I am not big on New Year’s resolutions. I believe if you are serious about doing something, you don’t need an excuse to do it. However, I do understand the idea of starting with a clean slate. It’s like getting a second chance to do something right. I did not make any pledges for the new year, but I did decide to do something that I have not done in a while.
I was struck by the photography bug several years ago. My photography journey took a toll on my telescope usage. My scopes have become jealous. Every time I walk through my garage I can hear them say, “Hey! What about us?” “Please take us out!” It’s not like I haven’t used them at all. It just that I used to stargaze on almost every other clear night. Nowadays I rarely get around to setting up for a night of stargazing. I have decided that in 2016, I will be more involved in amateur astronomy. I am going to do something related to astronomy at least once a week. If clouds are present, I will read a magazine or book on astronomy or plan out my next stargazing session. I am also going to get back into outreach by attending more star parties and maybe have a star party or two of my own.
To kick things off, I thought I would start New Year’s night with a short observing session. Temperatures were at the freezing mark, and the sky appeared to be clearing. Since there was some haze in the sky, I decided to set up my 102mm f11 Refractor seen below. If the transparency was better, I would have brought out the bucket, my 254mm f5 Reflector.
I decided that the best way to ease back into a steady diet of astronomy was to start observing the objects in the Messier Catalog. This list of heavenly bodies is made up of stars, double stars, star clusters, globular clusters, planetary nebulae and galaxies. These objects were first listed by the French Astronomer Charles Messier. Charles was a comet hunter. He created the list while searching for comets. There are 110 objects on the Messier List. In the Spring, you can actually see all 110 objects in one night in the Northern latitude. This is called a Messier Marathon. I have seen all the Messier objects, but I have not completed a true Messier Marathon. I think I might give it a go this Spring. In the meantime, I am going to revisit my old Messier friends weekly.
I have a number of mounts and tripods to support my scopes. The equatorial mount I decided to use tonight uses external power to operate. It is actually a “go-to” electronic equatorial mount. If I properly polar align the mount, I can use the small handheld computer and controls to automatically slew to my target. This is great and can come in handy at star parties or when you just want to hop around the night sky. However, I love finding my targets using old fashion star maps. To me, manually finding objects in the night sky is much more rewarding. Besides, I like to take my time when I am observing. I guess that is not too surprising coming form someone who upgraded their photography by going from digital to film. Thus, I just use the mount to track the objects in the sky. This keeps the observed object in the center of the eyepiece. A tracking mount is great when you want to study an object for a long period of time and it is essential for serious astrophotography. I’ve observed the planet Jupiter for hours.
I admit that the above battery is an overkill for tonight’s session, but it is perfect when you are running a computer and dew heaters for a long observing session.
I mentioned above that I like to use star maps to find my objects. For tonight, I used my Sky Safari phone app. It’s like having a pocket star atlas with you at all times. This app can even control you telescope with the proper setup.
I love my scopes, but probably the most valued part of my equipment is my eyepieces. Scopes usually come and go, but eyepiece collections stick around. It took me a few years to put together the eyepiece collection below, partly due to cost and partly due to availability. I won’t go through everything in the case, but here is a list of my current eyepiece collection.
University Optics Volcano Tops Planetary Eyepieces – 4mm, 5mm, 6mm, 7mm, 9mm, 12.5mm, 18mm, 25mm
University Konig-II Eyepieces – 6.5mm, 8mm, 12mm, 16mm, 24mm, 32mm
University 32mm Konig MK-80 Eyepiece (2″ barrel)
Televue 2x Barlow
Burgess Optical 8mm Planetary Eyepiece
Tools of the Trade
So what did I observe? Below is a list of my first viewing session of 2016. I won’t go into great detail about the objects, but I provided a link to information and pictures of each object. Just click on the object name.
Planetary Nebula in the Constellation Lyra
2283 Light Years form Earth
This one was hard to find as it was just inside some trees at the horizon. I almost gave up, but the more I studied the map, the more I started to recognize the star field. Looking at the stars is just like riding down a road you have not traveled for a long time. After awhile, you start to recognize landmarks. You suddenly start to remember where you are.
Double Star in Cygnus
430 Light Years from Earth
This is not a Messier object, but I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I would pay the double star a visit. Albireo’s bright yellow and fainter blue star is one of the prettiest double stars you’ll ever see.
Open Star Cluster in Cygnus
4000 – 7200 Light Years from Earth
10 million years old
This little cluster resembles a butterfly. Some have called it a cooling tower.
Open Star Cluster in Casssiopeia
4600 Light Years from Earth
35 million years old
Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda
2.5 million Light Years from Earth
9 billion years old
The Andromeda galaxy is the closest spiral galaxy to earth. It is actually on a collision path with our galaxy. Thankfully we won’t be around for the collision. M31 is my favorite galaxy to view. I have actually detected some of the galaxy’s structure at a darker location with a bigger scope. In general, that is true for most of the objects in space. The darker the sky and the larger the scope, the more you will see. There are also 14 dwarf galaxies orbiting the Andromeda Galaxy. Two of them, M32 and M110, can be seen in the same field of view of the Andromeda Galaxy.
