Observing Programs

This article discusses all SAC observing programs.
The only exception is the 1000 New Objects program.

If you have asked yourself or others what can I look at in a telescope then this article will provide the answer.
There are a number of programs available to SAC members many were added during the 1990's. These programs are to help us improve our observing skills and enjoy the wonders of the night sky.

To receive an award for completing a program, marathons excluded, all entries must be recorded and turned in to the Deep Sky Chairman. The recording involves a description for the observation of each object along with the location, date, sky conditions, telescope and magnification used. The award is a plate with the observers' name and program that is mountable on the telescope; it is presented at one of our meetings.

There are two major categories of programs, one for solar system objects and one for objects beyond the solar system. Shallow sky is a term sometimes used to refer to solar system objects and there are two in this area that were started last year. One is for observing the moon and the other for remainder of the solar system.

Solar System Objects

110 Best Lunar Objects
The "110 Best Lunar Objects" has been setup for those who observe from relatively brightly lit sites, like a backyard, or who prefer observing the moon. There are individual entries for naked eye, binocular and telescopic observations for various lunar phases.

SAC Solar System
The "SAC Solar System" project contains objects like the sun, planets, asteroids, comets, meteors, glows and sunspots. Parts of this program can be done from backyard sites, but others, like Pluto, need a dark site. Observations of the sun cannot be done from a dark site under any conditions.

Deep Sky - Objects Beyond The Solar System

The other category of programs are referred to by the name deep sky.
There are several and they can be generalized as follows, initial, double stars, advanced and marathons.
These observing programs are covered in increasing relative difficulty.

The initial deep sky programs include the Urban List, Messier Catalog and the 110 Best NGC and have been selected because they contain the showpieces of the night sky.

Urban List
There are two reasons for the Urban List program; first it is for telescope owners who have difficulty traveling to a dark sky observing site and second, for observers to compare with observations from dark skies in other programs. It is for this second reason that all of the observations for this program must be done from sites that are too bright to see the Milky Way with the unaided eye. Currently the list includes entries from the Messier Catalog, NGC and the Washington Double Star Catalog.

Messier Catalog
The ever-popular "Messier Catalog" is the product of the famous French comet hunter Charles Messier and came from his observations during the 1700's. While searching for a comet in September of 1758 he ran across an object above the southern horn of Taurus which looked like a comet but unlike a comet, didn't move. So he decided to catalog observations like this, so others looking for comets wouldn't be confused. We now know this object today as M1 or the Crab Nebula and the rest is history. Since Messier's telescopes were far inferior to the ones used by amateurs today, he found only the biggest and brightest in the night sky. This, therefore, puts them in the "showpieces of the night sky" category; which makes them easy targets to locate from a dark-sky observing site. This program is the oldest award in SAC and is an excellent place to start a deep-sky observing career. I often wonder what Charley would say if he could see what his catalog means today!

110 Best NGC
The "110 Best NGC" was updated from the Royal Canadian Astronomical Society Observer's Handbook that had the original title "100 Best NGC". In 1989, Steve Coe and I decided to add 10 more entries, out of respect for the number of entries in the Messier Catalog, remove some of the mundane more northerly entries and add some southerly ones. For example the entries in Centaurus were added to the list. The entries in this program, for the most part are not quite as bright as the Messier Catalog, are a little harder to find and observe; but be careful there are some spectacular surprises in this list.

The Deep Sky Group suggests doing this program after the Messier Catalog.

110 Best Double Stars
There is only one double star list and that is the "110 Best Double Stars." It came in part from the RCAS Observer's Handbook and a list titled Chaple Double Stars, after the double star observer Glen Chaple. In 1985 Steve Coe and I replaced some entries with ones of our own choosing to add a greater flavor of color contrasting doubles. Many of the doubles are so widely separated that they can be resolved or split from a backyard.

Observations made from a dark sky site for the Messier Catalog, 110 Best NGC and 110 Best Double Stars are not usable for Urban List observations and vise versa. Instead the observation from diverse sites can be used to see the differences between a bright sky and dark sky observing sites.

