How to Use A Telescope: 16 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?'.

How to use a telescope, a beginner's guide

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 complete telescope novice to a competent backyard stargazer.

To make this beginner's guide to setting up a telescope really 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 which 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

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 the sights they will see are as beautiful as those in the magazines.

Whilst the 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.

If so, I have some good news... and some bad news...

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.​

M42 Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula will NOT look like this in your new telescope, sorry. (source) But you can buy this picture to hang in your home!

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 of a planetary flypast, or Hubble glimpsed from space or even that talented astrophotographer captured at your local astronomy club.

Orion Nebula through a small telescope

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

What we will say, though, is that nothing is going to 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, faint, pinprick of light and the wonder you'll feel when you see something out there, billions of miles away, that very, very few people have seen before you.

Have you discovered the Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy?
CLICK HERE to find out what they are.

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

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

For your first scope, whether you spent $100 or $1000, we're going to share with you shortly how to see some wonderful sights that will take your breath away.

But, be warned, you will quickly want more and, when you do, you'll start to criticise the scope you have now. It's important, therefore, to understand some things:

  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 scope are likely of low quality and with little variation (many telescopes come with only one or two supplied). We recommend at least 3 sizes of Plössl eyepieces (like these) for best viewing. A smaller one for viewing the moon /planets, medium for star clusters and nebulae and a larger one for deep sky and faint objects.
    (Learn more about eyepieces and how they work by clicking here.)
  3. Your telescope came with a mount, either altazimuth (up and down) or equatorial, which follows the line of stars across the sky. However, if you spent under $500 on your set up, the mount is probably quite lightweight and liable to vibration.
    In time, you can replace the mount, but these are expensive. Instead, this article provides some 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 they will not shine as brightly as 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.

But even they will need you to align the viewfinder before they are useful. So, here is our list of basic set-up skills you will need with links to more instructions on how to do it:

  1. Align a finderscope (all types of scope)
  2. Set up an equatorial stand
  3. Collimate a primary mirror (this a laser collimator mentioned in the video)
  4. Set up a Dobsonian telescope
  5. Polar alignment (equatorial mounts only)
  6. How to SkyAlign a Celestron (motorised 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 which give us very high magnificatiion of the heavens.

Because of that, they like a clear, clean view of the stars. They are no use when looking through a window from inside your house, and the heat stored in a shed can make the air shimmer and ruin your view.

There is no real alternative, you are going to have to go outside be an astronomer!

For most of us, that means cold and discomfort if we're not prepared!

Astronomer in the snow

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 an hour before darkness 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.

At the very least, subscribe to either Astronomy Magazine (print version or iPad digital version) or Sky & Telescope Magazine (print version or iPad digital version) for detailed descriptions of the coming month's night sky.

Also, you'll need a basic star map, the go-to choice (and it's really low cost) is Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas.

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 covered in a dust sheet in the corner of the attic.

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 start using it.

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 viewing.​

6) There Are No Barriers to Seeing the Moon!

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

The moon through a NexStar 8SE

The moon through a NexStar 8SE

If you've never seen it though a telescope before, you are going to be blown away when you see it for the first time in your scope, no matter how big its aperture!

Do​ not let the technicalities of telescope set-up get in your way!

Sky Safari 5 advert

Yes, your scope does need to be on its mount and a reflector should be collimated. But, your viewfinder only need be roughly aligned (because the moon is a big object, precision is not required) to see it.

You do not need to polar-align your equatorial scope to see the moon, but if you use the Celestron NexStar range, you will need to carry out the StarAlign process, because you can't move the telescope by hand.​

It will help you to read this article about observing the moon, but it is far from essential.​

The next time the moon is out and visible (download our free 2017 moon calendar)​ 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 - it has less magnification which makes it easier to find the moon) and take a look.

Use your focusing knobs to bring the features into focus and, ideally, pay close attention to the area where light meets dark on the lunar surface. This is known as the terminator and it's where shadows are at their longest and craters can be seen in detail.

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

Now, the moon moves quickly through your eyepiece, so you'll need to use the 'slow motion controls' to have 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.

You'll need to refocus because this eyepiece will magnify the image you see more than the first one did. Less of the moon will be visible, but you'll be able to see smaller features (i.e. more detail) on its surface.

Lunar Phase Pro

We cover it in more detail below but, if the moon becomes your 'thing' then you can't do much better than checking out Lunar Phase Pro.

This piece of software is dedicated to all things lunar, included printable and searchable lunar maps, and the ability to see exactly what the moon will look like for any time and date this century.​

Click here to see a video explaining everything Lunar Phase Pro is capable of.​

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:

  • Venus
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn​

Mars and Mercury are also open to the smallest telescopes but they are harder to observe.

Mars spring time

Spring on Mars (source)

Mercury is always very near the sun and Mars is quite faint and often disappointing for the new astronomer expecting to see this...

If you try and see one of the easiest and brightest three, you'll be quickly hooked into seeing more as you get better.

Read our full guide to the visible planets in 2017 to get the best viewing, and really suck in the views of the 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 out. No excuses then, get outside and take a look. 

Oh, that reminds us - if you'd like weekly email about where to see each of the bright planets and the moon, then click here, and you'll also get a free copy of The 9 Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy.​

8) Learn Your Way Around the Circumpolar Constellations

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

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.​

Pretty much everything else you'll want to see is in 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 out in the night sky... every night of the year!​

These are called the circumpolar constellations and the number of them 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

You can learn all you need to know about circumpolar constellations here. 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 recognised, you can move onto the more seasonal constellations, such as Cygnus (summer), Taurus and Orion (both winter) which are all really easy to recognise - even in light-polluted environments.

9) Look at the Stars...

Yes, this is different to 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 which look close together from here on Earth, but may 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). By now, you really do need to have precisely aligned your viewfinder and it will help if you've completed polar alignment of your equatorial mount.

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 catalogue 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. With your new telescope, you'll certainly see more detail, however, as we said earlier, beware of setting your own expectations!

The famous Andromeda Galaxy, for example, is easy to find and view if you follow this article. However, it will not look like this.

M31 andromeda galaxy

M31, Andromeda Galaxy (source)

Instead, you will see a grey smudge of light that is a billion stars a couple of million light years away from us.​ It's the very fact of seeing it, for real, with your own eyes, which makes your personal discovery so rewarding.

Not all 110 Messier objects are visible at the same time, 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?

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 for you 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 really 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.​

12) Take a Cheap Online Astronomy Beginner's Course

It's easy to be overwhelmed by all the new 'stuff' that comes with taking up astronomy and, honestly, if you get overwhelmed there's a good chance you'll...

Give up!

And that would be such a shame because backyard astronomy is such a rewarding and enjoyable hobby when you get into the swing of it.​

Many new astronomers find Our Night Sky a really helpful introduction to astronomy.

Once you've signed up, you have access to 12 videos, each around half an hour long, whenever you want them.

Each of the 12 half-hour videos is easy to follow and packed with useful information for the beginner astronomer. The 12 videos include:

  • A guide to the constellations
  • Using telescopes
  • The sun and the moon
  • Observing the planets with a telescope
  • ​A guide to the night sky for each season
Our Night Sky from the Great courses

The subscription price includes a 90-page guidebook on PDF.

This supports each of the videos and has ​30 pages of supporting materials like listing the brightest stars in the constellations, planet data and a full glossary of astronomy terms. 

This is just about one of the cheapest things an astronomer can buy and it will have you feeling more confident and capable with your new telescope in a very short time.​ Not only that, but it grows with you!

As you get better at astronomy, you'll be able to access more detailed courses to help you improve even more. Check out the Our Night Sky course for yourself here.

13) 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

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

14) 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 by far to get them)​, click on the link below:

15) Astronomy Software to Help Your Observing

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 being stood 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 three pieces of software we recommend (one is free!) that will help you plan your viewing in satisfying detail.

Stellarium

Stellarium is a free piece of 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.

Stellarium screen shot

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!

Even if you don't use any of the other software in this list, make sure to download and experiment with Stellarium.​

SkySafari Pro

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

As a beginner, Pro is probably overkill, but the Plus version (click for current price) 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.

Sky Safari 5

Helpfully, it also has a red-screen setting so you can view it without ruining your night vision and, because it's on your tablet or phone, it uses GPS to know exactly where you are and what time it is.​

The basic version is more than enough to get you started and is an incredibly reasonable price. Find out what the Cloudy Nights Forum has to say about it here.

Lunar Phase Pro

Our final software recommendation is for the moon watcher in you!

LunarPhase Pro is the must-have piece of software for all your lunar observing and planning.

Lunar Phase Pro

It includes detailed moon maps, the ability to set the time and date to any day you could need and see exactly what the moon will look like for your location.

When you're happy with the maps you have for an evening's observing, you can print them off and have them at your side as you point your new telescope towards the moon.​

Full details, including the current price and a video guide, can be found here.​

16) Essential Equipment for New Astronomers

To wrap things up, here's a quick reminder of the three objects we recommend you have at your side when observing:

If like many of us, your knees aren't once what they were, you might also consider an astronomy chair, like these, but that is definitely a luxury item!

Wrap Up of How to Use a Telescope

So, there we have it!

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

It's probably time to stop reading now and start observing, but if you'd like a weekly update for the night sky every Friday (and a free copy of The 9 Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy) just fill in your name and email address below​.

Clear Skies to You!!!​


Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy

The 9 Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy...

There are some harsh realities when you take up astronomy, this brief guide will share with you:

  • The TRUTHS you need to be aware of
  • How we get past them to receive the JOY of the night sky

Links: Please note, some of the links in this article are affiliate links. You can find out more by clicking on 'affiliate links' in the footer.

Product images sourced from Amazon.com​

Featured image Credit

The Moon through a Celestron NexStar 8SE Credit