Observing lists: friend or foe?

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Some observers swear by observing lists. Others swear at them. The latter don't want to bother (or don't have the time) to prepare object lists before their observing sessions. Many observers with go-to drives let the computers in their telescopes do the driving.

Personally, I want a bit more say in what I'm going to be looking at, so I like working within the structure of a list. On the other hand, I can veer off the list at the drop of a hat if conditions warrant. I define "conditions" in ways ranging from my target part of the sky being cloudy to a friend asking, "Have you ever seen such-and-such object?"

For those of you who already prepare a pre-observing list, and for those who want to prepare such a list, I have some tips you may find handy.

1) Use every bit of information available to construct your list — star charts, software, the Internet, friends' favorite objects, and, of course, Astronomy magazine. Here's a sampling of some excellent observing programs that appeared in recent issues:

  • "Tour summer's great globulars" (June 2006)

  • "A southern-sky Messier catalog" (July 2006)

  • "How to observe exploded stars" (September 2006)

  • "Observe fall's top galaxies" (November 2006)

  • "Explore winter's 12 best star clusters" (February 2007)
  • "See winter's best planetary nebulae" (March 2007)

  • "Observe the sky's most colorful double stars" (April 2007)
  • 2) Sort your list any way you wish, but observe its objects in a natural progression starting in the west and moving to the east. That way, you'll see list objects at the start of your observing session before they set or get too low for good views. Likewise, new list objects will appear in the east and reach their highest points later in your session.

    3) For your first lists, don't pick objects that are too faint. I'm not saying just stick to the Pleiades and the Orion Nebula, but test how well you like lists before you test the limiting magnitude of your telescope. It's better to look at bright objects than to run the risk of getting frustrated.

    Next week, I'll offer more tips for list-makers.

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