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I didn't know really how to title this, but I wondered if anyone had any specific approaches to observing.

I've always gone out with the intention of finding all the things that make you say "blimey that's good" - which usually ends up being planets....

It's always struck me that that's maybe not the most logical approach and maybe I should be a bit more systematic.

So with my impending scope purchase I was wonder how people tend to tackle sky - do you systematically work on a specific patch or maybe have a hit list of objects you are hunting down (The Messier Challenge kind of springs to mind)


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90% of the observing I do is visual variable star work. I observe whichever stars are on my programme, need observing (not all need doing every night) and are visible in the bits of sky that are available. Well placed planets I can't resist, as a change (usually before taking a break - so as to avoid wasting dark adaptation) and/or in twilight when it's too light to observe faint stars.

List ticking just doesn't float my boat.

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I'm relatively new too, so can well remember getting started. I'd suggest early on trying deliberately to find a few examples of different types of target:

- Open clusters: e.g., M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga; NGC457 in Cassiopeia; the Double cluster

- Globular clusters

- Nebulas (and why not start with the Orion nebula?)

- Double stars (e.g., iota Cassiopeia)

- Planets

- Galaxies (e.g., M81 and M82 in Ursa Major)

Try to find a couple of examples of each and you'll probably find that some of these just grab you more than others. To my surprise, I quickly found I loved open clusters and double stars; globular clusters I found I could take or leave. Once you've got an idea of what grabs you, it all becomes a lot simpler. Find that you like double stars? Grab a copy of the Cambridge Double Star Atlas and away you go... You find that it's all good? Then work your way through the MEssier and Caldwell catalogues of interesting deep-space objects.

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My approach has changed a lot in thirteen years, going from wandering, to lists, to sketching.

At first i wandered around looking at 'this and that', but found out that i really enjoyed the structured discipline of going through a list. So i did the Messier list and then combined the two Herschel 400 lists into one 'superlist' and worked on it constellation by constellation. It took 3 years but wow, what a fantastic learning experience! It taught me to push things to the limit and really improved my navigational and observational skills. ;)

Being a bit 'list-weary' ;) i began to observe the Moon in 2003 and taught myself to sketch... best thing i ever did. Whether observing the Moon, deep sky, the Sun, comets or anything else, sketching makes you look harder and really study your target. As a result, you become a better observer.. can't ask for anything more, IMO. So i guess my current approach to observing is sketching.. in all likelihood it won't change anytime soon, but you never know. :p

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I usually start off with all the usual suspects:Orion,Seven Sisters,planets.......

Then i scan the sky with my 20x90 bins slowly. Looking for faint fuzzies. When i find one i switch back to the scope and slowly zero in on the faint fuzzy using a 32mm EP....then a 20mm EP, right down to about 6mm+2x barlow.

Other nights i pick one object from "Turn Left At Orion" and spend the night hunting it down.

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I used to have a very impulsive approach to observing - just going where I felt like it, sometimes even blindly swinging the scope around while looking through the eyepiece, and hoping I would stumble across something good! Of course, I didn't get very far with that attitude, and didn't record any observations.

Then I used Turn Left at Orion and pick an object, find it, observe it, and record it.

More recently still, I used the wonderful book "Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders". I would pick a constellation that was sufficiently high at that time, and pick some objects in that constellation, and observe them, before movign onto a new constellation. This method encourages good observing, but also gets you through through many objects, because you know where to look.

The last few observing sessions I've been concentrating on two specific objects while they're still around, and trying to tease out as much detail from them as possible - Mars and the Trapezium in M42 (still can't see E&F!).

When I come across an object with particularly tricky or interesting details, I do a sketch. This helps me pull out a lot more detail. I record details even if I only "suspect" them, then check it against a photo later to see if I was accurate.


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There are several methods I have used.

When I was new to astronomy, I mainly worked on the Messier list. I thought I had done a great thing the first time I worked through it. Now, I have participated in several Messier Marathons, and, having found 109 of the 110 in one nights observing, it's just not that attractive anymore.

For a long time, I used Burnham's Celestial Handbook as a guide, along with Walter Scott Houston in S&T for suggestions. That kept me busy for years. I like looking for galaxies at the limits of my scope (around 13th Mag from a dark site) and there are plenty to see.

