How to Use A Telescope: 14 Essential Steps to Loving the Night Sky

If you just got your first telescope as a Christmas or birthday present (or even as a little treat to yourself) you’re likely asking yourself, ‘How do I use a telescope?’ or, ‘How do I set up a telescope?’.

Well, don’t worry! You have landed at the right place.

One of the biggest reasons that telescopes get left in a dusty corner of the garage or attic is because no one helps you figure out the right way to use your new telescope to get the most enjoyment from it.

Here at Love the Night Sky, we have a simple aim: helping aspiring and amateur astronomers learn to love the night sky. A huge part of that is sharing with you the simple tricks and techniques which will take you from a complete telescope novice to a competent backyard stargazer.

To make this beginner’s guide to setting up a telescope user-friendly, we’ve split it into three sections:

  1. Expectations – What you expect to see with your first telescope and what you’ll actually see are very different. In this section, we’ll help you discover what you’ll see at your telescope’s eyepiece and manage some of your expectations about the capability of your scope
  2. Get the Astronomy Bug – The biggest barrier to getting addicted to astronomy is disappointment with your first views through a telescope. So, in this section, we’ll show you how to see breathtaking sights that will have you crying out for more
  3. Discover More – Once you find it easy to set your scope up and have seen your first gorgeous night sky objects, you’ll be hungry for more! In this section, we’ll share with you the tools experienced backyard astronomers rely on to see the night sky in all its beautiful detail

Feel free to read it all, or use the ‘quick navigation’ box below to choose the sections most relevant to you.

Part1: What to Expect When Using a Telescope

Be warned…

This section is a bit brutal!

So many astronomers give up before they’ve even started because they’re expecting too much. They believe backyard astronomy will be easier than it is, that their telescope will be better than it is and that the sights they will see will be as beautiful as those in astronomy magazines.

Whilst reality often does not match expectations, astronomy is a glorious and rewarding hobby if your results match your expectations.

So, this first section will help set realistic expectations of how to use and set up your new telescope.

1) Astronomy Magazines Sell you a Lie!

If you are anything like us, you were first attracted to astronomy by either:

  • Looking up at the dark night sky and being stunned by the beauty of a starry night, so much that you just had to see more of it, or
  • Seeing wonderful pictures of planets, nebulae, and galaxies in magazines that just made you want to buy a telescope and see them for yourself.

Perhaps it’s true that you looked up first at the sky, got interested, and bought astronomy magazines where you saw the pictures that made you want a telescope.

The good news is that you will be able to see great views of the Moon and planets and if you’ve got a big enough scope and dark enough skies, even galaxies and nebulae.

The Orion Nebula will NOT look like this in your new telescope, sorry. (source)

The bad news is that they will look nothing like the pictures you have seen in magazines.

Sorry!

The reality of what you see at the eyepiece is far removed from the pictures NASA has managed to capture in a planetary flypast, or Hubble glimpsed from space, or even that the talented astrophotographer at your local astronomy club captured.

The Orion Nebula will look more like this in your new telescope (source)

All that said, nothing will prepare you for the wonder, joy, and sheer stunned amazement you are going to feel when you see the Moon, Jupiter, or Saturn through your telescope for the first time.

Backyard astronomy is not about stunning imagery, it’s about the thrill of the hunt for a tiny dot in the sky, and the wonder you’ll feel when you see an object which is billions of miles away.

2) Your Telescope Will (Soon) Not be Good Enough

Being a backyard astronomer is a lifelong commitment to a bigger aperture, better eyepieces, and generally more expensive equipment.

Whether you spent $100 or $1000 on your first telescope, you will see some amazing sights – as we’ll share with you later. But there’s a good chance you will quickly want to see more detail and begin to criticize the limitations of your scope.

When that happens, it’s important to remember these points:

  1. Your telescope is probably fine! Unless you have a real bargain scope with an aperture below 4 inches, you can see hundreds (maybe even thousands) of lovely celestial objects. Almost certainly, you will not need a bigger scope for a while yet.
  2. The eyepieces that came with your telescope are likely of low quality and you probably only got one or two. We recommend at least 3 sizes of Plössl eyepieces (like these) for best viewing.
    A smaller one for viewing the Moon and planets, a medium for star clusters and nebulae, and a larger one for deep sky and faint objects.
    You may also find that a zoom eyepiece meets all your needs in one.
  3. Your telescope came with a mount, either altazimuth (up and down) or equatorial, which follows the path stars travel across the sky. However, if you spent under $500 on your set up, the mount is probably lightweight and prone to vibration.
    In time, you can replace the mount, but that’s expensive. Instead, use these free and cheap methods for dampening telescope vibration.
  4. All the aperture and equipment in the world will do little to make up for poor seeing. If you live in a light-polluted area (check using this map) you will not see as many objects, and those you can see will not shine as brightly or show as much detail as they do in a dark sky location.
    You can improve the situation a bit by using a light-pollution filter, but finding a darker site to do your astronomy will seriously improve your enjoyment of it.

