ASTR 1230 (O'Connell) Lecture Notes
3. OBSERVING TECHNIQUES
Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider, at her telescope
In this lecture, we cover a number of aspects of preparing for and
making observations with small telescopes, oriented toward the main
telescope labs (3 & 4). The more difficult or complicated your
telescope is to use, the more important is good planning. For a
famous historical example of a telescope that demanded really good
planning to use successfully,
see this picture.
A. PREDICTING GOOD WEATHER
Astronomers need good weather. Ideal conditions are cloudless,
windless, low humidity, and stable. Even high altitude, thin "cirrus"
clouds (see picture below) that TV weather forecasters would
ignore can seriously hamper many kinds of astronomical observations.
On the other hand, less critical observations can be made through gaps
in lower level clouds as they pass over.
Thanks to weather satellites, it is possible to track weather
conditions and make fairly accurate predictions of observing weather
for the next several days at any place in the US. Satellites identify
water vapor over a given location by using infrared-sensitive
cameras. Here are some of the more useful websites related to weather:
Weather maps often quote time of day using Greenwich Mean Time, which
is 5 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (4 hours ahead of Eastern
Daylight Time). The notation "Z" ("zulu") denotes GMT.
This is why
professional astronomers are cautious about observing even in good
weather after a snowstorm.
B. JUDGING SKY CONDITIONS
Even when weather is reasonably good, it is important to learn how to
evaluate prevailing conditions at the telescope. The main
determinants are the following:
- Residual Sunlight: The sun illuminates
the sky for a considerable period after sunset. The end of
astronomical twilight is defined to be the first time
after sunset (or last time before sunrise) when there is no trace of
sunlight measurable in the sky. (This is a more restrictive definition
than "civil twilight.") The sun must be at least 18 degrees below the
horizon for full darkness. You can find tables of the times of
astronomical twilight on the Web. Here is an annual
table of evening/morning twilight for Charlottesville (times are EST;
add one hour for EDT).
- Transparency: means an absence of
clouds, haze, or fog that would absorb or scatter starlight. Although
low-altitude clouds are the most obvious, high-altitude cirrus clouds
are more commonly a problem. Transparency predictions for
Charlottesville are included on the cleardarksky.com
A quantitative measure of transparency is given by the
magnitude of the faintest star you can see with the naked eye.
The bowl of the "Little Dipper" provides a convenient set of standard
stars, with approximate magnitudes of 2,3,4,5. See this image.
More elaborate techniques for estimating limiting magnitude are given
- Seeing: "Seeing" is defined to be the
diameter of star images (measured in seconds of arc) caused by
turbulence in the atmosphere. See the discussion in Lecture 2. "Twinkling" of stars is a
sign of an unstable atmosphere, which will probably produce bad
seeing. But you can only actually determine the seeing through a
telescope. One technique you will use in Lab 3 is to measure the
diameter of the components of a binary star
of known separation.
- Other Atmospheric Effects: See these
pages for additional background on effects of the atmosphere:
- Moonlight: If the moon is in the sky
and more than "half-full" (astronomers would say "between first
quarter and last quarter"), moonlight scattered by the
atmosphere can easily obscure fainter telescopic targets (like nebulae
and galaxies). Astronomers divide each month into "bright time" and
"dark time" according to the phase of the moon. Of course, only near
its full phase is the moon in the sky all night long, so parts of
"bright time" nights can still be dark. Judge effects by the faintest
stars you can see.
- Light Pollution: a growing problem
everywhere and certainly here in Charlottesville. Terrible when the
Stadium lights are on. Impact will vary with the amount of low-level
dust or mist in the atmosphere. Again, judge effects by the faintest
stars you can see.
C. OBSERVING LISTS AND FINDING CHARTS
Before you come to the observatory, you need to know what objects
you intend to observe and how to find them. In some cases, the
target list for a lab is specified in advance; in others, you are
free to choose from many possibilities.
