Bagged my first Messier

Two nights ago I went out with the telescope to look at the Moon and the planets. Right now the moon is so bright and lately the air has been so hazy that even though I would like to start looking for other kinds of objects, it’s got to wait for some time that I can get up into the hills and away from the City. But I ended out there until after the Moon had not properly set but was at least behind some trees, and decided to begin my hunt for the Messier objects.

With the aid of the maps in SkySafari, I started scouring Scorpius for M4 and M80. I’m muddling through this and I didn’t expect it to be exactly easy but I gave up after a couple hours. A good couple hours of looking at stars and checking the maps and trying to identify what I could see through the eyepiece. There are a couple of obstacles, none of which are permanently unsurmountable:

These things are faint. And fuzzy. It doesn’t help that I’m trying to do deep-sky observing with a small telescope in front of an apartment building next to the water across from the parking lot of a grocery store in the middle of a large urban area with a waxing gibbous moon. One looks at the sky one has. I’m also having trouble translating what I’m seeing through the eyepiece to what’s on the charts. Is it upside-down, or upside-down and backwards? Or just backwards? There was a lot of looking through the telescope and then at the sky and then back through the eyepiece and then back at the map.

I also don’t really have a good sense of how big what I’m looking for is, so I might have been using the wrong eyepiece. You can tell me arcseconds all day long but until I’ve looked at a lot more objects and paid a lot more attention over a lot more time, reading the dimensions on a chart won’t mean anything to me. I trust that will come over time but I think it will take time.

My finder was very poorly aligned, and I discovered why it was so difficult to align correctly: it was missing one of the thumbscrews that holds the finder in place. A trip to the hardware store on Saturday fixed that, but it meant that in addition to everything else, I was doing more mental calculations to correct based on my best guess of where the center of the telescope’s field of view was in relation to the finder’s crosshairs.

What that all comes down to is: I basically don’t know what I’m doing. Yes, I was around telescopes a lot as a child. I built one once. But that was a long time ago and this is really the first time in my life that I’ve done any observing by myself. When I was a kid I never had to find objects on my own. I expected there would be a learning curve and I wasn’t wrong about that.

Tonight (last night, technically) I brought the telescope out for one of my neighbors who wanted to get a look at some planets. I can’t say I ever get tired of that. It was early enough that Jupiter was still above the trees, so we started there. I was floored by seeing Jupiter’s moons all in a line on one side of the planet like they were. Gorgeous. After Jupiter disappeared into some branches we looked at Mars and the Moon and finally I moved the telescope to another location so that we could see Saturn without waiting for it to come out from behind the trees.

As I brought the telescope back inside it started nagging at me that I do have a small northeastern view from the back porch. I almost never go back there and in fact there were boxes piled up against the door from when I moved in here almost two years ago. The thought kept nagging at me and so the boxes got cleared away and I went out to the back porch to see what I could see. I picked out one of the faint points of light and checked the map; it was Vega. Great: one of the brightest objects in the night sky and it was about all I could see. Being on the other side of the building from the Moon didn’t help much. There was still a lot of haze for the Moon to illuminate. But I kept looking and eventually I could make out a few more: there was Altair and a few more in between Altair and Vega. SkySafari lists a number of objects in the neighborhood, so I dragged the telescope out to the back porch.

After the ordeal of searching through Scorpius two nights ago, finding the Ring Nebula was a snap. It’s almost right smack between Beta and Gamma Lyrae.1 I lined it up in my finder and within ninety seconds I had the Ring Nebula in my eyepiece. It was faint, fuzzy, but if I didn’t look straight at it I could see the ring shape. I spent a few minutes with it, then checked the stars in the immediate neighborhood against my map and logged the observation. It’s the first on my list: Messier 57.

Technically, of course, this wasn’t the first Messier object I’ve ever located by myself. If nothing else, the Pleiades are conspicuous and easy to pick out with the naked eye, but right now they’re on the other side of the Sun. I only recently decided to try to see all the objects in the Messier catalog, so I’ll have to wait to add the Pleiades to my observing list. Another few months and the Seven Sisters will be in the night sky again. In the meantime I have to find some darker skies.

One down, a hundred and eight to go.

  1. For those of you who know what this means, the sky at 1:30 am was bright enough that fourth-magnitude stars were about the faintest I could make out with the naked eye. ↩︎