If you are just getting into astronomy, one of the easiest objects to observe, of course, is the Moon. Being a mere 250,000 miles from Earth means that a pair of binoculars or a small telescope can give you glimpses of an amazing amount of detail of our nearest celestial neighbor. Do not make the mistake of many amateur astronomers and dismiss the Moon as ‘old hat’ or not being worthy of interest because it is so familiar. If you follow the guidelines below, you will be amazed at what you can see in your observations of the Moon.
1. Get Out Your Binoculars or Inexpensive Telescope
It is important in amateur astronomy to purchase a good quality telescope eventually. But for your beginner Moon observations, a small 70mm refractor or a 3-inch reflector is fine. Or, if you have a good pair of 10X50 binoculars, that is also great for a beginner. Either one of these options will allow you to see a good amount of detail.
2. Get a Moon Map
You should have a Moon map because the face of the Moon is not very familiar to you. You will get a lot more out of your observing if you have a good map of what you are observing. There are all sorts of maps of the moon out there. A really good one is the Field Map of the Moon, published by Sky and Telescope. This guide is laminated, so you are able to use it outdoors in all weather. You will see around 1,000 features of the Moon on this great map. You can buy this guide in two versions. One is a normal naked eye version, and the other is a reverse image version. You should see which one you need based upon the view of your particular binoculars or telescope.
Take a look at the moon image above. This is the standard, naked eye view of the moon, with the Mare Imbrium at the center upper left quadrant (just above that bright white crater at center left). If you see the Mare Imbrium in the bottom right of your telescope, you would then want the map that is reversed.
Your lunar map will be of great assistance in showing you all of the many lunar features. When you first start viewing the Moon, you may wonder how to tell north from south and east from west. Take a look at the image below to get oriented.
3. Times to Observe the Moon
The best time to observe the Moon is when it’s visible and the sky is clear. You need to know what phase the moon is in and when it will be up, of course. You can use the Farmer’s Almanac to tell you the phase, and when the Moon rises and sets.
You can always see some interesting features on the Moon, even when full. Most people think that you should not observe the Moon when full, because it is so bright and many features are washed out. However, you can best see the bright lunar rays on the Moon during the full phase. It also is good to look at the full Moon when you are just a beginner, so you can learn your way around the surface. You should be able to identify all of the dark areas, or seas, during full Moon.
It’s fun to see how soon after a New Moon that you can see the Moon in the evening sky. The day after New Moon, be on the look out for a very very slender crescent moon on the western horizon at sunset (see image below).
4. What A Beginner Can See
You will first notice the very bright and dark areas of the Moon. Also, you will notice the amazing views on the terminator – the line between the dark and light hemispheres.
The lunar surface is generally divided into two types: the dark parts, or seas (maria), and the light areas, or terrae. The seas, or Maria, are the smooth gray plains that are on the surface of the Moon. The terrae, or highlands, are the brighter areas that have lots of craters, ridges and other features. The image below will give you a better idea of the dark maria and the bright terrae. It is a more processed image to show you more of the contrast between these types of moon terrain.
You also will notice how much detail you can see along the terminator. If you look at the Moon over a few nights, watch how the terminator moves over the surface from east to west. This will change the view from day to day, and even hour by hour. You will be able to see amazing details of craters, mountains, domes, ridges and a lot more. Look at the image below of the week-old Moon. The details along the terminator are staggering.
I also highly recommend a long observing session of the Moon during a full lunar eclipse. This is when the Moon falls into the shadow of the Earth during Full Moon. In the span of several hours, you can observe the terminator creeping over the entire lunar surface. It is a great opportunity to cram a month’s worth of observations into one night.