3) Setting Up a Telescope Will Take Some Getting Used to

The simplest telescope to set up is a budget refractor (refractors use a lens, reflectors use a mirror) on an altazimuth mount. They are about as close to ‘point and shoot’ as you’re going to get. Yet even a simple scope needs you to align the viewfinder before they are useful.

There are other activities you’ll need to learn to get the most from your telescope. Here’s our list of basic telescope set-up skills you will need, click the links to open our ‘how to’ guides in a new tab:

  1. Align a finderscope (all types of scope)
  2. Set up an equatorial stand
  3. Collimate a primary mirror (with this laser collimator)
  4. Set up a Dobsonian telescope
  5. Polar alignment (equatorial mounts only)
  6. How to SkyAlign a Celestron (motorized tracking only)

With your new telescope set-up and ready to go and your expectations set, let’s turn our attention to seeing some stuff, shall we?

4) Astronomy Can be Cold… Dress Well to Survive

Telescopes are finely tuned instruments that give us a very high magnification of the heavens. Because of that, they need an unobstructed view of the stars.

Telescopes don’t work well when pointing through a window from inside your house, and the heat stored in a shed can make the air hazy and ruin your view.

There is no alternative: you have to go outside to be an astronomer!

For most of us, that means cold and discomfort at certain times of the year if we’re not well prepared.

Astronomy can be a cold hobby (source)

Make sure when you’re facing a cold night to wear many layers (including thermals), take a Thermos of your favorite hot drink and get a comfy chair to observe from (ideally, an adjustable chair like these, so you can see in the eyepiece wherever the scope is pointing).

Don’t forget, it’s going to take your eyes around half an hour to properly adjust to the darkness and give you the best viewing. It can take even longer for your telescope to adjust to the temperature (especially a big one) so set it up outside an hour before dark so it’s ready to use when the Sun has set.

5) You’ll Be Glad You Got These Extras for Your Observing

You’re more likely to stay the course with your first few nights’ observing with a new telescope if you have some basic equipment by your side.

As a minimum, we recommend:

It’s also really important to have a plan for what you’d like to see that evening. Aimlessly pointing your telescope around will quickly result in frustration and boredom.

You can use the software mentioned above to pick some targets or subscribe to an astronomy magazine which often contains ideas for objects to track down.

You should also consider joining our own Virtual Astronomy Club, where we provide monthly challenges with detailed star maps and finder guides to help you succeed in seeing difficult objects.

Part 2: Get the Astronomy Bug

There’s a saying in astronomy circles: “The best telescope is one that is used!”

It is so true!

A huge, expensive, and complex telescope is no good to anyone if it’s sitting in the corner of an attic covered in a dust sheet.

We believe the best way to make sure you’ll use your new telescope lots is to see some awe-inspiring sights through it just as soon as you’ve set it up.

In this section, we share with you advice on how to start simple and see your first amazing views quickly, before moving on to more challenging objects.

6) There Are No Barriers to Seeing the Moon!

The moon is the biggest and brightest object in the night sky.

Photo of the Moon taken with a Celestron Nexstar 8SE telescope
The moon through a NexStar 8SE (Source)

If you’ve never seen it through a telescope before, you are going to be blown away when you see it for the first time, no matter how big your scope is!

Don’t let the technicalities of telescope set-up get in your way!

For great views like the one above, see our Celestron NexStar 8SE Telescope review.

It will help you to read this article about observing the Moon, but it is far from essential. The next time our lunar neighbor is visible just get outside and point your telescope towards it.

Use the largest eyepiece you have (e.g. if your scope comes with 10mm and 20mm eyepieces, use the 20mm) because this gives less magnification, meaning you can enjoy more of the Moon in one view.

Use your focusing knobs to bring the features into focus and pay close attention to the part of the lunar surface where light meets dark. This is known as the terminator and it’s where shadows are at their longest. Long shadows add relief to craters, meaning we can see them with more detail.

The first time you do this, you’ll be stunned at what you can see.

