First Light Guides: Frequently Asked Questions

Why are these called "First Light Guides"?

The First Light Guides are intended to the be an easy and fast way for telescope owners to observe objects in the night sky.

When professional - and many amateur - astronomers use a telescope initially, it is called "first light" for the telescope. The light from the cosmos is hitting the lens or mirror for the first time that the observer is using it (even used scopes can have "first light" if the scope is "new" to the owner). And each object page is set up to guide the amateur to each object. So while these are not limited to those using their telescope for the first time, they are designed with the first-time telescope user in mind, so they can learn various parts of the sky, and see some great objects with their telescope successfully the first time it is used.

What is The 540 Project? Why don't you support other dark sky organizations?

I do support other dark sky groups, and applaud their efforts. The problem is that what they mostly have done is continue to address to the the community that already knows about the problem: Amateur astronomers. Accordingly, they mostly go away from it to dark skies. Amateur astronomers need to be empowered to become part of the solution and help change that paradigm of how the larger population understands light at night (LAN).

I see this as an issue we need to run at, not away from. I believe the best way to do that is to educate the larger public about all LAN, both inside and outside. When people understand how light affects their sleep and health - because that's a FAR larger segment of the population than amateur astronomers (everybody sleeps, after all) - they then understand how LAN can negatively affect them. As it stands now, most do not understand it, and ask for more LAN.  

I hope you will join this effort and support it. I am working with some very motivated and scientifically literate people who are committed to changing LAN as well. Please visit www.540project.org for more information. 

Why isn't XYZ / my favorite objects / some other bright deep sky objects not included?

While there are many other worthwhile objects for beginner and intermediate level amateur astronomers to view, a lot of them were not included because they did not fit the criteria for the First Light Guides. These include - but are not limited to - the following:

  1. Being within 7 to 8 degrees of a star of 3.5 magnitude or brighter
  2. Having a high surface brightness to ensure visibility in a telescope from a wide variety of locations
  3. Being too small or difficult to see through a finderscope / telescope
  4. Being too low / impossible to see for me in the southern sky. I (David Fuller) live at 41 degrees north latitude; if an object was too close to or below my southern horizon and I could not observe it myself, I did not include it

The First Light Guides are not meant for everyone, but they are designed so that most anyone with a small telescope of 60mm or 70mm aperture (or larger) has a list of night sky objects they can locate and observe from most any location in the northern hemisphere. Many locations within 10 to 20 degrees of the equator in the southern hemisphere can see most of these objects too, but they will not have Polaris to use to help them find due north. 

What is the goal or purpose of the First Light Guides?

The goal of the First Light Guides is to include objects that can actually be found by beginner amateur astronomers from almost anywhere. While many of the objects even in these guides would be hard to see from downtown Hong Kong or Times Square in New York City, even within many heavily light polluted locations areas where more stars can be seen are available. 

For example, near downtown Chicago - a very light polluted city and downtown - the Adler Planetarium, which is practically in Lake Michigan, has spots where an observer can see stars down to 3.5 magnitude. While such stars would be impossible to see a mere mile away in the Loop, it just shows that even a short distance away from terrible observing conditions, adequate night sky visibility is possible. You just may need to search a bit or ask around to find a good location.

Why am I not able to see the galaxies like pictures look?

Most photographs of the night sky use a process that allows the shutter of a camera to stay open for a long period of time. Many of these photos accumulate several hours worth of data, then combine multiple images into a final, incredibly detailed view. 

The human eye refreshes itself about every 1/5 of a second, so the eye is unable to accumulate photons from distant objects like a camera can. To see more at the eyepiece of a telescope, two things are needed: 1) Darker skies and 2) Larger telescope aperture. 

Please see the website www.540project.org for more information about reducing light pollution so everyone can see more in the night sky. 

Why am I not able to see color in the nebulae?

As with the question above, part of the issue is gathering enough light. The other issue for nebulae is that amateur astronomy is often done in darker locations. In these locations, the eye dark-adapts so that the person can see under the low-light conditions. When the eye dark adapts, it uses the rods on the retina of the eye. These "see" light more in black and white than in color. 

The cones on the retina are the cells on the retina that see color. In order to activate them to have even a chance at seeing color, some observers intentionally shine a flashlight into their observing eye to activate the cones. However, this varies by observer; some never see color no matter what they do. And the younger you are, the more likely you are to see color. The older, the less likely you are to see color at the eyepiece, but this is a bit of a generalization. 

Also, more aperture helps; I (David Fuller) have personally seen blue, green, orange and a hint of rose/red in the Orion Nebula under very clear, transparent skies using a 10" diameter reflector telescope. But on other nights with the same telescope, I've only seen green or no color at all. 

What is the meridian?

The meridian divides the sky in half. It runs from due north, to the zenith overhead, to due south (or the other direction, if you prefer). Either way, the meridian splits the sky into eastern and western halves. Objects to the south below about 45 degrees are best viewed when they are on or close to the meridian, because they are at culmination then. 

What is culmi... what? Culmination? Like adjusting the mirrors of a telescope?

Nope, not quite, but these are sometimes confused! Collimation is the process of aligning the mirrors and/or lenses of a telescope to achieve ideal focus. Culmination is when a night sky object reaches it's highest point in the sky. For example, some objects in the First Light Guides list are quite low, such as NGC6281 and Messier 7. Because these objects do not rise higher than 10 or 15 degrees above the horizon when at the meridian from, say, 40 degrees north latitude, they are best seen at culmination, because that is their highest point in the sky. Therefore the observer looks through the least amount of atmosphere to see them at culmination on the meridian.