Observing in LA

The city lights of the LA metropolitan area obscure all the star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies -- the deep sky wonders; to see these at all well you have to travel 2 hours or more outside LA to the surrounding deserts and mountains.

In the city area in a back yard or other area shielded from nearby street lights you can see stars down to about third magnitude, which means that you can see the brighter constellations: for example, the north star, the Big Dipper, Orion, etc. In fact, some people find it easier to begin learning the constellations in the city where there are fewer dim stars visible to confuse the major outlines.

To learn the constellations, do not expect to see birds, bears, and heroines; instead concentrate learning the asterisms, the geometrical shapes like dippers, squares, triangles, and teapots. Get a rotating star chart from one of the nature stores or Griffeth Park Planetarium to identify which constellations are up in which direction.

To use a rotating star chart:

1. Locate the North Star (Polaris) first. Use a magnetic compass or a map to determine the north direction from your observing site. The North Star is a moderately bright star (second magnitude, same as the stars of the Big Dipper), due north, and from our latitude at LA it is about a third of the way up from horizon to zenith, the top of the sky. The last two stars of the Dipper point to it. The Dipper rotates about the North Star through the night, and through the seasons. From our LA location it is too low in the horizon mists during the fall season to be useful in locating the North Star.

2. On your rotating star chart, set the time of night against the date. Be sure to distinguish the nightime from daytime hours. The button about which the chart rotates represents the North Star.

3. The star chart is marked with the four compass directions. Face the direction you want to look, and hold the chart in your hand with this direction at the bottom. The bottom area of the chart will show the star patterns in front of you. (This is the step that many people are not aware of.)

4. Learn the bright constellations by their geometrical shapes first, like the Big Dipper, Orion in the winter, the Summer Triangle of Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila in the Summer.

5. Once you have learned a few bright constellations, make imaginary lines on the star chart out to other stars and constellations you want to learn, and then follow the imaginary lines in the sky.

With a telescope in the city you are pretty much limited to the following objects, some of which, of course, are among the most interesting objects to look at:

Click on the highlighted words for more information. Any of the common small refracting telescopes, such as those sold by Fedco, Toy R US, and camera stores, etc will show all of the objects above. Many of these small telescopes are sold with flimsy mounts, which make them hard to use, and almost all are sold with inadequate finders, which makes it hard to center the desired object. Fortunately, the most of the above objects are bright and therefore easy to center. Always start with the lowest powered eyepiece, the one with the largest focal length (e.g. 20 mm - 40 mm). This gives you the largest field of view. After you center the object at low power, try your higher power eyepieces or Barlow lens.

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