With the help of a Skywatcher Heritage 130P telescope and beginner eyepieces and filters, we’ll venture deep into the night sky – night after night, season after season
In May, nights in Melbourne can be pretty freaking cold affairs. In 2019, it took a monumental plunge of daring for me to stake my spotting scope in the driveway and fish out the brightest star in the night sky. That first glance at Jupiter – a giant gaseous neighbour of ours in the galactic neighborhood – and its four moons: Io, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa, was all it took for me to be hooked to a cosmic affair, lasting a lifetime.
You must now be wondering what I had seen then that hooked me permanently on to astronomy. While school textbooks and television documentaries are full of all kinds of images and animations of the planets, nothing compares with the excitement and elation of seeing those with our very own eyes in the night sky. The grandiosity of the cosmic scale, the littleness of life’s many troubles and the appreciation for the intricate design in the assemblage of the majestic and yet mysterious universe are all realised in the first glance. It truly is an experience of a lifetime.
Let me take you on a short cosmic trip with me, armed with my Skywatcher Heritage 130P telescope and a collection of beginner eyepieces and filters. Like with any earthly expedition, we must wait for the right time and the right conditions. In this cosmic journey, we’ll venture deep into the night sky, night after night, season after season.
Jupiter, with its multiple bands and four moons locked in a perpetual dance around it, can mostly be spotted weeks before and after its ‘opposition’. Opposition for an outer planet is when it lies directly opposite to the Sun in our sky. Jupiter at opposition is at its brightest and visually the largest, and can then present fleeting glimpses of the Great Red Spot – a storm known to be raging on it for over 300 years now. If you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of one or more of its moons transiting the disk of the planet, leaving a clear black shadow of the moon on the planet. This is the equivalent of a solar eclipse, except that we can see it happening on Jupiter, from Earth.
Moving a little further out takes us to Saturn, whose opposition every year also brings stellar views. Visually, it presents itself as a small pale yellowish globe, circled by an incredibly beautiful system of rings, hanging high up in the night sky. Titan, its largest moon, and the only other place in the solar system known to contain liquid surface lakes (in this case of hydrocarbons), is also easily observable. If you are in for a treat, you’ll also find four other moons orbiting the planet. If you can train your eyes to fish out the smallest details, then try to spot the Cassini division, which is a fine line separating parts of Saturn’s ring system. Saturn is by far the prettiest object for visual observation in the entire solar system.
The other planets have their own qualities, and looking at some, such as Mars, can be an enthralling experience. Its opposition in October 2020 was the biggest and brightest appearance on the Earth’s skies for the next fifteen years. Many territorial features on Mars such as desert plains, rocky valleys, hazy clouds, the south and north polar ice caps and Olympus Mons – the largest planetary mountain in the Solar System – were easily photographed by astronomers worldwide. Venus is mostly a shining blob in the evening or morning sky, so bright, it can occasionally be picked out even during day time. But let’s move on, further into space now.
The onset of winter heralds the arrival of Orion Nebula in the constellation of Orion, with its clouds of gas and dust gleaming bright, easily visible through a telescope. With added magnification we can even pick out the Trapezium – a collection of four cosmically baby stars, many times larger than our sun – blazing ferociously in the middle, charging the dust and gas of the nebula, causing it to glow. The Orion nebula is a stellar nursery, where new stars, and possibly entire solar systems are born from the dust and proverbial ashes of stars that have gone Supernova long before.
Now switch to a pair of binoculars and aim it towards the constellation of Andromeda, to find our incredibly well-lit neighbouring galaxy. Over 2.5 million light years away, this galaxy is a true peek into the past, any hypothetical alien in that galaxy with powerful enough telescopes – looking towards Earth – would still be seeing early hominid hunter gatherers roaming the earth, alongside historical beasts. Buildings, cars, airplanes, and modern technology on earth, simply, cannot yet be seen from there.
But what if you don’t have a telescope, or even a pair of binoculars? Even then, the night sky shall not hide its bounties from you. Follow any astronomical calendar and seek dark skies, and you shall be rewarded. Provided the sky is dark enough, you can find the Perseids, Lyrids or similar meteors. Or else just admire the hazy white band across the night sky, which is the star-studded plane of our very own home galaxy; the Milky Way.
If you can travel south enough, try to find the second brightest star in the night sky, Canopus, that barely rises above the horizon and seems like a beacon of light off some distant lighthouse. In fact, Canopus is perfectly aligned with the south eastern wall of the Holy Kaaba, for those of you who might seek religious relevance in this pursuit. Or just track the progress of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky and also, one that gets a clear mention in the Holy Book.
And what if you are seeking a thrill greater than just viewing the commonest objects? Well, then you may push your limits and maybe try to split the “double double” in the constellation of Lyra – a total of four stars where the naked eye perceives only one. Or maybe look for Albireo, the prettiest pair with strikingly contrasting yellow and blue stars. Or check the hazy clouds of the globular clusters, remnants of former galaxies now long devoured by our Milky Way. Or seek out planetary nebulae such as the Dumbbells Nebula or the Ring Nebula; eerie representations of what could possibly be our sun’s future. Or just look at the sheer size and number of craters on the surface of the moon.
In short, there is no limit to this nighttime adventure, should you seriously pursue it.
Sadly, the pursuit for astronomy in Pakistan is challenging as telescopes are hard to find and dark sky locations are rarely accessible to random viewers. Yet, there is a dedicated following of astronomy in many of the country’s largest cities, such as Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, with an evident and increasing social media presence of such astronomical societies. For people who are interested in exploring more of the night sky, it is advisable to approach such groups for guidance and early exploration of possibilities and options.
This coming winter, I’ll be off to explore the dark skies of the sandy west in DG Khan, to find the Double Cluster of Perseus, the Triangulum Galaxy and the Orion Nebula. Where will you be going off to, to explore the night sky?
The writer is an environmentalist by qualification from the University of Melbourne, presently working in the Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He may be contacted at email@example.com
The grandiosity of the cosmic scale, the littleness of life’s countless troubles and appreciation for the intricate design work gone into the assemblage of such a majestic and yet mysterious universe, are all realised at first glance. It truly is an experience of a lifetime.