutter open for up to 60 seconds. You won’t get detailed pics, but you will be able to see the streaks of the stars and planets (and moons) as the Earth rotates.

  7. I saw Jupiter this morning when I got up to answer the call of nature. We have a telescope in the front window so I went out and took a look. Having the glass in the way didn’t help but it still looked very pretty. If it’s clear tomorrow, and I wake up again, I’ll try to have a look for Uranus. Is it as close in as the Galilean moons, or a little farther?

  8. Timmy

    I just finished reading Galileo’s Dream, which I highly recommend. I have been curious about trying to find Jupiter, but I don’t own a telescope and didn’t even think about using digital camera…
    According to the book Galileo’s telescope was about 32X, and he was able to see Jupiter’s moons and a lot of the details of our own moon. I think I am going to head outside with the camera on a tripod and see what I can see. Hooray Science!

  9. @bigjohn756

    I got an e-mail about Mars being as big as the moon. They even included a picture as an illustration. Too bad the pic was a Cassini picture of Tephys and Dione.

  10. Heffae

    I have two young children 3 and 6, and I found the best time to for them to see Jupiter was just as the sun was setting. This way the sky is still to bright for stars to be visible but dark enough that Jupiter can be very clearly seen. We were also able to easily see either Mars or Venus (I couldn’t figure out which) setting in the West. I’m in Arizona so this may only be a good time for people in the southern US

  11. Scott Romanowski

    Trebuchet,
    IIRC, Uranus will be about 1° away from Jupiter — about twice the width of the Moon. Jupiter should be about 50″ (50 arcseconds), so Uranus will be about 70 Jupiter diameters away. Callisto’s orbit is the biggest but at the farthest it’s only about 13 Jupiter diameters away from Jupiter. I got the data from http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/jupiterfact.html and http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/joviansatfact.html .

  12. Patrick

    @timmy

    I was able to see the moons last night in a 6×30 finder scope.

  13. I went out last night and observed Jupiter, and it looked great! I could see the northern equatorial belt (the southern one is still missing) and all four Galilean moons– two on each side, almost perfectly balanced.

    I also saw Uranus, which is also at its closest approach to Earth (tiny green dot) and is only one degree away from Jupiter. In fact, my brother manages to get both of them in the field of view of the telescope at the same time!

    It was a fun evening.

  14. You don’t need much to see Jupiter’s Moons. 8×50 binoculars can usually pic them out (if you can hold them steady…a tripod mount helps). The Galileoscope gets them all easy.

    And if you are blessed with clear skies, good seeing and Callisto is near maximum separation, you can get it naked eye. I pulled this off Friday night at Kitt Peak. I saw a little spec hanging out just barely outside the glare of Jupiter. I asked one of the observers to fire up Starry Night and see where Callisto was. Sure enough, it was near maximum separation at the correct position relative to Jupiter compared to what I was seeing so I am pretty sure that was Callisto, no visual aid.

  15. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    Phil Plait:

    … you can easily spot its four big moons,…

    …, Uranus is not far from Jupiter right now; I spotted it easily the other night using just my binoculars.

    Let's take a closer look at Uranus

  16. Chris

    Has anybody seen any Klingons around Uranus?

  17. Nemo

    I saw Jupiter last night, naked-eye only, and was kind of amazed at how bright it was. I guess I should really break out the binoculars…

  18. Unfortunately It looks like clouds here tonight so I wont be observing. For those going out tonight. Europa is going to be transiting across the face of Jupiter starting around 9:45 pm Eastern Daylight time, and will be right in the middle of Jupiter around 11:30pm. Europa’s shadow will be nearly directly behind Europa because Jupiter is right at opposition.

    Although I am not going to get out tonight, I did get some images last night…here was the best of the lot:

    Jupiter @ opposition  9/21/10  4:20UT

  19. Missy

    I stepped off the elevator outside the Griffith Observatory after a great lecture and there it was right in front of me! It was great to see!!!

  20. Sarah

    <3 Jupiter! I've been watching it all summer with my brand new binoculars and sudden onslaught of astronomy fever. If you want an accurate picture of the night sky in your area, I strongly suggest the FREE downloadable program Stellarium. It is fabulous and oh so helpful to amateurs (and I suspect, many more professional types).

