Ten things to do before you die, part 1: numbers 10 through 7

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, October 30, 2006

While wandering through Barnes & Noble the other day, I saw a book 100 Things to Do Before You Die: Travel Events You Just Can't Miss by Neil Teplica. What, I wondered, would that list look like for amateur astronomers?

Well, any observer's "top 100" list would contain lots of individual objects. Such catalogs vary according to the observer, and an inventory of 100 objects and events could grow tedious. That didn't stop me from making a list, but I managed to hold the number to 10. To amateur astronomers reading this, I recommend your "life list" includes these 10 highlights.

Because I tend to be long-winded, I’ve divided this list into three parts. Two more installments will follow this one.

10. Read Starlight Nights by Leslie C. Peltier.
Here's a book that's inspired more top-notch amateur astronomers than any other. Peltier not only details the process of observing, he includes much of the emotion as well. Complete this item first, and it may inspire you to finish the rest of this list.

9. Visit an historic observatory.
Except in one instance, I'm talking about an observatory containing a large refractor. The one exception: Palomar Mountain Observatory. Other choices include, but aren't limited to, Harvard College Observatory, the United States Naval Observatory, Allegheny Observatory, Leander McCormick Observatory, Cincinnati Observatory, Yerkes Observatory, and Lowell Observatory. A visit to any of these facilities is like taking a trip back in time. Do an Internet search on each to find locations, tour times, and observing events.

8. Observe all 109 Messier objects during a marathon.
Messier marathons are fun, fast-paced, highly social observing events. And I have no problem if that's all you get from them. Beyond the friends, the food, and the preparation, however, lies the goal: seeing Messier's entire catalog in one night. Actually, when I think about this, I know lots of amateurs who haven't seen all 109 objects, let alone in one night. The equipment you choose doesn't matter. Use an antique refractor on a tripod, a computerized go-to mount, or big binoculars. Just do it.

7. Identify all 88 constellations in the sky.
As amateur astronomers, we deal with the constellations all the time. You'd be surprised, however, at the number of observers who have visited the Southern Hemisphere (some many times) but who never have identified all 88 official star patterns. Even Northern Hemisphere observers, for the most part, don't know where many of the small or faint northern constellations lie. Here's a quick test. Can you identify the following northern constellations? 1) Camelopardalis; 2) Lacerta; 3) Lynx; 4) Sextans; and 5) Vulpecula. I didn’t thing so. To help you in your hunt, print out this constellation checklist, and start whittling down the number you haven't found.

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