You might be surprised at how quickly the Moon moves through your eyepiece, so you’ll need to use your ‘slow-motion controls’ to make your telescope follow it across the sky. If you have an equatorial mount, this will be a lot easier to do if you have polar-aligned but is simple enough without doing so.

When you’ve enjoyed the view for a little while, try swapping the eyepiece out for a smaller one which will increase the magnification. You’ll need to refocus the image now. When you do, you’ll notice that less of the moon is visible, but you can now see smaller features (i.e. more detail) on its surface.

The Virtual Astronomy Club provides a daily guide to the Moon every month, including its phases, distance, and rise and set times. You’ll also get access to the Lunar 100 Challenge, where you are guided through seeing 100 progressively more difficult lunar surface features.

7) Time to See Your First Planet

After the moon, the next brightest objects in the sky are the nearby planets.

Three of them are much easier to see than the rest:

Mars and Mercury are also open to the smallest telescopes but they are harder to observe. Mercury is always very near the Sun and Mars is quite faint and often disappointing for the new astronomer expecting to see this:

Spring on Mars (source)

Instead, aim to see one of the easiest and brightest three planets and you’ll be quickly hooked into seeing more as you get better.

Read our full guide to the visible planets this year to get the best viewing, and suck in the views of Saturn and Jupiter, for they will stun you when seen for the first time.

Expect to see at least a couple of Jupiter’s main bands and its four Galilean moons. With Saturn, you will see the famous rings around the planet, which you will find awe-inspiring!

There’s very rarely a time when one of these three planets is not visible during hours of darkness, so you can nearly always get a glimpse of them in your telescope.

8) Learn Your Way Around the Circumpolar Constellations

Once you decide you’d like to see something more challenging than Jupiter, like a galaxy, nebula, or star cluster, you’re going to need to know where to look.

The Moon and planets are in our solar system, which means they travel independently of the background stars.

Pretty much everything else you’ll want to see has a fixed location in the night sky, meaning it travels along with the stars.

One of the best ways to get to learn your way around the night sky is to start with the constellations which are always visible in the night sky… every night of the year!

These are called the circumpolar constellations. How many of them there are varies depending on how far north or south you are but, for most states in the US, there are at least six circumpolar constellations. They are:

Ursa Minor (Little Dipper)

Ursa Minor star map

Cepheus

Cepheus constellation

Camelopardalis (no bright stars)

Camelopardalis constellation

Draco

Draco constellation

Cassiopeia

Cassiopeia is a circumpolar constellation in all US states except Hawaii and Florida

Ursa Major (from mid-US north)

Ursa Major

The most important constellation to learn is the Little Dipper because it contains the pole star (Polaris) which we use for polar alignment.

Thankfully, Ursa Minor is an easy-to-identify constellation. Follow it up with Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, which are also readily identifiable, and you will quickly find it simple to orientate the night sky.

Once you have the circumpolar constellations recognized, you can move onto the more seasonal constellations, such as Cygnus (summer), Taurus, and Orion (both winter) which are all easy to recognize – even in light-polluted environments.

9) Look at the Stars…

Yes, this is different from the advice in #6.

Learning the constellations is important for the ease of finding your way around the night sky. But this advice is more about discovering different stars.

Some stars are really interesting and a great test of your telescope’s capability. You can see stars with different colors and you can test just how faint the stars are that you can see, but…

The best challenge to set yourself with stars is splitting the double ones!

Binary and double stars look like the same thing through a telescope, but they are different. A binary is where the two stars orbit each other, whereas a double is just two stars that look close together from here on Earth, but may actually be hundreds of light-years apart.

This is a great list of doubles to test yourself with (scroll to the end of the article to find the list).

10) Discover the Beauty of the Messier Objects

Now you’re really moving through the gears and it’s time you found your first Messier objects.

The Messier catalog is a list of 110 objects compiled by Charles Messier in the 1780s. You can read the history on this Wikipedia page about them but they are all nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters.

All of them are just about visible to the naked eye at a dark site if you know where to look. Of course, you’ll see much more detail with your scope, just beware of setting your expectations – many of these objects are distant and very faint.

You’ll discover the famous ‘gray smudge’ for yourself – a common term given to deep space objects (DSOs) by astronomers – which accurately describes what many galaxies and nebulae look like through the eyepiece of a telescope.

The famous Andromeda Galaxy is easy to find and view, for example, but it will not look like the image below when you see it. Cameras are much more sensitive to light than our eyes, which is why they can collect enough of it to see colors and details that are beyond us.