7th Planet in our Solar System
1.8 billion miles from the Sun
This was another deviation from the Messier List. I love to observe planets. I have observed all 9. Yes, I said 9. I still regard little Pluto a planet. Pluto went for so long thinking he was one of the planets in our solar system, I don’t think it is fair to pull the rug from underneath him now. That would be like raising a kid and when you find out that you are not the farther, (I just had a visual of Maury Povich) you don’t have anything to do with them anymore. Pluto was demoted because to be a planet, you must do three things. First you must rotate on your own axis at such a speed that you take on a spherical shape. Secondly, you must orbit the sun. Thirdly, you must clear your path around the sun. This means that you have enough mass to force anything in your orbital path out of your way. This is where Pluto has a problem. Pluto crosses path with Neptune. Neptune is much larger. Pluto can’t push Neptune around. Thus, Pluto was demoted to minor planet status. Of all the planets, I take the most pride in finding Pluto. It took me a few days to confirm that I was actually seeing and tracking Pluto. Since it only looks like a dot, how do you know that you are looking at the actual planet? Once I found Pluto I sketched the star configuration that I was viewing with Pluto marked in the star field. I came back night after night and noticed that one of the dots was moving. Found It! That moving dot was Pluto. As you can imagine, Pluto is very faint. It had to come within the resolving power of my largest telescope before I would even attempt to find it as its magnitude varies. No matter what Neil deGrasse Tyson says, I will always call Pluto a Planet.
Now back to Uranus. Uranus is not a very exciting object to view in a telescope. It just looks like a star even at high magnifications. I take pleasure in finding it in the sky, especially when the viewing conditions are not ideal. Unlike Pluto, I know when I have found Uranus. Its blue-green disk is unmistakable under high magnifications. Uranus takes over 84 years to make one revolution around the sun. That means since I started this hobby over a decade ago, it is still in same general area of the sky. Reading and learning about the planets like Pluto and Uranus that don’t come with the visual fanfare of a Saturn or Jupiter, is enough for me to marvel at what I am actually viewing in real time through my telescope in my backyard. It never ceases to amaze me.
Two Open Star Clusters in the Constellation Perseus
7500 Light Years from Earth
3.2 and 5.6 million years old
This is also not a Messier object, but it’s my favorite open cluster of stars. It looks great in a wide field eyepiece.
Open Start Cluster in Taurus
444 Light Years from Earth
75 – 150 million years old
This is my second favorite open star cluster. I discovered this cluster when I first became an amateur astronomer. Under a dark sky one night, my wife asked me what was that bright patch of stars rising in the East. When I saw it through the scope for the first time, I was amazed at its beauty. After some research, I able to tell my wife about the Seven Sisters. This cluster even looks spectacular with binoculars. To give you an idea of how young this cluster is, the stars that make up Pleiades were born while the dinosaurs were still roaming the Earth.
Bright Nebulae in the Constellation Orion
1400 Light Years from Earth
This nebulae is a delight to view. It is probably the most photographed object in the night sky. It’s brightest stars are as young as 10,000 and 300,000 thousand years old. We are actually watching stars being born in this glowing cloud of gas. It is sometimes referred to as a nursery. I always take a moment to view the Orion Nebulae when I am out observing the Winter sky.
This was a quick session. I probably stayed out for about 3 hours. It was fun getting reacquainted with some old friends. I would encourage anyone to start taking a closer look at the night sky. If you are in the city, go out to the rural areas away from the lights. It’s sad that a lot of people these days go almost a lifetime without noticing one of nature’s most spectacular wonders, the night sky. You don’t need a telescope to enjoy the heavens. You just have to look up. If you have to have a visual aide, grab some binoculars. Binoculars are perfect for cruising the night sky. If your curiosity starts to get the best you you, the internet is filled with information. Below are some books that I read when I was starting out. I think I might write a post about starting out in amateur astronomy.
Periodicals are excellent for gaining knowledge and for keeping abreast of current events. I have let my subscriptions to Astronomy Magazine and Sky & Telescope expire. I think I might renew my subscriptions.
When I am not using my phone app, I use a combination of the atlases and resources below. The Peterson Field Guide was a gift from my mother-in-law. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. I still use it to this day. I even booked marked it.
I have found that stargazing has made me a more spiritual. When you are all alone on a cool clear night with the grandeur of the heavens staring back at you, you can’t help but to realize how small we really are and how there must be something bigger and greater out there. I used to carry a journal to document my observing sessions. Writing down my observations and sometimes what I am feeling at the moment makes the observing experience complete. Below is an example from my journal.
I know my readers are not going to rush out to buy a telescope, but I hope some of you take a second look at the night sky. It can be life changing. I have watched kids faces light up after viewing Saturn. Their first word after seeing Saturn for the first time is always, “WOW!!!!” Some are in disbelief of what they are seeing. I had one kid asked me if I had a sticker at the end of the telescope. I remember showing an elderly lady in a wheelchair the craters of the moon. She had never seen the moon up close and personal like this in her entire life. It looked like she wanted to cry. She could not stop looking through the scope. I never get tired of moments like that. Because of moments like that and the need to encourage the youth to study the sciences, my wife and I became members of the NASA Night Sky Network. NASA sends us activity kits to share with the public. After every event we have, they send a new kit. We have not been active for a while, but I hope we get back into outreach in the new year. Out reach is a lot of fun. Who knows, we might just plant a seed for the next Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking.