Sunday, October 23, 2011

Observing the Sun and Planets with a 60mm Telescope

In What Can I See With a 60mm Telescope I gave brief lists of some of what you can observe with a 60mm telescope, with just the briefest of notes on hoow to do that observing. Now I'll cover some of the details of how best to observe the objects mentioned in this and subsequent articles.

First, the Sun and the planets. The Moon and the various deep sky objects are large enough subjects that I'll cover them by themselves elsewhere.


You can use both medium and low magnification on the planets when observing them. They are bright enough that even with a 60mm telescope you can enlarge the image with magnification and still see some detail where there's detail to be seen. Each planet observable with a 60mm scope is detailed below.

For a 60mm scope, low magnifications range from about 20 powers (or 20 diameters, if you prefer), to about 100 powers. Medium levels of magnification are the highest practical magnification levels for this size scope. A 60mm will not allow what is typically referred to as "high" power magnification. Medium powers run from about 100 powers to about 200 powers. Anything more in this size scope will result in such a loss of detail and contrast that you'd actually see more at lower powers.

If your scope has eyepieces that claim to give higher levels of magnification, take them out of your usual kit of stuff you take observing with you and set them aside for another telescope. You'll get the best views from your 60mm at magnifications from 40 to 120 powers, the scope is usable up to 150 powers or so, and can be used at up t0 200 powers if everything about the scope and the sky is perfect. Higher levels of magnification are theoretically possible, but are, in practice, show far less than lower powers.

In this size range of telescope, the mount is actually far more important than the optics of your scope. Most optics in this range are pretty good. The finest optics and best designed 60mm telescope will show far more, of course! But to show anything the mount must be able to hold the scope steady and on the object you've pointed it at.

Plus, to observe using higher powers (over about 120-150x), the mount will have to have either good slow motion controls or a clock or computer drive. Mounts without these will work perfectly well at the lower powers, my mount for my 60mm has no drive or slow motion controls.

First and foremost, though, the mount has to hold the scope still. It shouldn't slide down or up when locked in place. It shouldn't shift halfway across the sky when the position is locked in. It should be possible to thump the scope lightly and not have it move off target.

There are many 60mm telescopes sold with good mounts today. There are also very, very many sold with the awful mounts of yesteryear that frustrated the heck out of me. The best thing I ever did with my 60mm scope was build a new mount that actually held it in place. You can do even better, by getting a good mount that works well right from the start. If you can get one with either a drive mechanism or with slow motion controls, that's nice. If not, don't fret. You can do a lot of observation with even the simplest stable mount.

The Sun
The Sun is only safe to view if you have a solar filter that fits over the front of the telescope. The sort that goes on the eyepiece is not safe to observe with, they will overheat and crack. If somebody's eye is there when that happens, that eye will be blinded forever by the damage from the concentrated sunlight. I have literally had one of these filters crack just as I looked away from the eyepiece. Don't trust the little eyepiece sun filters, not even for a moment. If one came with your scope, throw it away before you are tempted to give it a try.

If you do have a proper filter, your scope will show you the surface of the Sun, including any sunspots visible on it. You can watch the sunspots move as the Sun turns. They are most interesting to watch as they appear and disappear at the edges of the Sun.

Rarely, either Mercury or Venus will pass between the Earth and the Sun. This is called a transit. Usually it can only be seen from a particular part of the Earth that's lined up right. But, if you have a properly outfitted 60mm telescope for solar observation, and you're in the right place at the right time with nothing blocking your view, you can observe a transit with your telescope.

More common is a solar eclipse, where the Moon passes between us and the Sun. A telescope fitted for solar observation can also be used to watch a solar eclipse close-up.

Mercury appears as a small orange-red disk in a 60mm telescope. It doesn't show any detail, but its color will change depending on the sky conditions you observe it under. It is always near the Sun, so it can only be observed near sunrise or sunset. Sometimes it can be seen during the daytime, but it is so close to the Sun that it's not really safe to observe without the chance of accidentally moving the telescope onto the Sun.

Venus appears as a small, bright, Moon-like object. It shows phases, and can be magnified to the limit of your scope's ability. Rarely, cloud detail can be viewed in a 60mm with a variable polarizer filter, though it usually takes a larger telescope to manage this.

The phases of Venus are quite distinct, looking just like phases of the Moon.

Venus can be observed safely in the daytime when it is far away from the Sun, at or near what is called "greatest elongation" which is astronomer-speak for farthest it gets from the Sun. Be very, very careful when locating it, however. Initially align your telescope without your eye at the eyepiece or the finder scope, using the shadows cast by the Sun to make sure that the scope isn't pointing at the Sun. Then, sweep away from the Sun, never toward it. If you need to go back closer to the Sun, take your eye away from the scope or the finder, move the scope while watching the shadows, don't put any body parts in line with the eyepiece (the Sunbeam that comes out of it will burn), better yet, cover the objective of the telescope when going back toward the Sun. Then again sweep away from the Sun.

