Backyard astronomers, how do you decide what to look at?

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Summary:

So you've decided tonight you're going to setup your telescope and look at the sky. How do you decide what to look at, and how do you prepare (if at all)?

Main Question or Discussion Point

I'm new to astronomy, I've been doing it for less than a year. I'm curious to know if there is a ritual to figuring out what to spot, or is that most people just take the scope out and see whatever they can.

I like to choose a target and then head out to find it, but lately this has been frustrating. I'm stuck in the confines of my yard, with plenty of trees (no leaves yet luckily) and other house limiting my field of view. Objects that I hoped to see end up being obstructed.

I should add that I have a manual German equatorial mount, so I manually dial in the coordinates.
 
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  • #2
russ_watters
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I generally plan with software (I use Starry Night), and though I have a fairly obstructed view as well, I've gotten used to it and can take it into account.

Venus is pretty bright right now...
 
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Venus is pretty bright right now...
Yes, I had good look at it in the past two times out. It's nice and bright and can been before it really gets dark. So I usually check the planets and moon before doing my polar alignment. It's impressive in that it appears as a half moon.
 
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  • #4
berkeman
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@Nick-stg -- Welcome to the PF, and fun thread start. :smile:

Can you say where on the globe you are (lat/long or city)? And how is your seeing? If it's so-so, do you have a portable option to travel not too far for better seeing?

I am at about 800 feet altitude above Silicon Valley in California/USA, but with a 45 minute drive, I can be in the parking lot of Lick Observatory a fair amount higher with better seeing.

https://www.ucolick.org/main/

1586824942081.png
 
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I'm in Montreal Qc Canada. I've got a park a few meters from my house with an open field, and plenty more parks within driving distance, but with the ongoing Covid-19 situation the parks are closed.

The park on my street isn't the best due to the street lights, but it's not too bad. Once the leaves come in, the trees around the perimeter block a lot of the light.

I was intending on joining the local Astronomical Society but again Covid-19 . They meet out on the western tip of the island (Montreal is an island), about 30 minutes from my place. I went to an event last fall, and the conditions were great. So once all this Covid-19 stuff is over, I hopefully I can get out with them.
 
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  • #6
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So you've decided tonight you're going to setup your telescope and look at the sky. How do you decide what to look at, and how do you prepare (if at all)?
Similarly as @russ_watters said, I have a obstructed view too. But in my case it is due to light pollution. There is a close city in the NW direction from my place, so these parts of sky are pretty unusable for me, at least for deep-sky objects. The East and South are pretty dark, so the azimuth is the main filter for my decision what look at. Otherwise, I use Stellarium and/or my old sky atlas for a short briefing before the action :smile:

But I have to confess that it is already several months since I've been able to go out with my scope. With small kids, I usually give a priority to get some sleep, because I know they would destroy me the next day :smile:
 
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But I have to confess that it is already several months since I've been able to go out with my scope. With small kids, I usually give a priority to get some sleep, because I know they would destroy me the next day
Been there done that. My kids are a bit older now 7 and 10. I try to get them interested, but it's tough (probably a topic for another thread). They will come look once I have something to show, but they are not interested in hunt.
 
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  • #8
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Been there done that. My kids are a bit older now 7 and 10. I try to get them interested, but it's tough (probably a topic for another thread). They will come look once I have something to show, but they are not interested in hunt.
Mine are only 0.5 and 3 years old, so we have a long way to go before they got something out of this hobby. Anyway, good luck with your kids, do not give up 😃
 
  • #9
sophiecentaur
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Summary:: So you've decided tonight you're going to setup your telescope and look at the sky. How do you decide what to look at, and how do you prepare (if at all)?

Objects that I hoped to see end up being obstructed.
Wandering around Stellarium (or equivalent) is interesting fun and you can do it any time. I have found that Stellrium etc. will show you anything you want but it won't tell you the best thing to go for on a particular night. It's as if the information gets to my brain in the wrong order. You need experience to assemble all the data about place in the sky, where and how bright the Moon is (she is lovely but a false friend on many occasions). There are just too many options. The contrast range of the computer image can give a worse picture than what you can see with binoculars of the same field of view and I find that, while browsing (with a very limited personal knowledge) I can get confused as objects come and go when the zoom setting changes. I have a mate who is a whizz with Stellarium and I can just hear him asking "what's the problem?". The prob for me is that I am not him!!! I wish I could be more like @russ_watters too!!!

