How to Use A Telescope: 16 Essential Steps to Loving the Night Sky

You’ve decided to delve into the brilliant and mysterious world of astronomy and have purchased your very first telescope.

Whether you received the scope as a gift or you have splashed the cash for your own to start a new hobby, there is much that you need to know about using your telescope and getting the most out of it.

There is a common issue with budding astronomers and that is the expectations that they have from the first use of their telescope. 

A lot of scopes are tossed to the side and never used again because users don’t get the incredible results that are often displayed by more experienced astronomers or professional pictures taken from space.

Like any hobby, astronomy takes time as you need to develop your observing skills as well as learn how to set up and use the telescope. It isn’t as simple as looking through the lens and being able to see everything there is in space.

There are endless possibilities in terms of what you can find in space and it’s all about working your way up from using a beginner telescope to learn the basic techniques and working your way up to a more advanced model or a computerized telescope. 

In the meantime, we are focusing on the start of your astronomy career. We’ve created this guide with all of the essential information from the initial research to setting up the telescope, using the scope and what to do afterwards.

Once you’ve finished this guide, you’ll be an expert at astronomy and will be able to get the most out of your telescope.

So whether you’re ready to use your brand new telescope or are wanting to dust off the old one that is wasting away in the attic, this is the right place to be.

We have everything you need to get started in your new hobby and you’ll have years of fun using your telescope soon enough.

We have split this guide into three main parts: setting up the telescope, using the telescope and other tips and hints.

Make sure you go through the steps one by one and don’t skip anything as you’ll need each one in order to develop your skills and really make the most of your telescope without feeling the need to throw it in the attic or use it as a clothes hanger if it goes wrong.

Starting from simply setting your expectations and ending with some handy tips and tricks to make sure you’re getting the most from the astronomy community, you’ll go into using your telescope with the confidence that will ensure you have endless positive experiences. 

Part 1: Setting up the telescope

We’ve split this guide into three segments so you can see how these steps fit into the wider picture when it comes to getting the best use from your telescope.

In our first part, we’re going to be talking you through the set up of your telescope and what you need to do before you even take your telescope out of the box. Using a telescope goes far beyond simply looking through the lens and immediately being able to use it.

This perception has made budding astronomers give up after their first try but stick with it and you’ll be able to explore all sorts of objects in space as you advance your skills and learn how to properly use your telescope.

1) Don’t believe everything you read

The first thing to accept before using your telescope is understanding that the results you will get when you first use your telescope or with a beginner scope is not going to produce the results that you see in books and magazines.

This is simply because those images are produced by professionals and people with advanced telescopes and astronomy knowledge. As with any hobby, it takes time and practice.

A telescope doesn’t work simply by looking through the lens, there is a lot to do in terms of setting up (which we will get to later in this guide). We will delve into how books and magazines can be helpful later on in our guide but be aware that the images you come across that feature swirling galaxies and deep space exploration comes from professional telescopes and more advanced telescopes by people who have been spending years regularly observing the night sky.

This first tip isn’t meant to dissuade you from astronomy but to ground your expectations and prepare you for what you will encounter when you first look through the lens and observe the night sky for yourself.

Once you’ve developed your skills, you’ll find new possibilities opening up and have your own perception of the night sky that will feel even more rewarding than looking and hoping for those images taken by professional bodies such as NASA and more experienced astronomers. 

2) Beginner telescopes have their limitations

Following on from our first step, be aware that starter telescopes that retail for cheaper prices do not have the same features or advanced technology seen in more expensive telescopes.

Beginner telescopes don’t have the same intense magnification that expensive or computerized telescopes have but they will come with some eyepieces to help you see close objects such as the moon and bright planets.

They are ideal for stargazing which is ideal if you want to observe the constellations in the night sky. Bear in mind that you can also use your telescope during the day for activities such as bird watching meaning you can get a full day’s worth of use out of your telescope. 

Just because beginner telescopes don’t have the same features that more advanced telescopes have doesn’t mean that you won’t get anything out of them.

You’ll have incredible views of the moon and nearby planets (which we discuss in part 2) as well as providing a great introduction to the world of astronomy. This is because you need to learn how to use a simpler model before venturing into computerized telescopes or more advanced manual ones.

Always read what comes with your telescope before setting up because some come with multiple eyepieces whereas others come with two or three. 

3) Setting up the telescope will take some time

Now you’ve thought about what to expect from your telescope and you’re ready to go stargazing.; however, bear in mind that, as mentioned above, setting up a telescope can take time. This is because you want to make sure that you have it correctly assembled and positioned with the magnifying eyepieces in place.

