The short story "Nightfall", by Isaac Asimov, tells of an alien planet where nighttime happens once every 2,000 years. When night finally falls and the stars come out, it's the first time anyone alive has seem them, and it's such a mind-blowing event that people go mad and civilization collapses.
Fortunately here on Earth, starry night skies happen far more often. For the beginning astronomer, there are countless night sky objects and constellations up there to ponder. If you're just starting out, here are some of the first things you should look for. They are some of the coolest objects in the night sky, and among the easiest to appreciate.
There are thousands of manmade satellites orbiting the planet, and if you stare up at a dark night sky long enough you're bound to see one of them pass by. You won't even need a telescope. Satellites look a lot like stars, except that they'll be moving, smoothly and briskly across the sky, without blinking and without making any sound. It's also possible for backyard astronomers to forecast which satellites will be going by on a particular evening by visiting a website like www.heavens-above.com or by using a stargazing app such as Star Walk.
4. The Andromeda Galaxy
As astonishing as a clear night sky is, it's good to keep in mind that all the stars that can be seen with the naked eye are relatively close by, generally ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand light years away. You're not looking across the universe, just across a small part of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
There are, however, a few objects that can be seen with the naked eye that are far, far more distant. Chief among these is the Andromeda Galaxy. Also known as M31, this tiny patch of fuzzy light isn't star - it's a galaxy in its own right. It is about 2.6 million light years away, and it's the closest spiral galaxy to our own. It is one the farthest objects that can be seen with the naked eye.
It can also be a little tricky to pick out. It's in the constellation Andromeda and you'll need a star chart (such as Google Sky) to figure out exactly where to look. A small telescope or a pair of binoculars might make things easier if you're in an area with a lot of light pollution.
3. The Moon through a telescope
You won't have any trouble finding the moon with your telescope, and once you do you're in for a treat. With a small telescope you'll be able to make out features on the surface, mostly craters, along with the play of sunlight across the crater rims, which is breathtaking to see. The most prominent crater is Tycho, in the southern part of the moon, with its many "rays" projecting outwards from the center, caused by material ejected from the asteroid impact that caused the crater.
2. Jupiter's moons
Distant galaxies are fun to think about, and the moon through a telescope is definitely something everyone needs to see, but for sheer "wow" value, the planets Jupiter and Saturn (through a telescope) will win every time.
Most planets are only visible at certain times of the year, so check a current star map to find which planets will be up there tonight. If Jupiter or Saturn are on the list, grab your telescope.
If you point your telescope at Jupiter you'll notice a few other pinpoints of light right next to it. They look like tiny stars, but they aren't. Those are Jupiter's largest moons. You should be able to see four of them (unless one or two are hiding behind Jupiter itself). One of those moons is Europa, which scientists believe has an ocean of liquid water beneath its frozen surface, and it's even possible that alien life of some kind lives in that ocean.
1. Saturn's rings
Saturn offers the backyard astronomer the best show in town. You've seen a million pictures of Saturn and its magnificent rings, but nothing compares to actually seeing the planet with your own eyes. It's only visible during certain parts of the year, so check a star map to make sure it's up there tonight. If it is, grab your telescope and point it at Saturn. It won't look like the pictures - in a small telescope it's much tinier with only one simple detail - the rings. But there's something so much more personal and immediate about seeing the planet and its rings through a telescope - it just doesn't compare to a photograph.