When seen during the day, Venus looks like a little Moon as seen during the daytime.

Mars shows some surface detail, unlike Mercury and Venus. It will show light and dark areas at medium power. A polar cap is visible, especially when the position of Mars and its season is right, when the polar cap may cover about 1/4 of the visible planet's disk. Mars has an especially nice display about once every two years, when it is closest to the Earth.

Its two moons are too small to be seen, even in much larger telescopes, so don't expect to find them. If you see something nearby, it's likely a background star, or possibly an asteroid if it appears to move rapidly with respect to Mars (rapidly meaning about as fast as a clock's hand!)

Color filters can bring out subtle detail in Mars' surface when Earth is close enough to make Mars look its largest (it never, never gets as large as the Moon, however! That's just an internet myth.) Light colored filters work the best, I use very light yellow and blue filters, and occasionally a very light orange filter, to bring out details of light and dark areas on the surface of Mars at about 200-250 powers when everything--sky, mount, telescope, my eyes--are at their best.

Ceres and the Bright Asteroids
About a dozen asteroids are visible to a 60mm scope in any given year. Finder charts for them are online and in the major astronomy magazines and their annual supplements. None of them shows the form of a disk, they all appear as stars, at best.

They are most interesting to observe when you can watch them from night to night, seeing the movement of the "star" relative to the other stars near it.

Rarely, there will be an asteroid that is rotating at a rate that makes it brightness change as you watch. These are incredibly interesting to see, as it is so rare, and such a clear sign that that "star" is not like the others.

Jupiter is one of the things that your 60mm scope was built to view. It is a showpiece for your scope. It's what you show visitors so that they can say, "Wow," when they look through your scope.

Jupiter will show bands in its atmosphere, even at low powers. If the Great Red Spot isn't busy blending in with its background, it will be visible at the highest powers your scope can achieve (sometimes it's more visible than others.) It was very obvious back in the 1970s and 1980s, but then it began to dim and fade in with the cloud belt it is in. Now it is becoming somewhat more visible again. Hopefully it will continue to do so. Back in the 1970s it looked like a great big cherry, standing out clearly from its cloud belt even in a 60mm scope.

Larger scopes often have to block off some of the excess light from Jupiter when it is at it brightest. You are unlikely to have that problem with a 60mm. You should be able to see at least two dark bands, one above and one below, as well as the dark areas at each pole easily. That makes seven stripes (four dark, three light) that you should be able to see, even with so-so optics. Fine, high quality optics show far more, including far more detail within each of the bands such as veils, columns, rifts, bays, garlands, tails, festoons, and numerous other features. This is why people pay more for better optics, even in small scopes.

Jupiter's Moons
The four Galilean Moons will be easily visible through the 60mm scope. They will appear as small stars in line with Jupiter's equator. Occasionally, their shadows can be seen on Jupiter's surface, or they can be seen to cross in front of Jupiter if you have good optics. Their movement changes noticeably over the course of an evening, but if you just sit and watch them it's like watching the hour hand move, so memorize where they are, go look at something else, then come back for another look later.

Saturn is probably the best object to see in your 60mm telescope. My wife still tells the story of how she "discovered" Saturn in her 60mm telescope when she was young.

The planet is bright, the rings are easy to see at 40x and higher. Careful observation with a relaxed eye will show bands in the atmosphere of the Saturn. The angle of the rings varies over time. When the rings are "open", that is, tilted at a higher angle and not edge-on, the Cassini division is visible in the rings. Better optics will show other divisions and more detail in the rings.

The moon Titan shows easily in all 60mm scopes. It appears as a bright star near Saturn. Four, and possibly as many as six, other moons will be visible. Seeing all seven moons that are possible with the 60mm requires absolutely perfect conditions and the highest quality optics. Normally, Titan will be easy, and two to four other moons will be visible with varying levels of difficulty.

Uranus appears as a small disk, often with a faint greenish color to it when it is at its brightest. None of its moons are visible, nor are any details of its surface. Low powers show it the best, and throwing the image slightly out of focus may reveal color when none is visible otherwise.

Neptune appears as a very small disk at the higher powers for your scope. When at its brightest, it may show a slight blue color. No detail is visible on the disk. This is a challenging object to observe with a 60mm scope, it is often very hard to tell Neptune from nearby stars. No moons are visible.


cyber-ghost said...

You have a wonderful site. I've been observing for over 40 years, and have owned up to 10 inch telescopes, but in recent years have begun to enjoy the convenience, portability, and amazing views offered by a quality 60mm telescope. It's now my most used instrument.

Thanks for helping set the record straight on what can be viewed with a good 60mm telescope.

saundby said...


My main instruments for many years were 60mm and 75mm scopes. I did a lot with them. I still boggle at my old observing logs.

My main telescope now is an 8", but I still have 90mm and 60mm telescopes, and a pair of 60mm binoculars that I get a lot of use out of. Smaller is often better. :)

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