Telescopes tend to come unassembled due to their size and weight so it’s important that you take your time when assembling to avoid any long term damage.

Make sure to follow the instruction manual as closely as you can and if you are facing any difficulty, always contact the technical support or customer service team of the brand you have purchased from. This will avoid any mistakes when putting the pieces together. 

When you have set up the telescope, you’ll be able to get a feel of the weight as well as its portability and ability to be travelled easily. Some telescopes are large and bulky whereas others may be more forgiving and only take up a little bit of space.

If you’re planning on travelling with the telescope to go observing then always consider its size and compactability to avoid having to completely disassemble the telescope and rebuild it again. 

4) Always be prepared for the conditions when observing

Whether you’re observing from the comfort of your own room or are venturing on camping trips, always dress appropriately for whatever weather conditions.

Naturally, if you’re observing indoors then wearing comfy clothes is always best but if you are going outside and camping overnight then be sure to wear warm clothes that can withstand cold temperatures.

A lot of popular locations for stargazing tend to be open spaces that are far away from populated areas as the skies won’t be subjected to any light pollution.

Light pollution can prevent good views of the skies which is why you don’t see as many stars in the night sky from the center of a city but the sky will be full of them if observing from the middle of the field in the countryside. 

The length of the trip is also important as you want to ensure that you have the resources to ensure that you have a positive and safe experience, especially if you are far away from populated areas.

Also, it’s best if you know what it is that you’ll be looking for. We provide all the information on softwares, books and magazines that let you know what stars and planets can be viewed on certain nights later on in this article but by having a plan, you’ll know what you’re looking for and have an extremely positive experience.

It means that you won’t be glancing up at the sky without knowing what you’re looking at or looking for. So whether you’re wanting to brush up on looking up at some constellations that you may have missed in the past or if you’re going to look at the moon for the first time, knowing what you want to get out of your trip is always going to be an advantage and make your trip one to remember.

5) Handy extras to enhance your experience

Your telescope will come with all sorts of handy features as previously mentioned such as an adjustable mount and replaceable eyepieces and a 3X Barlow lens so you can have lots of fun stargazing trips.

However, outside of what you receive with your telescope, there are plenty of things that you can purchase to make your telescope usage even better.

If you invest in a planisphere, red flashlight and a notepad and pencil for notes and sketching, you’ll be able to take these items through your whole astronomy career.

A planisphere can assist in helping you locate whatever constellation or planet you are wanting to find whereas a red flashlight will help in being able to distinguish those details in the sky more clearly.

If your telescope can’t take or share images via Bluetooth then a notepad comes in handy for note taking and sketching.

Another handy extra is subscribing to online magazines that can give you updates on what can be found in the night sky and a great way to keep yourself up to date.

This is particularly ideal for those who want to observe on a regular basis and helps you in terms of looking for something different and unique every time you use your telescope. As well as online magazine subscriptions, it’s always essential to have a basic star map.

An online version such as the Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas is highly accurate and popular with astronomers of all abilities and has become a necessity for many observing trips. 

Part 2: Using the telescope

The second part of our guide is all about actually using the telescope. This is probably what you wanted to immediately find out but it is important that you follow all of the steps given in part 1 before coming here because you’ll get the most out of your telescope that way.

Here we discuss what you can expect to find when you’re using your telescope. Bear in mind that with a beginner telescope, it is unlikely that you will be able to look into deep space or the further away planets such as Saturn or Uranus.

However, this is all about developing those skills and learning how to recognise the different objects in space. 

6) The moon is the best place to start

The first object you’ll likely see in the night sky is the moon. Not only is it one of the closest objects to the Earth but it is also the brightest, making it visible to the naked eye on a clear night. With a telescope, not only will you be able to view it, but you will also be able to view the moon’s surface.

Make sure your telescope is properly mounted and a light reflector is in place. The light reflector will ensure that you will be able to see the moon clearly whilst also protecting your eyes.

Because the moon is so large and visible, you won’t need a locator to find where it is. The next time it is out, simply point your telescope towards it and view. 

If you use the largest eyepiece you have, you’ll find it has a better view because it has less magnification and therefore a clear image of the full moon. With the large eyepiece, focus it in to view the surface and use your mount to follow the moon. You’ll be amazed at the views you’ll have of the moon’s surface.

After you’ve gotten used to how the moon looks as a whole through the larger eyepiece, swap it for a smaller one and have a look at the specific details on the surface.

Naturally, this means you won’t be able to view the full moon but you’ll be able to see minute details that a larger eyepiece doesn’t let you see such as craters.

The moon is the perfect place to start because it gives you a chance to try all of your eyepieces and get used to the focus and magnification differences and how it can affect your view of the space objects.