Now this is a' Do as I Say and not as I Do' but it takes hours and hours of telescope use before you start to get very good views under your own initiative. Fact is that there's nearly always something worth looking at, inside the time and obstruction windows. Many experts write out a list of targets for a particular night - needs serious discipline and that may be why I am a rubbish astronomer.

IMO, you want a lot of help if you want to know what to look for (except the bright and obvious objects). If you join a local society (and there's bound to be one) they are very likely to publish a month-by-month list of things to look for and a bit about each object. You can also find that others in the society post their successes in the week you are viewing. Mutual encouragement works wonders and can prove the drive to get you to go for a new target. Don't wait for Covid; use their website and Facebook group and join. The astrophotographers inn y society spend almost every night chatting on WhatsApp. We have monthly live 'observing evenings' planned but the weather nearly always lets us down. On-line meetings are available any suitable night.

You say that you have had your manual mount for a year? You could change up to a GoTo mount (selling old one first - so you have the cash for an offer). There's no shame in using modern tech.

How do you get on with your manual mount? I guess you have a system for reliable polar alignment which involves your telescope mount setting circles. I never had one of yours and neither have the astrophotographers who I talk to; I started with an entry level Dobsonian and I always hunted for things by star hopping. The book (and there are many others) that I used was Turn Left at Orion and that gave the star hopping path to find many good objects. It caned my neck and I bought a Goto Mount and a small refractor. But this doesn't help you.

They will come look once I have something to show, but they are not interested in hunt.
Kids will be keen on doing things with Smart Phone Cameras. They can show off their images (Moon and Plaides are worth lots of school cred) They may even end up badgering you into firing up the system and bright stars will allow you to avoid star trails if the magnification is not to great. They could even paint the images you get - just like the astronomers of old.
 
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  • #10
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Wandering around Stellarium (or equivalent) is interesting fun
I have never used Stellarium but from what I have seen on Youtube it appears to do all the work for you to the point where you become dependent on the software. I use a website wikisky.org, which I use a reference to get the coordinates. It is really basic but it shows all the constellations and all the objects within the constellations, you can then hover over the object to get the coordinates (ra, dec, magnitude) so I note them down and I good to go. It doesn't know where you are, so it shows you everything. I also have a navigational star-finder that I inherited from my father, I use that to see what is visible and to find my reference points in the sky.

You say that you have had your manual mount for a year? You could change up to a GoTo mount (selling old one first - so you have the cash for an offer). There's no shame in using modern tech.
I bought a manual mount because I didn't want a GoTo mount. As I said I enjoy putting in the "work", the setup and dialing in the location. Due to my lack of experience I often have no idea what to look for or what I am looking at, when looking through the scope. By using the coordinates I have some reference to rely on. When my setup is done correctly it is amazingly accurate. I find that with the GoTo mount you just loose that feel, it's as if the someone else is doing the work for you.

Kids will be keen on doing things with Smart Phone Cameras.
I haven't really had a chance to mess around with cameras and phones yet. So far it has been really cold. In the winter around here (Montreal), there exists an unfortunate correlation between clear skies and cold temperatures. Even the last few times out the temp was hovering around the freezing point. But in January and February the temperature was nearing -20C. (And then I wonder why my kids don't want to join in the fun.)
 
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  • #11
davenn
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Summary: So you've decided tonight you're going to setup your telescope and look at the sky. How do you decide what to look at, and how do you prepare (if at all)?
Set yourself a challenge like observing as many of the Messier catalog as possible, 110 objects from memory.
Try and do them in numerical order. That will require some patience as they are not all visible at the same
time of the year. It will be a multi month project


Dave
 
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  • #12
davenn
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I have never used Stellarium but from what I have seen on Youtube it appears to do all the work for you to the point where you become dependent on the software. I use a website wikisky.org, which I use a reference to get the coordinates. It is really basic but it shows all the constellations and all the objects within the constellations, you can then hover over the object to get the coordinates (ra, dec, magnitude) so I note them down and I good to go. It doesn't know where you are, so it shows you everything. I also have a navigational star-finder that I inherited from my father, I use that to see what is visible and to find my reference points in the sky.
Learn to star hop to find objects
I repeat.......
Learn to star hop to find objects


It's the best thing you can do for yourself. I learnt astronomy on telescopes and binoculars, 50+ years ago, long before my
first scope that had setting circles. Back then no computers with programs like Stellarium. It was all paper star charts.
Ones in the centre of monthly astronomy magazines etc. I still have my Tirion Sky Atlas 2000. Heavy paper sheets twice the
size of an A3 sheet.