Primary lists of potential targets, with brief descriptions and
sometimes observing hints, can be found in the ASTR 1230 Lab
Manual (see semesterly and
all-sky lists in Lab 4) and
the Mag 5 Star Atlas. It is probably best to choose targets
first by astrophysical category (e.g. star cluster, nebula,
galaxy) and then rank candidates in order of location in the
Familiarity with the constellations and use of your Sky Wheels will
help locate the brighter targets (e.g. stars) that have names associated
with constellations. However, for many targets (e.g. Messier objects),
you will need to use their coordinates to locate them.
These are discussed in the next section.
Brightnesses are measured in magnitudes. Stars up to
magnitude 11-12 are visible in the 8-in telescopes. However, more
diffuse objects can be considerably more difficult to see than stars
of the same magnitude.
Here are some useful websites for obtaining information on potential
targets for small telescopes:
For fainter targets, you may want to make finding charts, which
show their immediate vicinity, as an aid to locating them. Here are
some sites providing sky or finding charts:
Heavens Above: very useful reference giving current positions for
solar system objects (including comets & asteroids), star charts,
bright star lists for each constellation, predictions of Earth
satellite passages (including Iridium flares and the International
Space Station), and other info. This link provides listings specific
Naval Observatory: detailed information on solar system objects
and bright stars for any date
- The Messier
Catalog of Deep-Sky Objects (SEDS) The Messier Catalog (compiled
Messier in 1781) is the primary list of (110) brighter northern
hemisphere non-stellar objects: star clusters, nebulae, and
site has finding charts for the Messier and brighter NGC objects
in each constellation.
Caldwell Catalog of Deep-Sky Objects (Wikipedia): updated list of
brighter non-stellar objects, including the southern hemisphere.
- Heavens Above
Sky: an "interactive planetarium" which can produce standard
wide-angle bright star charts or "virtual telescope" charts near given
targets to a range of magnitude. A YourSky chart for the region near
the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies (M31 and M33) is shown at the
- Skyview: the "Internet's Virtual Telescope," which
can produce images of any part of the sky to high resolution from a
large database. Includes the optical-band Digital Sky Survey and data
in other bands from radio to gamma ray. Is a research tool as well as
a key resource for planning observations.
- Google Sky and
WikiSky provide sky viewers based
on a multiplicity of image sources. These are still in development.
D. TARGET COORDINATES AND SKY LOCATION
For best viewing, objects should be as high in the sky (as far from
the horizon) as possible during the time you will be observing. Sky
location is determined by an object's astronomical coordinates, the
time of night, and the date. Unless there is no alternative, you
should avoid observing any object at an altitude of less than
30 degrees above the horizon.
The most important questions you need to answer in planning
For brighter objects in Labs 2 through 4, you can usually answer these
questions satisfactorily by using your Sky Wheels. For other
objects, you will be able to use the automated target finding
software in the Celestron telescopes, which is capable of placing any
target into the telescope field of view (once you have calibrated the
pointing control system for that particular night).
The basic considerations in locating targets in the sky are described
in detail in the
Supplement on Astronomical Motions and Coordinates. You should
skim this material, half of which is also covered in ASTR 1210, but you
aren't required to know it in detail. Here is a brief summary:
- At what times of night is a target above the horizon?
- At a given time, approximately where is a target (e.g. which
quadrant: SE, SW, NE, NW)?
- What is the maximum altitude a given target can have from the horizon?
- Astronomical objects are located in the sky by their Right
Ascension and Declination (RA and DEC), which correspond
to longitude and latitude, respectively, on the celestial sphere. DEC is
measured in angular degrees, just as is latitude on Earth. But RA is measured in
units of time; see the Supplement
- Your zenith will always fall at a DEC equal to your terrestrial
latitude. That is 38 degrees for Charlottesville. Stars with DECs
smaller than 38 degrees will always cross your meridian south of the zenith,
while stars with larger DECs will always cross north of the zenith.