7) Observing a planet

You’ve spent many sessions viewing the moon and getting acquainted with the various equipment that comes with your telescope. Now is the time to view a new object in the night sky - a planet! The most visible planets that you can view through your telescope are Venus, Saturn and Jupiter.

Depending on the magnification and the condition of the night sky, you should be able to get really good views of either one on any given night. A lot of people love the idea of viewing Mars, however, that and Mercury are among the hardest to view because they are so small although you may catch a brief glimpse of them through your telescope.

What makes Venus, Saturn and Jupiter so easy to see are the brightness and size and with the two latter planets, their rings and moons are a sight to behold. You’ll be able to see Jupiter’s rings and moons and Saturn’s famous rings which makes for a phenomenal experience.

As Mercury is close to the Sun and Mars isn’t as bright, astronomers can be left disappointed when they are unable to have a decent glimpse. However, when your skills advance and you are ready to invest in a higher quality telescope that boasts even more magnification and amazing features, you’ll be able to capture the detail in these planets that you have always wanted.

Remember that as a beginner, you need to learn the basic techniques and adjust yourself to night time observing for a while before you are able to explore everything in the night sky. It also gives you something to look forward to. 

8) Looking for constellations and circumpolar constellations

For the stargazers among you, this is the section for you. Before we get into the technicalities of how to successfully stargaze, the first thing to learn is all about the constellations.

With 88 constellations in existence, the majority of them move around as the Earth spins and can only be visible at certain times of the year, however, there are some constellations known as circumpolar constellations that are visible all year round and can be viewed every night depending on what hemisphere you live in.

The circumpolar constellations that can be found in the Northern hemisphere are: Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Draco, Ursa Major, and Ursa Minor.

If you are based in the United States or United Kingdom, this would be the list for you and you’ll be able to view these constellations all year round. However, for those based in the Southern hemisphere such as Australia and New Zealand, you can view Carina, Centaurus, and Crux.

This may sound intimidating but being able to place the circumpolar constellations is really easy. In the Northern hemisphere, we use Polaris (commonly known as the North star) to navigate which way to go.

Polaris is the main star in Ursa Minor so once you have located that constellation, you’ll be able to view Cassiopeia and Ursa Major constellations as they are positioned next to each other. 

Circumpolar constellations are just the beginning. With the rest of the constellations being seasonal, you’ll be able to start viewing popular constellations such as Orion and Taurus before you know it.

To know which constellations will be visible in the night sky local to you, simply download a star map and that will be able to give you up to date information.

9) Beginner’s guide to stargazing

Now you’ve gotten the constellations down, it’s time to learn about general stargazing.

It may not seem it when you look up at the stars with the naked eye but when you are using a telescope, you’ll be able to see stars with different colours as well as seeing clusters of stars in more detail. It’s amazing what you can view with a telescope compared with the naked eye.

One of the best challenges to set yourself is trying to view Binary and double stars. They may sound similar but they are different and it does take a lot of practice to differentiate between them.

Double stars are a pair of stars that look close together when viewed with the naked eye but they can actually be hundreds of light years apart.

Binary stars on the other hand are two stars that orbit close to each other. When you get to a point where you can easily identify a Binary star to a Double star, you’ll be progressing in your skill set as a beginner astronomer and will soon get to the point where you are ready to venture into deeper space and advance to a more difficult telescope used by more experienced astronomers.

10) Other objects to look out for

Now you’ve been searching for the recognisable objects in the sky but you may have noticed that there are tons of objects in space that you weren’t expecting to see.

Whether it is asteroids, comets or Messier objects. Messier objects were named after Charles Messier and have been composed into a catalogue compiled by him that lists 110 objects such as galaxies, nebulae and clusters to look out for. 

To view Messier objects, you can see them just about with the naked eye if you are in an open place with no light pollution nearby. However, a telescope will give you much stronger access to the detail.

As with constellations and planets, Messier objects can only be viewed at certain points of the year so always check with your Sky Map software to see which Messier objects are viewable on your desired night in real time.

Be aware though that when you are viewing neighboring galaxies, it isn’t going to look like how you imagine.

Messier objects will appear as a small grey speck of light because of how far away they actually are but it’s so rewarding being able to view objects that are millions of light years away consisting of billions of stars.

Part 3: Other tips and hints

The final part of this guide is all about those other hints and tips that we advise you make the most of as you develop your skills and venture into the world of astronomy.

From meeting other astronomers to using software that can give you up to date information in real time depending on where you are, we have gathered the best resources for you to consider in order to learn more about astronomy beyond doing it.

There’s nothing better than making sure you have a rounded education which will come in handy when you become more advanced. 