Anyone who completes these Observing Programs, can rest assured that they will know the sky, their telescope and observing skills well enough to take on any observing project; like the "400 Herschel Objects!".

Advanced Programs
400 Herschel Objects!
This is the first of the advanced programs, extracted from Observe the Herschel Catalog produced by the Ancient City Astronomy Club located in St. Augustine, Florida. Although it is named after the famous English observer, William Herschel and contains objects he observed, all of the entries are found in the NGC and hence have an NGC number.
The Astronomical League supports this program and observations from SAC members are forwarded to their program administrator for verification.
The award, upon verification is sent by the Astronomical League administrator back to the Deep Sky Chairman and includes a numbered certificate and a lapel pin along with the observationsand listing on their website at "Astronomical League Herschel Club Certificate Awardees". The certificate, lapel pin and a special SAC telescope plate will be presented to those who complete the 400 Herschel Objects! list at a future meeting.
Many of the entries found in this list are fainter and more difficult to find than the deep sky programs discussed above. But they are easily seen in an 8" telescope. There is no doubt that a 6" telescope can be used for this program and, if anyone cares to take on the challenge, it should be possible in a 4" as well. Keep in mind, experience from the above programs helps.

The first SAC award for the 400 Herschel Objects! program occurred in 1983.

Notice to advanced programs participitants
Approximately 25% of the objects in the Herschel program are also found in the Messier Catalog and 110 Best NGC. Furthermore, observations of the duplicate entries made from a dark sky site can be used for this program without re-observing. So if you have completed the Messier Catalog and the 110 Best NGC, then you are about one quarter of the way completed. So, after completing the others, you can't afford to not do this program.

110 Beyond the NGC
The "110 Beyond the NGC," as the title implies, contain entries that are not in the NGC. There are entries from the IC, Abell, Perek & Kouhetuk, King and many other catalogs. The Deep Sky Group approved the list in January 1999. Many of these are very tough to see in a medium size telescope and the inexperienced observer should not try this list. It takes quite a bit of time trying to track down a 12th magnitude 2 arc second planetary nebula in the Sagittarius Star Cloud -- with an 8 inch telescope - again verified by the author!

1000 New Objects
The "1000 New Objects," started in 1992 consist of 1000 objects not on any of the preceding lists. There is no list for this program; it is the observer's responsibility to select the objects. With the remainder of the NGC, the entire IC as well as many other popular catalogs to choose from, finding the correct number of objects is not a problem; the problem will be which ones!
This list should not include objects which are on the previously mentioned lists.

Messier Marathon
The "Messier Marathon" is not to be confused with the Messier Catalog that was discussed earlier. They both involve the same catalog but different rules are applied. The Messier Catalog requires a much longer time, as each observation must be recorded as describe above. The marathon is done one night in spring and merely requires the observer to see the object through the main telescope then check it off from the list.

The first Messier Marathons, coordinated by original SAC Deep Sky Chairman Wally Brown, were 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1985. Don't know what happened in 1984, there are no references in SAC archives. Only SAC members attended and awards were presented to the top three observers.

The annual All Arizona Messier Marathons began in 1993 with all Arizona astronomy organizations being invited. This has been one of the first and most successful annual events in amateur astronomy in Arizona. Perhaps due in part being held at a central Arizona site and the fact that it is normally the first decent new moon weekend following the winter. It is interesting to note that many who show up at the marathon site do not participate in the marathon; instead they observe, visit with old and new friends or dabble in astro-photography. Awards for marathoners are presented to the three top observers and certificates to all observing 50 or more objects.

Wally Brown coordinated the Messier+ marathons in September of 1981 and 1982. Since it is not possible to view the entire Messier Catalog this time of year, entries not viewable because they were to close to the horizon during twilight or below the horizon were removed and replaced by entries from the NGC while keeping the count at 110. These marathons were unique to SAC and there is no reference of any other astronomy group, club, organization or society organizing such an event. As in other marathons, awards were presented to the top three observers.

It should be obvious that most of the programs contain 110 objects as the standard and was decided on as a tribute to the magnificent catalog of Charles Messier.