  21. Michael Bowers

    Thanks for posting this! When I read the original story posted with giant, beautiful pictures of Jupiter I also smelled Mars Hoax. It certainly needed some clarification.

    I think it’s also worth clarifying that even with Jupiter closer, through your average amateur telescope, Jupiter will not look like the pictures complete with detailed color bands and bright red spot. It will more likely look like a bright white circle with a little color in it and 4 little white dots very near it along the mid line. While this may be a letdown for people if they were expecting the Hubble image, I still think this is AMAZING! Just think, with nothing more than a tube with glass in it, you can see clearly that what looked like just a pin point bright star to the naked eye has a shape, and those little dots are its moons! From night to night you can even watch those moons noticeably move, just like Galileo did. It’s pretty darn cool, and with Jupiter this close, now is a great time to check it out.

    Maybe BadAstronomer would be so kind as to post a picture of what Jupiter will look like to the naked eye and through your average amateur telescope for comparison at this time of year? Thanks!

  22. Utakata

    From zAmboni @ 16’s sample…

    Hmmm…it still looks like it’s missing it’s mid band. Did anyone ever figured out what happen to it?

  23. Chris

    At the bottom of that page here is a nice finder chart for Uranus
    http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/highlights/85530917.html

    And, OMG, I just saw Uranus with my 15€ DIY scope!! Made my day!!!
    I mean, one can just use binoculars, but… you know what I mean.. :-D
    whohooo

  24. Last weekend I took my digital camera and a tripod outside for my first attempts at astrophotography. I was so amazed and inspired when I took a closer look at my photos and realized not only did I have a great image of Jupiter, but Callisto and Uranus as well.

    It was a life-altering moment.

  25. Michael Bowers — Here’s a photo I took the other night. It was my first attempt at astrophotography. Jupiter is the bright feature. Immediately to the right of it is it’s third-largest moon Callisto. Directly above it is Uranus. I hope this helps:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/bSfFtQKt9TcokQX1gNsWHGrPPog4gh1EZt_slDG0k9I?feat=directlink

  26. Kris

    “Star charts for this [Uranus] aren’t easy to find”

    Assuming northern hemisphere:

    In the evening — look at Jupiter, then go up and a bit to the left.
    In the morning — look at Jupiter, then up and to the right.

    It’s the only blue object around there, so it’s hard to confuse with anything else.

  27. It looks nice from Spain through my Galileoscope.

  28. AliCali

    @ Missy (#17).

    Was that lecture on Saturday by John Dobson? If so, did you chat up the telescope owners in the front lawn? Maybe a handsome guy with a little 8″ and too much hair?

    @ Michael Bowers (#18).

    You’d have to define “average amateur telescope.” My 8″ Newtonian is considered a pretty basic model. Even so, with a small telescope, you can detect some color and detail in Jupiter. Although it’s true that you don’t want anyone to expect to see what they see in photos. It’s always best to not give high hopes or else you hear, “That’s it?” (Of course, I’ve never heard that comment when showing Saturn to people.)

  29. Michel

    Why didn´t we hear anything from the doomsday criebabies and the astrologists that we would be pulled apart?

  30. adrian & lynn

    We have just had are first sighting of jupiter what an amazing sight with the moons fantastic viewing.

  31. Yeah, I’d been surprised at some of the coverage of this, e.g. a NASA site saying that Jupiter is having a “close encounter with Earth”. You’d think after the Mars nonsense, people would know better, so thanks for covering it.

  32. susi

    I’m looking at the moon right now and can see jupiter only looking with the naked eye so it looks somewhat like a star to me but i was talking with a friend whilst doing this and she noticed a shadow like ring in the sky round both of them that i can also see aswell!!!! I’m no scientist and dont really know alot about things like this….. can anyone else see this or explain what this is?????? im from the north west of the uk and i first saw this at 23:05

  33. Just want to add that anyone with an android phone really, really needs to download “Skymap” from google, its an amazing tool that uses all the gizmos like gps/internet/gyro/compass/whatever thats inside one of these new phones and creates a realtime augmented skymap you can use to find whatever star, and find out what your looking at. Its free and awesome and stuff.

    http://www.google.com/mobile/skymap/

    There seems to be some alternatives for Iphone too if you google “sky map for iphone” but I havent tried them.

  34. Grand Lunar

    So wouldn’t now be the time to launch the Alexi Leonov to examine the large monolith? ;)

    There’s something about Jupiter that appeals to me; often I’ve found it to be a favorite.

  35. Corey

    Something about the math in this post is bugging me.

    The earth will be 23Mm further away after 24 hours, but the diameter of Jupiter itself is 140Mm?

    This is based on trig with one side of a triangle at 590Gm?

    I find it hard to believe, seat-of-the-pants, that in 24 hours, the two orbits move the planets further apart by less than 1/6th the diameter of Jupiter.

    I suppose I could look this up but I’d rather just see the angle in that trig, Dr. Plait.

  36. Mike Saunders

    Jupiter put your pants back on >:(

  37. Brian Waddington

    Actually both the stripes and the GRS are back in view. Three nights ago it started off with just the GRS but eventually the northern stripes were coming into view.
    Brian

  38. Brian Gilkison

    Someone was asking what a “typical” view might look like. I don’t know if I am “typical”, but I’ll offer up these pics I took last night:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/20318070@N06/5012893401/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/20318070@N06/5012893663/

    The scope is a Meade DS114 (no longer manufactured, to my knowledge). The specifics are: D=114mm, F=910mm, f/8. The eyepiece was a Sirius Plossl 10mm, paired with a Shorty-Plus 2x Barlow multiplier. I mention the eyepiece because the picture was taken through the eyepiece with my iPhone 3G’s camera (!)

  39. I actually got my best look at it 2 weeks ago when I was at a campground with wonderfully dark skies. It was a LOT brighter there then than it is now when I’m in the city. I also had the opportunity to point it out to a bunch of other campers which was nice.

  40. Messier Tidy Upper

    Both Earth’s and Jupiter’s orbits are slightly elliptical, so sometimes Jupiter gets a bit closer to us at opposition than other times; this year is the best in decades. It’s about 590 million km (355 million miles) away. That’s still a pretty long way!

    What’s that in Astronomical Units?

    Nice write-up there BA as always. :-)

    @10. Heffae Says:

    I have two young children 3 and 6, and I found the best time to for them to see Jupiter was just as the sun was setting. This way the sky is still to bright for stars to be visible but dark enough that Jupiter can be very clearly seen. We were also able to easily see either Mars or Venus (I couldn’t figure out which) setting in the West. I’m in Arizona so this may only be a good time for people in the southern US.

    What colour was the planet? Was there a reddish hue like Mrs or was it more brighter’n’whiter like Venus?

    Not sure if this helps you much or not but according to yesterday’s (21st Aug. 2010) The Australian newspaper’s weather* page based on information supplied by Sydney Observatory :

    Venus rises at 7.13 am and sets at 9.11 pm
    Mars rises at 7.24 am and sets at 8.23 pm

    – but you’ll have to adjust for local time & perhaps daylight savings time if that exists where you are now.

    I’d suggest a good planetarium software program would help best.

    ——–

    * Yes, the planets – & moon and constellations – apparently count as weather! ;-)

  41. MadScientist

    I disagree with the “almost impossible to measure a difference”. Atmospheric turbulence would be the greatest nuisance, but I would still expect a relatively easily measured difference and you don’t even need a large telescope for the job – in fact this is a case where a fairly small telescope would work very well. However, what’s easily accomplished by an appropriate instrument is by no means doable by humans – experiments can easily be set up to demonstrate that there’s no way a human can discern the difference, just as I expect no human to be able to look at a full image of the sun and notice the ellipticity.

  42. MadScientist

    @susi#32: There could be some ice high up in the atmosphere causing a halo – if that was the case then the bands you observe should be the same angle from the center of the bright object (moon or Jupiter). I have this problem of old age where I see a halo around any bright spot – but it’s simply light being scattered in my eyeballs; the way to tell is to hold up a finger to block out the light; a true atmospheric halo will still be visible but one caused by light scattering in the eyes would instantly disappear as you block out the light source. Of course you needn’t use a finger; you could always stand in a slightly different position and use buildings or trees to do the blocking.

  43. Llarry

    Fine then, go out and do it, measure the difference and report back to this site in a year…

  44. shawmutt

    34 years old and I finally saw Jupiter’s moons by accident. A couple weeks ago I had a weird inkling to sit out on my back deck at night with binoculars and look up. I saw this star with weird specks around it, and had a really cool wow moment when I realized it was Jupiter and four moons. I got bit by the astronomy bug and now have an astronomy book, a red flashlight, and a planisphere!

  45. A couple days ago, I saw the headline on Yahoo that Jupiter will be brighter than the moon. Uh-huh. And I will run faster than a bullet train at full speed.

  46. Eric

    So I got my el-cheapo telescope and camera out last night with my boys (fun for all!), and it wasn’t until I looked at the pics in succession this morning that I saw something weird.

    There is a blue-green smear near Jupiter on my shots (album linked below). I had assumed it was Uranus when taking the pictures, but looking at them again this morning I see it is in the wrong position, which ordinarily I would chalk up to me not reading a star chart right, but it is also moving. It actually appears to be two separate objects since the green smears appear at two different points in the sky (again, did not notice until this morning).

    Are these satellites, or something really cool like a comet?

    http://picasaweb.google.com/117874958359386977807/Astronomy?feat=directlink

  47. I’ve got a Galileoscope, and I finally put it on a tripod and dragged it out to a schoolyard near my house last night. I live in a city so the light’s pretty awful, but I could still see Jupiter just fine. I was absolutely amazed — just completely dumbstruck — that I could see Jupiter as a disk and see a band across its surface. The three moons were visible (@Zamboni mentioned Europa transiting last night). I didn’t find Uranus, but I wasn’t looking too hard.

    Awesome. Just incredible. I’m so very excited. Thanks, Phil and everyone else, for kicking my butt out the door. :-)

  48. Michel

    @shawmutt
    Welcome to the club!
    Have you told your wife yet?
    Before you know it you want a scope.
    And here you have two good websites/forums with lots of people willing to help you on your first steps.
    stargazerslounge.com
    cloudynights.com

  49. Timmy

    I spent about 40 minutes figuring out how to set the shutter speed on my wife’s camera, and headed out to the driveway.
    It’s a Nikon D40 with a 10-100mm lens. When I zoomed in I could clearly see the disc of Jupiter and one of the moons through the viewfinder, and I completely geeked out! I was out there for at least an hour shooting Jupiter and our moon, and I can’t wait to embiggen my pics and see what I got!!

    I’ll be out there again tonight with binoculars and my HD cam. I also downloaded Stellarium on my netbook and looked up gallileoscopes…

  50. FC

    Stellarium is an awesome application for helping out with the night sky. Not sure if it will print starcharts, but it runs nicely in a laptop and the app can run in night mode (pure red) without requiring a filter so you can take it with you in your observations.

  51. Dawn

    I think I saw it this morning when on my way to work (it was 5:40 am on the US east coast), over towards the southwest. Looked a lot bigger than the moon, and whiter. I’ll need to try to look for it tonight to see if I am right, or if I saw the moon and just made a mistake. (It’s hard to gawk at that really cool sight in the sky on a motorcycle).

  52. Jason

    It’s a shame Juno wasn’t ready to go to take advantage of this.

  53. Tribeca Mike

    I’ve been enjoying the sight of Jupiter all month, so thanks (as always) for the information. Tonight I’ll be viewing “Optimus Maximus” while standing on a step stool to get the best close-up view.

  54. Eric said:

    Are these satellites, or something really cool like a comet?

    http://picasaweb.google.com/117874958359386977807/Astronomy?feat=directlink

    I hate to break it to you, but they aren’t comets, or satellites. If you draw a line between Jupiter and the smudge and overlay all the lines, they all cross right at the center of the picture.

    What you are seeing is the internal reflection of Jupiter that is getting bounced around inside the camera and the lens.

  55. Eric

    zAmboni said: “What you are seeing is the internal reflection of Jupiter that is getting bounced around inside the camera and the lens.”

    What?! Nooooooooooo! Curse you Laws of Optics! (shakes angry little fist at the sky)

    Now that that is out of the way, how do I prevent that sort of thing in the future? (and now that you have pointed it out, it is obviously tracking along opposite from Jupiter)

  56. Buzz Parsec

    @messy,
    yes, they are atmospheric phenomena, so they *do* count as weather. After all, the celestial sphere is the only thing that holds the air in, otherwise it would spill off the edge of the earth. And anything below the sphere (like planets, comets, meteors and birds) is clearly in the air, hence atmospheric. Birds, of course, are plants (from the word “planet” meaning “wandering vegetable”.) Ducks, in particular, like witches, are made from wood, which is why they float and burn.

    (Are the smileys necessary?)

  57. Buzz Parsec

    Dawn @ 52,

    Sorry, that *was* the Moon. Jupiter is the 5th brightest object in the sky (except the occasional airplane with its landing lights on), but is not anywhere near as bright as the
    Moon, and never appears larger than a pin-point. (The brighter objects are the Sun, the Moon, Venus and the International Space Station. Even the brightest stars are dimmer than Jupiter, though not by much.)

    For Jupiter to appear the same size as the Moon, it would have to be 44 times as far away, or about 11 million miles. At that distance we would probably get fried by its radiation belts, so its a good thing it is really about 400 million miles distant! (Jupiter is about 11 times the Earth’s diameter, and Earth is about 4 times the Moon’s diameter, so 44 times bigger, and would have to be 44 times as far away to appear the same size.)

    Jupiter was the very bright star-like object to the left and above the Moon as it set at about 6 AM local daylight saving time last night/this morning.

  58. Vex

    How exciting!! Unfortunately we’ve had nothing but gloomy, cloudy skies for the past few weeks. Looking forward to some clear skies to test out my newly downloaded Stellarium :)

  59. shawmutt

    @Michel My wife was laying in the lawn chair next to me, enjoying the sights. I have a cool wife ;-)

  60. Messier Tidy Upper

    57. Buzz Parsec Says:

    @messy, yes, they are atmospheric phenomena, so they *do* count as weather. After all, the celestial sphere is the only thing that holds the air in, otherwise it would spill off the edge of the earth. And anything below the sphere (like planets, comets, meteors and birds) is clearly in the air, hence atmospheric. Birds, of course, are plants (from the word “planet” meaning “wandering vegetable”.) Ducks, in particular, like witches, are made from wood, which is why they float and burn.

    Nice un. LOL :-)

    (Are the smileys necessary?)

    Yes! :-) ;-)

    @8. Buzz Parsec Says:

    Dawn @ 52, Sorry, that *was* the Moon. Jupiter is the 5th brightest object in the sky (except the occasional airplane with its landing lights on), but is not anywhere near as bright as the Moon, and never appears larger than a pin-point. (The brighter objects are the Sun, the Moon, Venus and the International Space Station. Even the brightest stars are dimmer than Jupiter, though not by much.)

    Except for the very rare supernovae or novae & the odd great comet! [/nitpick off.]

  61. Charly

    Okay, so me and my 12 yr old are all excited about checking out Jupiter, but our hand me down telescope is a piece of carp (that’s how we say it in my family – b/c the true spelling/pronounciation isn’t nice!). I need a recommendation for a beginners, basic telescope. Any recommendations, or can you send me to a site that can help me?

  62. LOL…i thought that JUPITER will be sooo big….LOL…its not thatmuch…tooo small… :D

  63. Buzz Parsec

    @62, Charly:

    A lot of astronomers recommend starting out with a good pair of binoculars. You want large lenses for good light-gathering power (50 mm is good, 35 mm is okay, smaller and lighter, anything smaller, such as pocket-sized binoculars are really too small.) Bigger lenses are nice, but get very expensive very quickly and are heavy and hard to hold still, especially for smaller kids.

    For magnification, you don’t need tons of power, and high magnification spreads out the light from fainter extended objects, such as star clusters, making them dimmer. 7 to 10x is a good range.