- The celestial sphere rotates around the Earth in 23 hours 56 minutes,
not 24 hours. This means that a given point on the sphere returns to the
same location in your local sky 4 minutes earlier each night. You must
take this systematic shift in the sphere's orientation into account in
- The sidereal time (ST) describes the location of the
"zero-point" of the RA system on the celestial sphere and hence the
current east-west orientation of the celestial sphere. ST is
numerically equal to the amount of time that has elapsed since the
point where RA = 0 (which is the vernal equinox) last
crossed your local meridian. ST at a given solar time (clock time) is
equal to the RA of an object that lies on your local meridian at that
time. The sidereal time at a given clock time increases by about 4
minutes in 24 hours. That amounts to a 2 hour increase in the
ST at a given clock time every month.
A handy sidereal time calculator can be found here.
Just enter the longitude of Charlottesville (78 degrees 30 minutes
west), and the calculator will show you the current ST. You
can then estimate the ST for any later time over the next few hours
(but remember that the ST will change with respect to local time by an
additional 4 minutes after a lapse of 24 EST hours).
- By knowing the ST and the RA for any object, you can determine
how far east or west it is from your local meridian (in units of
time). That is, how long it has been since it crossed your meridian
(if it is now west) or how long it will be until it crosses (if it is
now east). This time is called the hour angle (HA) of an object.
It is, of course, continuously changing.
- By knowing both the HA and the DEC of an object, you can
locate it precisely in the sky. This requires dealing with the
special geometry of the celestial sphere.
For a given target, HA = ST - RA. A positive HA means the
target is west of the meridian; a negative HA means it is east of
In using HA to estimate the location of an object in the sky, you must
take account of the fact that because of the convergence of lines of
constant RA toward the poles, a given E-W distance in time converts to
different distances in angle depending on the DEC of the object.
In using DEC you must take account of the fact that the celestial
sphere is tilted with respect to your local horizon (unless you
are observing from the N or S pole).
That implies that stars with certain declinations (below -52 degrees)
will never be visible from Charlottesville.
Other stars, however, (above +52 degrees) will
always be above your horizon; these are called
circumpolar, and they never set.
You can quickly determine which stars are circumpolar by rotating
your Sky Wheels through 24 hours. Circumpolar stars never go below
the horizon edges.
Once calibrated, the Celestron automated target finding software
is able to determine the sidereal time, look up the RA and DEC of each target,
and then point at the correct HA and DEC to find your target. It will
work with or without the equatorial wedge.
- The altitude of an object is its angular distance from
the nearest point on the horizon. By knowing the DEC of a target and
your latitude (38 degrees) for Charlottesville, you can easily
determine the maximum altitude of any target. This occurs when it
crosses your local meridian or
"transits". For Charlottesville, the altitude of a
transiting object from the southern horizon is equal to DEC + 52
degrees. This implies, for instance, that the celestial equator
crosses the meridian at an altitude of 52 degrees.
- You can use your Sky Wheels to roughly locate objects with
given coordinates in the sky. RA and DEC coordinate ticks are marked
along the equator and along lines of constant RA at 3 hour intervals.
You can use these to determine approximately the maximum altitude of
objects with given coordinates or the quadrants in which they will
appear at a given time of night. You can also get an approximate
value for the ST on any date and clock time by reading off the RA of an
object on the meridian at a given time.
E. LAB REPORTS & OBSERVING FORMS
- Appendices D and E in the ASTR 1230 Lab Manual describe how you
are expected to use the standard observing forms to record
observations with binoculars or telescopes and how to write up your
lab reports. Read these sections carefully.
- It is strongly recommended that you fill out the "prep" part of each
form before going to the Observatory.
- To keep forms neat, fill out all sections in pencil and erase
- Blank observing forms and a sample, filled-out form can be found
- Download, print, and read the notes for Lecture 3.
- Take the Review Quiz for Week 4 on the Collab site.
- Read Appendices A and B in the ASTR 1230 Manual
- Review the material in the "motions and coordinates" supplement
to this lecture (link given below).
- Start Lab 3 at the earliest opportunity.
Related Web links
May 2019 by rwo
Text copyright © 1998-2019 Robert W. O'Connell. All rights
reserved. Noctilucent cloud image copyright © P-M. Heden. These
notes are intended for the private, noncommercial use of students
enrolled in Astronomy 1230 at the University of Virginia.