Top Targets

Getting started with iPhone Astrophotography and Amateur Astronomy?

So, you’ve got you’re telescope setup.  The skies are clear, and you’re scope is polar aligned and your finderscope is on point.

Now what?

The list below contains some of my astronomical favorites.  These are the top targets for your first nights star gazing.  They are all relatively easy to locate and will help you gain practice controlling your telescope.

1.  The Moon

This one’s a no-brainer.  You see it all the time, but the Moon is really something to behold with a scope.  Provided the Moon is out when you’re observing, I recommend trying to locate it first with your new setup and your lowest power eyepiece.  If you’re using an altazimuth mount, finding the Moon is super straightforward.  While looking through your finderscope, simply adjust the telescope until the Moon is centered in your sights.  If you’re using an equatorial mount, the process is slightly more involved, but don’t worry, it’s still easy!  The first step is to find the current coordinates of the Moon.  For this, I HIGHLY recommend you purchase the app Sky Guide (costs $1.99 – well worth the value).  Using the Sky Guide app, locate the moon, and click on its info.  You’ll see the right ascension and declination coordinates.  Release the declination clutch on your equatorial mount, and set it to the declination of the Moon.  If you’ve calibrated your right ascension setting circle, you can release the right ascension clutch on your mount and set it to the Moon’s coordinate.  Be sure to look in your finderscope so that the you see the Moon properly centered.  Use the slow motion cables to finely adjust the direction of your telescope.

moon astrophotography

View of the Moon with my Celestron AstroMaster 130eq.

Then switch over to the main eyepiece, and you should see an impressively bright light.  You may need to finely adjust the scope with slow motion controls, and likely need to adjust the focus.  The glow from the Moon is unmistakable.  Once you’ve found the Moon, practice tracking it without a motor drive and swapping eyepieces to get more magnified views.  If you’ve purchased filters at this point, they can be very helpful if the brightness from the Moon is overwhelming.  Congrats, you’re now an amateur astronomer!

2.  Jupiter

Once you’ve mastered the Moon, I recommend trying to find Jupiter.  Most people don’t know it, but Jupiter is often one of the brightest objects in the sky.  So long as it’s visible above the horizon at your location, Jupiter will look like a very bright star.  Again, I suggest using the Sky Guide app to determine where Jupiter is located in the sky, both visually and with exact coordinates.

Jupiter Astrophotography

Here’s what you may see with your first look at Jupiter.

Follow the same procedures as above with the Moon to locate Jupiter in your finderscope.  Jupiter will be rather bright in your main eyepiece, and you will likely need to adjust the focus.  With a clear view, you may see some of the distinctive planetary features of Jupiter, and you’ll see some or all of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter.  These moons are called Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, and they’ll resemble small stars surrounding Jupiter.  Experiment with different color filters and eyepieces to try and resolve the features and gas layers of Jupiter.

3.  The Orion Nebula

The constellation Orion is familiar in the Northern sky, with the distinctly recognizable Orion’s Belt.  Just below and slightly to the left of the belt is the Orion Nebula.  A nebula is a cloud of gas and/or dust, illuminated by nearby stars.  Nebulae make excellent targets for astrophotography; however, they may require advanced astrophotography techniques to truly capture their excellence.  Still, even with a modest telescope, the Orion Nebula, is quite amazing.

Orion Nebula - basic astrophotograph captured with an iPhone

Orion Nebula – basic astrophotograph captured with an iPhone

4.  The Pleiades

Another great stellar target for viewing and astrophotography are the Pleiades.  The Pleiades are an open star cluster, loosely bound by gravitational attraction.  In only decently dark skies, you can faintly see the Pleiades with the naked eye.  However, with a telescope, the Pleiades resolve into a group of bright stars with a blue glow.  The image below is a more advanced astrophotograph, but you can still capture excellent astrophotographs with just an iPhone or other smartphone.

Astrophotograph of the Pleiades

Astrophotograph of the Pleiades

5.  Saturn

Once you’ve mastered finding and tracking the targets above, try moving on to Saturn.  Being smaller, and further away than Jupiter, Saturn may require higher powered eyepieces to resolve detail.  Still, even with a modest telescope, you should be able to capture details of Saturn and its rings.  With the higher powered eyepieces and a smaller field of view, Saturn can be more difficult to find and track, but the beauty of the rings is well worth it.  Here an equatorial mount with a motor drive will help you get good views and take quality astrophotographs.

Astrophotograph of Saturn

Astrophotograph of Saturn