I learnt my way around the sky with and without binoculars. Learnt to recognise the constellations at a glance. Learnt where
in those constellations to find the brightest deep space objects etc

Learn to star hop to find objects, long before you start to use your setting circles.
It's a learned skill that will still with you for life!

Dave
 
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  • #13
sophiecentaur
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As I said I enjoy putting in the "work", the setup and dialing in the location.
And that is totally justifiable. You have a level of tech which suits you but there is no limit to the demands of astronomy on the enthusiast so you will never lack challenges. People sometimes by a goto system and it's just a bit quicker for them to point at a wanted target. They still have the question in your OP.

At your location, if you were to go the whole hog, build an observatory and put a computer controlled system in it, controlled from in front of your log fire, you would find that you could see many more objects on many more nights and you'd only need to dash outside to open up and close down (even that can be automatic). Problem might be that you couldn't afford any logs for your fire.

Learn to star hop to find objects, long before you start to use your setting circles.
It's a learned skill that will still with you for life!
+10!!! The numbers can often obscure the bigger picture. It's only recently that I have found any benefit from identifying constellations. That plus star hopping can take you almost anywhere but the faintest deep sky objects and you can only 'see' them with many minutes / hours of exposing a camera sensor.

It's strange that the Skywatcher mounts that incorporate Synscan systems, still arrive with a manual, telling you how to set up the mount for manual use - then (apart from needing some Polar Alignment) they ignore the hard work and you set them up with one, two or three easy to find stars. Funny thing is that most people find the new scope arrives reticule in the polarscope is at a random angle relative to the setting scale and you have to dig inside an physically mess about with the tiny bit of glass with almost invisible markings on it.
 
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  • #14
Andy Resnick
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I like to choose a target and then head out to find it, but lately this has been frustrating. I'm stuck in the confines of my yard, with plenty of trees (no leaves yet luckily) and other house limiting my field of view. Objects that I hoped to see end up being obstructed.
I have the exact same situation: manual everything (meaning I star-hop to targets) and a very restricted view- both limiting where I set up (need to see Polaris and for alignment) and what I can image.

My approach is to find things in my accessible field of view, rather than the other way around. I use Google Sky to locate 'interesting' objects near constellations I know I can view and go from there.

One benefit of astronomy is that the exact same deep-sky object is viewable during the same time of year, year-after-year. So, while this is the first time through the sky for you, next year will be the (likely) the same exact set of objects to view, so spending time learning how to find things is not wasted effort.
 
  • #15
sophiecentaur
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It’s a big help if you can identify limited bits of a constellation or a fave asterism. Even when there’s significant cloud cover and you recognize, say Castor and Pollux, you know where you are and can start star hopping. Gemini have ‘that spacing’ and you can’t confuse them. If you have limited view of Polaris most nights, put three dots on three slabs or just mark the concrete. Az and El won’t drift if you’re gentle when you put the mount away.
no need to be hair shirt on every occasion. If you are somewhat aligned then that is often enough and you can grab a target that’s near a bright job.
I have a stiff neck and used to hate polar aligning. I can plop the three tripod feet down and Polaris is sitting right there in the scope. It’s the only bright star around and saves my atlas and axis vertebrae agony.
 
  • #16
chemisttree
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25F3E4CE-7498-4B1D-8CD8-E5DE05CA5788.jpeg


I would get the Pocket Sky Atlas. Here are a few shots of how to use it...

1). The inside cover gives you guidance for what is visible...

5A864566-E42F-48EB-AAA9-9CF8E69408E7.jpeg


2). Go to the indicated charts and decide what will be visible from your back yard...

3E77C581-D6CB-4CAF-9B4C-0EB07022CF8F.jpeg

Only showing the first page of 10 that are available.
 
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  • #17
sophiecentaur
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@davenn Perfect for a low tech observer if you also draw yourself a mask for your planisphere which blots out that bit of sky (trees and houses) so that you don't even bother to start looking. Bearings of bad and very bad Light Pollution can be added and also a mask with the Phases and positions of the Moon. A nice bit of DIY graphics. But many books will give a good prediction of the general lunar situation. Whatever, a lot of knowhow is needed if anyone wants to do their own planning. Turn Left at Orion (and others) give you at least half a chance of a fruitful session before you can do it yourself.

