Night Skies are Open for Budding Astronomers

by Kimberley McGee
vegas kids and night skies

Do you have a budding astronomer? With the lack of ambient light due to the closing of the Las Vegas Strip and local casinos, there are more stars, planets and events to check out in the night skies. 

We asked local telescope builder and author Fred Rayworth to answer some questions from local kids who wanted to know what they were looking at from their backyard. He pointed out what planets are somewhat easy to see, the best telescopes to start and how to best use a telescope.

What are some stars/planets we can see now that there is less ambient light?

 In the early evening, you can see Venus right after the sun goes down. It’s the brightest “star” or light in the sky in the west. Through a telescope or binoculars, it’s pretty obvious it’s not a star.

The easiest way to tell a star from a planet is that a star twinkles, but a planet does not.

In the morning, between around 4:30 a.m. and sunup, in the southeast sky, there is a line of relatively bright “stars” that don’t blink. The brightest is Jupiter, then a dimmer one next to it is Saturn. Finally, a bit more skewed to the side is Mars, which may or may not appear a ruddy orange or red.

What are some planets that may be harder to see?

Mercury is really tough to see and never gets very high above the horizon. (He checked the Megastar chart, which is active all the time.) Mercury is right next to the Sun, so it isn’t visible right now.

Uranus, even when it’s out, is pretty difficult to find and see in a telescope if you don’t know what you’re looking at. I routinely look at it every year because it’s my favorite planet. It’s a very small greenish-blue disk that needs at least 102-220X to see well. And, that’s not saying much. It’s still a very small blurry disk, depending on sky conditions. Right now, it’s next to the sun so it’s not available.

Neptune is near Mars in the very early morning and is nothing but a blue-gray speck in a high-powered telescope. I see it also every year in my scope but it takes good seeing and at least 102X just to see the disk. I usually use 209X to get a clear disk and it blurs in and out of focus. Keep in mind I’m using a 16-inch reflector so for kids, probably not something they’d find all that interesting.

Pluto is right next to Jupiter, which is quite misleading in the night skies. Pluto is so tiny, I’ve only seen it twice in my lifetime and even then, it was just a tiny speck I had to track over several nights just to detect the movement against several other faint stars.

How far out of town do we need to go to see spectacular views of the night skies? (Has that distance decreased since the quarantine?)

You don’t really have to go all that far to get decent dark skies for amateur viewing. My usual spot is Redstone Picnic Area, which is at the 27-mile marker on the North Shore Road at Lake Mead here in Las Vegas. If you live in other towns, I’d suggest just driving somewhere unpopulated, or relatively so. 

The best bet is to go online and look up a dark sky map of your area and look for the green areas around your town. The darker the green, the better. Blue or black is the best. Or gray. The thing is that you have to make sure you aren’t trespassing and it’s a safe spot! The quarantine has helped a bit, I’d say but I haven’t really been out to check.

What telescope do you recommend? Any tips on using a telescope in the backyard to hone those skills?

Absolutely! Some amateurs do not go by my tenets here, but after long and hard-earned experience and observing of others, along with way too many anecdotes to ever go into here, I can save you all a lot of grief.

By far, the best telescope for a beginner to check out night skies, is a simple Dobsonian type reflector, 4-6-inches or maybe 8, depending on how much they want to spend.

Next, and this is extremely important. NO ELECTRONICS!

I REPEAT. NO ELECTRONICS!

A Dobsonian mount is a simple up-down, left-right mount with no wobbly tripod or counterweight. The optics are a mirror instead of a lens.

The best focal ratio (how long the scope is) is to start with f/5 to f/8. The reason being is that anything shorter (f/4.5 or f/4) will probably not be corrected well and will give lousy images.

When I say no electronics it’s for the simple fact that doodads are something the youngster can get way too dependent on. They not only add an extra expense, they are cheap, and unreliable. When they go out, the kid’s stuck with an overpriced piece of junk they can’t find anything with. Using a telescope isn’t about punching buttons.

What are some tips to know it’s a good telescope for kids?

The scope should have a decent finder, either a large straight-through finder, a red dot finder, or a Telrad.

To hone skills, the newbie should get a decent set of charts, or use the charts in the middle of Astronomy or Sky & Telescope Magazines. Look for the Messier objects (the ones with the M designations) first. They are ALL within binocular range so a decent Dobsonian will pick them up.

Now, power. A rule of thumb when buying a telescope. If the box is covered with Hubble telescope images, it’s probably a piece of junk. I’m not kidding.

You’re never going to see any of that stuff in your tiny little telescope. Plain brown wrapper is the key here (or box).

As for power, or more correctly MAGNIFICATION, use the lowest magnification to start out with. There’s nothing worse than cranking the magnification up to XXXX and trying to search for something with a view field like a soda straw. Not going to work.

The lowest powered eyepiece (the one with the biggest number (20mm, 28mm, 30mm) etc, will give you the widest field. Use that to search or the object FIRST. Then, if you can hold it in the view, try one of the other eyepieces. It’s best to try on an easy bright target and get used to the feel of not only the eyepieces but the feel of the scope itself.

What can kids expect to see?

Even depending on the size of the scope, DO NOT expect to see Hubble like images in your small scope. I can’t even see that in my 16-incher! Not going to happen. Details are subtle and delicate. You’d be surprised what you can see with patience and not expecting to be blown away with fireworks. (VKZ – The night skies may be darker but they don’t offer the same as a dark skies area, such as Bryce Canyon in Utah or the Great Basin area.)

How do you aim the scope?

Aiming and finding something from the chart are a skill best practiced, especially when the object is fainter. You have to expect limited results, especially at first. You also have to learn how to “mow the lawn.” In other words, sweep the area slowly and look for that faint smudge and recognize it as the faint smudge you’re looking for.

Skills come from practice.

#astronomy #homeschoolastronomy #astronomers #homeschooled #homeschooling #homeschoolNevada #VegasHomeschoolers 

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Kimberley McGee
Author: Kimberley McGee

Kimberley McGee is an award-winning journalist and homeschool mama of twins.

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