Go Out:  Look Up!

A Guide to the Sky, Telescopes, and Telescope Programs

Home Observing The Sky Equipment Program Info Schools How-to Links

What Tonight?
Target Types
Site and Size
Why Not Everything?

Fundamental Sky Skills

Prior to using a telescope...

Know which way is North

Know Tonight's Good Targets are

  • This is actually harder than it sounds and changes all the time.  A link is provided here.
  • We'll generally list the obvious naked-eye targets (Moon, Jupiter, Orion Nebula)
  • Right now (mid-January 2011) in the evening sky, the brightest thing in the sky is Jupiter, in the southwest.  Orion and the Orion Nebula are in prime viewing position.  Saturn rises late.  See the various Sky-At-a-Glance links for details.

Be able to read a Sky Map or Planisphere

Generally, Sky Maps have the cardinal directions (N, S, E, W) printed on them.  They are designed to be held overhead.  Face a direction, hold the map overhead with the directions lining up.  Look for bright stars that match the bright stars on the map.  Once you've matched the brighter stars, you should be able to identify the fainter stars and other objects.  

For example, facing south, hold the star map overhead with the south side of the map facing south.  

Note that the planets and the moon are generally not printed on permanent maps.  Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and Mars are typically as bright or brighter than the brightest stars and may confuse you.  Weekly and monthly star charts downloaded from the internet generally do show the location of the planets


Planispheres contain the whole sky but are designed to block out the part of the sky that you cannot see at a given time. You'll get a window with only the stars and constellations you can see at that given time.

Find the date along the circumference of the planisphere.  Rotate the sliding part of the planisphere so that the current time lines up with the current date.  The sky visible in the planisphere will now match the sky you see.  You can rotate the planiphere to see how the stars progress over the course of a night or over the course of a year.

Due to the fact that they are trying to get the entire sky on in a small space, they tend not to be very detailed and do not list faint objects. You generally need more detailed star maps to find anything other than the brightest objects.

They are excellent for learning constellations.

Learn some Constellations

Constellations are a way to chop the huge night sky up into small, navigable chunks.  For example, if you can find Orion, you can find some of the cool objects in Orion.  Learning some constellations is a way to learn the sky.  The sky delineated into Constellations is like the USA delineated into States: it's easier to find things.

A planisphere is an excellent way to learn the constellations.

Once you know what constellations are up.  There are a number of sky atlases and books that break down the deep sky objects by constellation.  Alternatively, they break the constellations down by month.  But in any case, once you know what constellations are up, the next step is to know what is in them.

Next: What's Up? 

Be able to star-hop or manually find some of the easier targets (Pleiades, Beehive or other star cluster).  We should have detailed steps for this.

Questions or comments? Email:Jeff Martin