Now, I have found using the Astronomical League's Observing Clubs to be the most help in guiding my observing. I had been looking for helpful ideas for observing in by backyard (I live in the middle of a small urban city in the US), when I found the Urban Astronomers list. It was quite fun, and, challenging. and kept me out of trouble. I just had to figure out ways to block all the yard/street lights in the neighborhood.

It helped my observing by forcing me to record what I have observed and to actually write up comments on those objects. It also led me to create a standard chart for doing that recording. It's no great shakes, but, it works for me.

I am now starting work on the Caldwell 109 and when I have worked my way through that, I may start working on the Herschel list.

I have also been known to spend hours just looking at M42, M13 or M22, so, don't go totally by me.

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I have a list of the objects I'm missing, ordered by constellation, from the 3 catalogs in my sig.

On most nights: I look up, pick a constellation that is well placed, and go through as many objects as I can, using the telrad and pocket sky atlas. If I finish quickly I pick another constellation and keep going. I mark the ones I like best. When back in I usually make a report here, I google all objects I've seen to read any info and compare what I sow to the images. One of the best feelings is to be able to pinpoint a really faint galaxy/nebula with the map and the finders. Hunting is one of the best parts of the hobby IMO.

When I'm tired from work, I take a more relaxed approach and just revisit the the ones I marked as best. Sometimes I turn on the goto if I don't remember the location. The other day I made my 1st decent sketch, I'll post when I get a replacement scanner.

Edited by pvaz
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Started by looking for a few "showpiece" objects I heard/read about, gradually got onto the idea of seeing all the Messiers. Since finishing them I've always had a list or lists I work through, not necessarily with the aim of finishing, but just so I've got something to work from. I stick to a small area of sky, or a couple of areas, and go for everything on my target list(s) that are in those areas, making brief notes on each object. General idea is to spend maximum time observing, minimum time hunting.

After the Messiers, I'd say the best (northern hemisphere) DSO list is the RASC one:

The Way I See It > RASC Finest Objects in the NGC Observation Log

Between them these two lists have all the best and brightest objects on offer.

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I'm pretty new to this too, and found I was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff there is to see, the amount of knowledge there is to learn, and the amount of lists and boring numbers used.

For this reason I started hunting for Messier objects, just as somewhere to start! The short list of 110 seemed much less daunting to me than anything else.

I still haven't finished it, but I'm not blinded by just hunting for Messiers anymore, and I find myself tending more towards the one constellation at a time approach, sometimes, depending on how my mood stikes me!

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I have a reasonably dark east/west horizon so I usually plan my observing session in and around the south when a DSO transits the meridian. I also checked out the circumpolar objects when Ursa Major etc etc are at their best observing height.

I have a white marker board where I list my intended DSOs - Messier, Caldwell, Herschel 400 etc. Against each objects I list the page numbers of the S&T pocket atlas and the Uranometria 2000. I prepare this list during the day so I am reading for a night's viewing.

I used to go jumping from one part of the sky to another but I find this new observing method more pleasing.


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  • 4 weeks later...

Since I have no idea how to use/input RA/Dec coordinates.

I mostly just slowly "Search" the sky,

I've only managed to find a few Stars And of course the Moon!

Haven't found a Planet so far :'(

Edited by bravo9zero
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Have you downloaded Stellarium yet B90? It's a planetarium software which runs in real time for your location. That will tell you where and when to look for things, what magnitude it is etc.

All you need is to be able to read a compass really, to find things.

As you get used to what's where it does get easier.

If you need to learn about RA/Dec. try googling them, there's information a plenty and some very clear explanations (some NOT so clear ones too!).

RA is, essentially longitude, although it is in constant motion in relation to earth longitude (that's where my head melts), Declination is akin to latitude and remains constant to the object, although as the object rises to the right [right ascention!], declination "appears" to gain altitude, this is due to an equitorial mount being set to a polar axis.

It'll all soon fall into place.

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I pick a constellation that is well placed for the evening and try to find ebverything of interest that Cdc shows. I usually warm up by looking at my favourites (usually the Messiers). I really enjoy hunting galaxies and globular clusters - especially the faint ones - you have to be patient, sometimes it can take 30mins to see a galaxy if it's a particuarly tricky one.

There's no right or wrong way to organise your observing, just find what works for you.:)


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