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Observing Award Programs

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 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 should include a the observation of each object along with the location, date, sky conditions, telescope and magnification used. The award is a plate with the observer’s name and program that is mountable on the telescope; it is presented at one of our meetings.

There are two major program categories: solar system objects and objects beyond the solar system. Shallow sky is a term sometimes used to refer to solar system objects and there are two programs in this area. One is for observing the moon and the other is for the remainder of the solar system.

Solar System Objects

110 Best Lunar Objects

The 110 Best Lunar Objects is intended 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

These programs center around deep sky objects and are covered in increasing relative difficulty 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 observations from dark skies in other programs. It is for the 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. He decided to catalog observations like this so others looking for comets wouldn’t be confused. This object is known 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 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 with the original title “100 Best NGC”. In 1989, we 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 and are a little harder to find and observe. 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, named after the double star observer Glen Chaple. In 1985 we 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 they can be resolved or split from the 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 vice versa. However, the observations 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 program is 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, as well as a number of other observing awards. Observations from SAC members are submitted to their program administrator for verification.

After verification the award is sent by the Astronomical League administrator back to the Deep Sky Chairman and includes a numbered certificate and a lapel pin. In addition the observer is listed on their website as an 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 participants: 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.

1000 New Objects

The 1000 New Objects program started in 1992 and consists 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.

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 Deep Sky Chairman!

Messier Marathon


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

The first Messier Marathons, coordinated by original SAC Deep Sky Chairman Wally Brown, were held in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1985. It is unknown 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. This is perhaps due in part to being held at a central Arizona site, as well as typically being 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 astrophotography. 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 was not possible to view the entire Messier Catalog at this time of year, some 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 a tribute to the magnificent catalog of Charles Messier.