Deep sky dilemma

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Friday, January 5, 2007

About half of our readers observe regularly. I hope you're one of them, because those of us who scan the sky find observing both fun and rewarding. Plus, this blog will mean more to you.

Here's a question for observers: Are you in a rut? Now, I'm not here to poo-poo anyone's observing, but if you find yourself looking at the same objects every time you head out under the night sky, your observing lacks diversity. Let me give you an example. Years ago, I had a friend who owned a great 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. With such an instrument under a dark sky, an observer can see thousands of deep-sky treats. Unfortunately, this observer had a repertoire of only about a dozen objects.

In the summer, the Wild Duck Cluster (M11) was his favorite, followed closely by the Ring Nebula (M57). Autumn featured the Double Cluster in Perseus (NGC 869 and NGC 884) and Albireo (Beta Cygni). In winter, he looked at the Orion Nebula (M42) — period. You get the idea.

Now, I'm the last one to tell you not to revisit the best deep-sky objects. I observe my favorites every chance I get.

The first tip I'll suggest if you want to add a spark to your observing routine is to pick up a good atlas (such as Astronomy's Atlas of the Stars). Find your favorite targets (the ones you tend to observe over and over) on the star charts. Then look at the regions near them for other celestial objects you haven't observed.

For example, if you're "stuck" on globular cluster M4 in Scorpius — perhaps because it's easy to find next to brilliant Antares — a quick search of the area will reveal three other bright Messier objects in the same constellation: bright open clusters M6 and M7 and globular cluster M80.

The second tip is to try to see a little more with every observation. I'll illustrate with the Orion Nebula. If, during your last observation, you marveled at the bright gas clouds that comprise this object, the next time you view it, concentrate instead on the Trapezium - the tiny cluster of newborn stars at M42's center. Through a small telescope, four stars are visible. Through my friend's 8-inch, I could spot two additional stars. And, if you're lucky enough to view the Trapezium through a 14-inch or larger scope, you may just spot the two 15th-magnitude stinkers (one of which is a double star) that complete the Trapezium.

Another challenge with the Orion Nebula is to see (and measure) the extent of its nebulosity. You'll get different results through different scopes. I remember once comparing views of M42 through more than a dozen scopes at a star party. Talk about taking an old favorite and giving it new life!

My third tip is to show your favorite celestial wonders to others, especially those who are not (yet) amateur astronomers. The objects you revisit made your list for a reason, and you're enthusiastic about them. Share your passion and knowledge with others. Then turn your scope toward something you haven't seen.

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