M31, Andromeda Galaxy (source)

As mentioned earlier, the buzz from backyard astronomy comes from the act of seeing a galaxy or nebula, for real, with your own eyes, and marveling at the sheer size and distance of these things and our own place in the universe.

Not all 110 Messier objects are visible at the same time (unless you’re tackling the Messier Marathon), so you’ll need to choose the best ones to go after for the time of year you are observing. We’ve picked our favorite Messier object for each season in this article, why not give them a try?

Part 3: Discover More

You’re off to a great start!

You’ve set your telescope up, seen some great sights, and can already feel a love for the night sky, so our work here is almost done.

But…

You are already hungry to discover more!

So, in this final section, we’d like to leave you with enough resources to take your next steps as an amateur astronomer.

We’re sharing with you our favorite:

  • Ways to meet fellow amateur astronomers
  • Beginner’s astronomy course
  • Books
  • Magazines
  • Software
  • Essential equipment

11) Get Help from Fellow Astronomers

There is nothing that helps you get better at astronomy than the wisdom of those that have done it before you.

The two best places to share ideas and ask for advice are your local astronomy club – where you can do it face-to-face – and astronomy forums. Forums are brilliant for linking backyard astronomers across the world into specialist topics, from lunar observing to astrophotography.

Click here to access our US Astronomy Club Directory, where we’ve listed the contact details of more than 700 astronomy clubs by state.

There are a few astronomy forums out there, but the one we recommend (because it is almost completely advert-free and covers every Astro subject you can think of) is Cloudy Nights.

They have a very strong Beginner’s Forum. Take a moment to have a look, sign up, and introduce yourself.

Other astronomy forums include:

12) Best Books for a New Astronomer

There are thousands of books out there for astronomers, but only a few that we recommend as essential buys for your hobby.

In the table below are four books we believe every new astronomer will benefit from owning.

They are in priority order, so if you can only afford one, get the Pocket Sky Atlas first, then Turn Left at Orion, and so on.

Our 4 Essential Books for Backyard Astronomy

Pocket Sky Atlas

Turn Left at Orion

2021 Guide to the Night Sky

NightWatch

Click on a book cover or title to see its current price on Amazon.com

13) Best Astronomy Magazines

There are only two monthly astronomy magazines that we’d recommend: Astronomy Magazine and Sky & Telescope Magazine.

Sky & Telescope is our favorite (read why here) but they are both great for new (and experienced) backyard astronomers. 

If you’re interested in a subscription, which is the cheapest way to get them, click on the link below:

14) Astronomy Software to Help Your Observing

As we’ve already mentioned a couple of times in this article, one of the most important things to do for getting the most enjoyment from observing the night sky through your new telescope is to plan what you’d like to see.

Armed with your plan, an evening’s viewing becomes much more enjoyable because you know exactly what objects you want to hunt down and when they’ll be best to see in the sky.

You’ll save a lot of heartache trying to find an object that isn’t actually visible at the time or date you’re viewing. You’ll also avoid standing in your backyard aimlessly slewing your scope around hoping something interesting pops into the viewfinder!

Whilst magazines are great for generating ideas of what to look for, there are two different pieces of astronomy software that we recommend, one free, one paid, that will help you plan your viewing in satisfying detail.

Stellarium

Stellarium is a piece of free software that will run on a PC or Mac. At its most simple, it will show you the night sky for any location and time.

Screenshot of Stellarium

The control panel is quite intuitive, but you’ll need to get to grips with some basics first (this video is helpful to get started).

After that, enter your location and a time and date of your choice to see exactly what the sky will look like.

It becomes much deeper than that because you can zoom into objects, learn more about them, watch them change with time, and even have the software control your goto telescope!

SkySafari 6

This is a paid piece of software that comes as an app for iPad and iPhone or as a download for your Mac computer.

There are three price points: Standard, Plus, and Pro.

As a beginner, the Pro level is probably overkill, but the Plus version is a wise investment. Not only can you use this beautiful software for all your planning, but you can take it to the telescope with you on your Apple device choice.

SkySafari 6 sales page
Screenshot of the SkySafari 6 sales page

The basic version is more than enough to get you started and is sold at a very reasonable price. For around $10, you’ll get 120,000 stars, asteroids, deep space objects, and the Moon and Planets.

Wrap Up of How to Use a Telescope

So, there we have it!

14 tips for how to use your new telescope covering expectations, getting the astronomy bug, and useful resources.

You can now feel assured to venture outside, set your telescope up, and enjoy magnificent views of night sky objects.

All that’s left for us to do is wish you Clear Skies!