I don't know if Stellarium has a facility for adding your own personal horizon. It could save us all a lot of time and disappointment.
 
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@davenn Perfect for a low tech observer if you also draw yourself a mask for your planisphere which blots out that bit of sky (trees and houses) so that you don't even bother to start looking.
Funny you should mention that, I am trying to digitize the navigational star-finder I have, because it is old and dying a slow death and I attach much sentimental value to it. As a feature to the computerized version I was thinking of adding a mask.
 
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  • #19
sophiecentaur
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Funny you should mention that, I am trying to digitize the navigational star-finder I have, because it is old and dying a slow death and I attach much sentimental value to it. As a feature to the computerized version I was thinking of adding a mask.
I have a feeling that you and I have much in common with our attitude to our 'hobbies'. I owned a sailing cruiser for several years and, looking back, I can see that I spent many more hours in adding facilities and making improvements. Very satisfying and good fun but not the main context of the hobby. When I first read the above quote, I thought "Why ever would he be doing that, when the same thing is available for free?" but I have always gone for the labour intensive solution to a problem, simply because I enjoy 'doing stuff'. I am constantly finding that Astronomy is the same; it keeps suggesting tasks that I can do in my workshop and I leap at the ideas. It's the journey that counts and not always the destination. :smile:

Your successful use of setting circles is very impressive and an achievement in itself.
 
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So far it has been really cold. In the winter around here (Montreal), there exists an unfortunate correlation between clear skies and cold temperatures. Even the last few times out the temp was hovering around the freezing point. But in January and February the temperature was nearing -20C.

Source https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/backyard-astronomers-how-do-you-decide-what-to-look-at.987220/
Binoculars are a good way of keeping up the stargazing in winter - setup time is zero, so even a 5 minute session becomes practical and there's still much to see, not to mention starhopping practice and general familiarization with the sky. They're best for open clusters; the big ones of course, Pleiades, Hyades, Coma Berenices, etc, and can reveal moderate sizes like M36, 37, and 38. I've tracked Ceres and Vesta, spotted any number of comets down to about mag 9, and a few of the brighter nebulae.
Any halfway good 10x50s will do, even 7x50s, as they're a bit easier to hold steady.
 
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I just came in from a session. And I really think I am being done in by the city light pollution. I was on M57 tonight, but couldn't make out anything. I poked around the area, found many of the doubles stars. But I couldn't make out the ring nebula, and I know I was in the right spot.
 
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Did you try with UHC filter? It doesn't do miracles when the pollution is very high, but it can enhance the contrast. If you don't have any, I believe someone on the session could have let you try...

Btw. What magnification did you use? If too low, M57 can be overlooked like a regular star.
 
  • #23
sophiecentaur
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And I really think I am being done in by the city light pollution.
There is little surprise that people nowadays tend to graduate to astrophotography. Even with very simple (phone) cameras and a few filters, it puts you in the same position as you would have been in a city before modern polution. You can see COLOUR for a start, which your eyes will never show you. It is the slippery slope, however and you need to know when to stop spending money in that direction.
 
  • #24
chemisttree
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I just came in from a session. And I really think I am being done in by the city light pollution. I was on M57 tonight, but couldn't make out anything. I poked around the area, found many of the doubles stars. But I couldn't make out the ring nebula, and I know I was in the right spot.
What was its elevation when you attempted to observe it?
 
  • #25
Andy Resnick
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Binoculars are a good way of keeping up the stargazing in winter - setup time is zero, so even a 5 minute session becomes practical and there's still much to see, not to mention starhopping practice and general familiarization with the sky. They're best for open clusters; the big ones of course, Pleiades, Hyades, Coma Berenices, etc, and can reveal moderate sizes like M36, 37, and 38. I've tracked Ceres and Vesta, spotted any number of comets down to about mag 9, and a few of the brighter nebulae.
Any halfway good 10x50s will do, even 7x50s, as they're a bit easier to hold steady.
I agree- binoculars are an excellent entryway. I recommended these (plus tripod) to a friend:

https://www.space.com/27867-oberwerk-ultra-15x70-binoculars-review.html

and he has been extremely satisfied.
 
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