    You want coated lenses to cut down on stray reflections which are confusing and tend to wash out the view (some people actually see internal reflections and think they are UFOs!), and good coatings also cause more of the light to go through the lens rather than reflecting off, producing a brighter view. Fancy red coatings do nothing useful, are pure marketing hype, so avoid those. Good coatings are usually gray or slightly yellowish or bluish gray, depending on the material used. Multicoating, silicon monoxide or aluminum oxide are often mentioned, but I’m not sure of the latest technology.

    And you want a pair that is mechanically sound, meaning they hold a focus but are easy to adjust, the light paths through the two lenses are optically aligned (so your eyes aren’t forced to look in two different directions), don’t wobble around. These are things to look for if you are checking them out in a store.

    A plus with binoculars is you can also use them for sports, bird watching, touristy stuff and so on.

    A decent pair of 10×50 (10 power, 50 mm diameter lenses) can be had for about $175-$200, I think.

    For a small telescope, I would recommend a 3″ or 4.5″ Dobsonian reflector. (A 6″ or 8″ is heavier and bulkier, but may be a better choice if you’re serious.) A Dobsonian mount is a very simple, pivoting box-like affair which allows you to easily point the telescope in any direction, and hold it steady. It is much cheaper and lighter (important for transportation) than a good equatorial mount, but doesn’t allow for automatic tracking or computerized “GoTo” type usage. (Though people have solved that problem with ingenious mechanisms, I would forgo that as a beginner!) You really learn much more about the sky by manually finding things, and you won’t be looking for obscure faint galaxies and nebulae with this small a telescope anyway.) Also, motorized mounts are noisy and annoying… :-(

    The same rules about coatings and mechanical stability apply to a telescope. Also, look for one that takes 1 1/4″ eyepieces. Larger 2″ eyepieces are generally much to heavy for a small telescope and are very expensive. Smaller .965″ eyepieces are usually sold only with “department store”, “smelly fish (aka carp)” scopes, avoid these.

    Reflectors have it all over refractors in the lower price ranges. You get much more telescope for the dollar, and high-quality small refractors cost several thousand dollars. Most small refractors in the 2″ – 3″ size range are total carp.

    Good quality small Dobsonian reflectors cost a little more than good quality binoculars – $200-$300.

    One good source is Orion Telescopes (www.telescope.com). Their smallest Dobsonian was recommended to me by a Sky & Telescope editor as a great kids / beginners
    scope, and I’ve had good luck with their binoculars and eyepieces. There are other good brands. Both Sky & Telescope magazine and Astronomy magazine usually publish “buying guide” issues in the fall at the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. I don’t know if this year’s issues are out yet, but if you can track down last years (at a local library or borrow from a friend, it should be good enough.)

    BTW, about 10-15 years ago, my boss’s wife borrowed the S&T buying guide from me and as a result bought her son an Orion 6″ Dob for Christmas which he totally loves. He was working for the US State Department in Kenya at the time, so shipping was an issue, but as a US Govt employee, he was eligible for some kind of very cheap parcel service. Otherwise it would have cost a fortune. Ironically, most of the cheaper scopes are made in China and already have the cost of shipping them across the Pacific built into the price. I was looking for a scope for my brother in Australia, and shipping it back across the Pacific would have doubled the price! So if you aren’t in North America, look for a local distributor.

  64. Charly

    Buzz – thanks! Now I feel like I can at least make a decent attempt at working through what’s available, and the dollars are right about where I expected/wanted them to be! I really appreciate you taking the time and being so thorough!

  65. Buzz Parsec

    Charly, you’re welcome, but please double-check my “facts” just in case I messed something up, before you spend any money!

  66. Geomaniac

    My wife and I checked Jupiter out a week or so ago with our 4″ Meade scope and could only see 3 of the Gallilean moons. I can only assume that the 4th one was in transit across the face of Jupiter and was hence invisible to us. We’ll have to go have another look soon.

  67. Markle

    For future reference, Sky & Telescope have a page that calculates Jupiter’s Gallilean moons for you. http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/javascript/jupiter#

  68. Thanks for that link, I’m going to try to find Uranus tonight (assuming a clear sky!)

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