Aside from the turbulent year that was 2020, many people have discovered the joy of looking up at the night sky for the first time this year, and will have asked for a telescope this Christmas. Every year as the Sun sets at the end of Christmas Day, turkey-stuffed astronomy newcomers unpack their first telescope and head outside.
Yet as new telescope owners stand there beneath the winter sky, their wacky Christmas jumpers hidden beneath thick coats and mighty Orion staring down at them, many may be disappointed – especially if the expectation was to see breathtaking views through their new telescope as good as the Hubble and Voyager images printed on its box.
The actual night sky itself might be against them, too. They might want to see Saturn’s rings, or the ice caps of Mars, but those planets might not be in the sky that night. Disappointment and disillusionment may set in.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Your first night with your new telescope can be a wonderful experience that will make you fall in love with the night sky. Indeed, your Christmas gift can inspire a lifelong interest.
Here we’ll take you on a short tour across the Christmas night sky, helping you to munch your way through a celestial selection box
of cosmic delights that should inspire and help you appreciate the reality of sky-watching with your new telescope.
A gibbous Moon on the evening of 25 December 2020 will drown out the faint, misty light of many interesting objects, but that’s okay, they’ll still be there when the Moon has gone; there will still be many sights to see!
Using your new first telescope
Unfortunately, you can’t just swing your telescope around the night sky at random and expect amazing things to appear in the view, and despite what some adverts would have you believe, your new telescope won’t leap from one cool object to another all on its own.
You’re going to need some help to point it at the galaxies, star clusters and planets you’ve read about for so long.
For a bit of extra help, read our guide on how to spend your first night with a telescope.
There are many great space and astronomy books to help a new telescope owner find their way around the sky. Turn Left At Orion by Guy Consolmagno is a classic that has helped beginners over the years (incidentally, you might want to consult Consolmagno’s top 12 astronomy sights for Christmas).
It’s full of easy-to-use star charts that will show you exactly where to find many deep-sky objects. It’s illustrated with realistic sketches instead of photographs to show you what you will actually see through your eyepiece.
There are also several paperback-sized guides to the sky for the year ahead, such as Collins’ Stargazing, which features monthly charts and information about astronomical events, and of course our own special issue publication, The Astronomer’s Yearbook 2021.
Perhaps you could purchase one online and download it to your device.
Star charts are maps of the night sky and you will find them in magazines like BBC Sky at Night Magazine, astronomy books and online too. At first glance they can look confusing, covered with dots, lines and bizarre symbols, but are easy to use once you get started.
Scattered through you’ll find the constellations, star clusters, galaxies and nebulae are represented by different coloured shapes, each one labelled to help you identify it.
Find your way around by comparing what’s shown on the chart to what you can see in the real sky above you. You might also want to consult our guide to the best winter constellations.
Astronomy smartphone apps
Many astronomers use their mobile phones and tablets to help them find their way around the sky. There are many astronomy apps available that use GPS to pinpoint the user’s location on Earth and show them what they can see in the night sky above at that time, or any other date or time they choose.
For more on this, read our guide to smartphone astronomy apps.
Even if you and your new instrument are ready to begin touring the Universe, your eyes won’t be. If you go outside and look through your telescope right away your eyes won’t have had time to get used to darkness, and the view will be disappointing.
But after a period of ‘dark adaptation’ your eyes will have gone through both physical and chemical changes that will enable them to gather more faint starlight, and the views through your scope will be better.
Be patient, avoid using torches unless it’s a red light, and if you can, turn your phone’s screen red.
Now that we’re ready to go, let’s get on with our astronomy tour of the Christmas night sky.
What to see in the night sky, Christmas Night 2020
Jupiter and Saturn
Look to the west where you’ll see two stars shining close together, low in the sky. Those ‘stars’ are actually the two largest planets in our Solar System, Jupiter and Saturn, and they will be so close in the sky on Christmas night – just a Moon-width apart – that they will both be visible in your telescope at the same time.
You’ll have to start looking for them around 16.30 UT, not long after sunset, and you won’t have long before they set.
Through your telescope you’ll see both planets as tiny yellow-white discs, Jupiter’s crossed by several darker cloud bands and Saturn’s surrounded by those famous rings.
The rings will look very small through your telescope, but no less beautiful for that. If you zoom in on each planet individually with a high magnification eyepiece – one with a smaller number in mm (millimetres) on it, which indicates its focal length – you’ll see two of Jupiter’s huge family of moons shining close to it, one on either side of its disc, looking like tiny stars.
Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, will also be visible close to it.
As you look at this pair of planets it’ll be fascinating to think that although they look close together in the sky they are actually almost five times further apart than the distance between the Sun and the Earth, and that Jupiter is so huge it could contain a thousand Earths with room to spare.
On Christmas night this enigmatic world, about half Earth’s size, will be conveniently placed to the right of the Moon, making it very easy to find.
Seen from a distance of 126 million km, Mars won’t be as jaw-droppingly dramatic in your new telescope’s eyepiece as it looks in photos you’ve seen in books and magazines, but it will still be fascinating to observe, and high magnifications should reveal one of its ice caps and perhaps even tantalising hints of markings on its ruddy surface.
For more info, read our guide on how to observe Mars.
The Moon is the most obvious first target for every owner of a new telescope, but on Christmas night this year it will be close to full, so only a few of those features will really ‘jump out’ in an eyepiece.
However, towards the ‘top’ of the Moon the dark-floored crater Plato and the crescent-edged bay Sinus Iridium will both be fascinating sights.
At high magnification some detail will be visible along the terminator – the line between the illuminated and unilluminated parts of the Moon’s face, but your best views will be through low magnification eyepieces (you guessed it, ones with a larger number in mm on them).
These will clearly show the Moon’s maria – its dark seas of ancient, frozen lava – its rugged, bright highlands and the bright curve of the jagged Appenine Mountains at its centre.
You’ll also be able to see long silvery rays of dust and debris stretching away from the giant craters Copernicus and Tycho. For more, read our 10 best features to observe on the Moon.
The Orion Nebula
Beneath Orion’s famous Belt, in the centre of his Sword, lies M42, the Orion Nebula. This is a glowing cloud of dust and gas, a ‘stellar nursery’ 1,400 lightyears from Earth, where stars are being born. It’s one of the most beautiful objects in the sky and is visible to the naked eye – when that sky is dark.
M42 will rise in the east at around 18:00 UT, as Jupiter and Saturn are setting in the west, but Christmas night’s bright Moon, shining to Orion’s upper right, will wash out the nebula’s faintest detail and the subtle grey-green colour of its wispy structures.
However, the brightest central regions will still shine through the moonlight and the Trapezium, a tiny quartet of pinprick stars at its heart, will be seen easily with those higher magnification eyepieces.
For more info, read our guide to the best targets to see in the Orion constellation.
Probably the most famous star cluster in the sky, the Pleiades will be a real “Wow!” sight on Christmas Night, despite the bright Moon nearby.
At 430 lightyears from Earth, the Pleiades – also known as ‘The Seven Sisters’ because of its seven stars that are visible to the naked eye – is an easy observing target.
Through your new telescope its myriad stars will glitter like tiny diamonds at low magnification, looking like a miniature Plough, and higher magnifications will fill and even overflow your field of view with a bewildering number of stars, sparkling like chips of shattered ice.
When the Moon has gone and you look at the Pleiades on a dark night you’ll see how astonishingly beautiful it is, so be patient!
The Double Cluster
Lying between the W of Cassiopeia and the upside-down Y of Perseus, this deep-sky object will be a stunning sight on Christmas night.
Even your new telescope’s lowest magnification eyepiece will give you a glorious view of these clusters, looking like two piles of glittering dust shining side by side; while higher magnification will reveal them as containing too many stars to count.
Finding and observing the Double Cluster helps newcomers understand one of the basics of astronomy; just because two objects look close in the sky doesn’t mean they are – one of the clusters is much further away than the other.
Finally we come to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. It’s easy to find – Orion’s Belt points straight down to it – and on frosty winter nights it looks like a finely-cut diamond flashing above the treetops.
You might think that if you swing your new telescope towards it, Sirius will look bigger, but it will still just be a point of light. So why bother?
Because through your telescope the star’s twinkling will be greatly enhanced, and you’ll see it flashing and sparkling like crazy in red, blue and gold; it’s a lovely sight to see.
If you’re new to astronomy, BBC Sky at Night Magazine is out every month and features beginners’ guides to the best targets to view in the night sky. Find out how to subscribe to BBC Sky at Night Magazine.
Stuart Atkinson is a lifelong amateur astronomer, public outreach educator and author of nine books on astronomy and spaceflight. This guide originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.