11) Meet other astronomers

The first step to take when thinking about how to learn more about astronomy is meeting and talking with other astronomers.

With social media, this is now more accessible than ever and you can see if there are any keen astronomers in your area who can take trips with you and can give you some one to one advice and tips. 

Knowing other astronomers is also useful because they will have the hands on experience that you are wanting to build and when you advance your skills, they can give you their wisdom.

Another advantage of meeting other astronomers and taking observing trips with them is that they may let you use their equipment so you can see the difference between a beginner telescope and an advanced telescope. 

12) Online astronomy courses for beginners

Another avenue for those who feel like they’re not getting anywhere with their astronomy career can take an online course which will give more information and hands on advice about how to get started.

This can be particularly useful for those who can’t get their head around what is going on with their set up. Tutors can analyse what has happened over the course and assist in getting them ready for years of observing.

13) Best Books for a New Astronomer

Now granted our tip number 1 was not to believe everything you read, but the books we recommend are all about star maps which will show you where you can find particular constellations as well as planets and Messiers.

If online software is not for you then check out the Pocket Sky Atlas which is an essential even if you do use the software. The Pocket Sky Atlas has everything you need to get started when you’re wanting to look up new constellations on a regular basis.

Another great book to purchase is the 2021 Guide to the Night Sky which gives you a rounded view of where constellations, planets and Messier objects can be found in the night sky over the course of the year. Easy to read and use, these two books are all you need to get yourself started into your astronomy journey. 

Thoroughly reading these books will also help you in terms of teaching you what to expect when you start to observe. A lot of people believe that they will see a kaleidoscope of colors and galaxies like what NASA produces.

It’s important to know that an amateur telescope, especially a beginner’s telescope, is not going to produce the same results and that may be underwhelming for many budding astronomers but don’t let this put you off. When you think about just how far these objects are from you then the achievement is rewarding in itself.

14) Best Astronomy Magazines

For those who want their information on a more regular basis then maybe you should go down the avenue of investing in astronomy magazines that are filled with articles and observations from professionals in the field.

The best magazines on the market are by far Astronomy Magazine and Sky & Telescope Magazine. Both are available in print and digital formats depending on your preference and are suitable for astronomers of all abilities.

The tips given in both are great for those who are looking to develop their skills as well as learning something new with every issue from the best in the field.

15) Download some astronomy software

For those who like to incorporate technology into their hobbies then astronomy software is a must. Giving you real time updates as well as showing you the night sky wherever you are and letting you know what can be found at that given time.

Astronomy software is a fantastic tool used by astronomers of all abilities and is particularly helpful for those who are just starting out and want to know what they can find. 

Softwares such as Stellarium, SkySafari Pro and Lunar Phase Pro are the frontrunning softwares that you should look out for when considering which software is the best one for you to use. Stellarium is a free software available for both PC and Mac and is the most common software used by beginners who don’t feel ready to invest their money into the software.

The latter two are fantastic with SkySafari Pro only available to those who use Apple and Lunar Phase Pro available for both. They have more features when it comes to what they provide but they are best used by people who are more experienced in observing.

16) Equipment every astronomer should own

Our final step is bringing back something from the beginning and reflecting on the important equipment astronomers should have when they observe.

These are: a planisphere that can give you real time updates on what you can see in the sky above you, a red flashlight to help protect your eyesight when observing at night, and a thermos flask to keep you warm if you are in cold weather whilst observing.

They may seem like insignificant things but they are crucially important to keeping you safe and comfortable for long and short observing trips. 

Conclusion

So that’s all 16 steps on how to get the most out of your astronomy career.

Whether you’re a beginner who is totally new to the astronomy world or an advanced astronomer looking to recap on the basics after a long break, this will hopefully inspire you to get started immediately and prepare yourself for what will be years of fun as you observe the night sky.

Hopefully, you’ve found these steps helpful and will adapt them to your own astronomy experience. Just remember to always be prepared whenever you are using your telescope.

Even if you are viewing from the comfort of your own home, it’s going to be advantageous if you know what you’re looking out for beforehand because you’ll know what to expect. 

As we have touched on many times, knowing what to expect from using your telescope is always the first step to avoid any disappointment. Like with any hobby, it takes time to develop the skill set needed to capture incredible images and venture into the world of deep space exploration.

Once you’ve mastered the beginner telescope, you’ll be able to advance to a more developed telescope that boasts an even wider range of features that will open even more doors for you. Following these steps are the best way to get you to where you want to be as soon as you can.

Once you’ve used your telescope for the first time, you’ll find astronomy so rewarding exciting and with so many endless opportunities and objects to see, you’ll have many years of positive experiences. 

Andy Morgan