How it all began…
I have been an amateur astronomer since 1973(ish). Michael Brooks, my friend in seventh grade, got me interested. He had a small telescope. Dad got a mailer about a new astronomy magazine called, “Astronomy” and got me signed up with issue number one. I’ve been a subscriber ever since. A couple of years later, I subscribed to “Sky & Telescope” which I kept up until the mid-1990s. In 1974, Comet Kohoutek made the scene – but despite multiple attempts from the back yard, I didn’t see it. In the late-winter of 1976, I did see the bright Comet West, my first comet. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few others.
I joined the Louisville Astronomical Society shortly after my interest in astronomy blossomed. I hosted many observations and club picnics at the farm in the 1970s and 80s. I remained active until after Emily was born in 1990 – I didn’t have time to attend meetings after that.
My interest in astronomy focused on the deep sky (objects beyond the solar system). I started, like most beginners, with the Messier catalog, a little over 100 bright objects. I discovered open clusters that look like scattered diamonds on black velvet and globular clusters that look like balls of powdered sugar. Planetary nebulae are mostly tiny in the telescope – puffs of gas around dying suns. Nebulous clouds of dust and gas where stars are born (not the Hollywood kind) show a lot of detail and some color. Galaxies – distant versions of our Milky Way – with bright objects and dim challenges. I even observed double and multiple stars – that dance in a slow motion over years or centuries.
Because of my overwhelming interest in those objects, in late 1976, I founded the National Deep Sky Observers Society. (More information is on “About Alan.”) The group rarely exceeded 100 members over the years it existed. We had annual conventions across the country which led to some exciting road trips from Vermont to California. Dave Eicher, the editor of “Astronomy” magazine was involved in all of these excursions. We camped, stayed with a desert recluse, a millionaire in Bel Aire, some astronomers in Flagstaff, and others.
These trips allowed me to meet astronomers and visit observatories with behind-the-scenes tours. They include Kitt Peak, Lowell, McDonald, Mount Wilson, Palomar Mountain, Swarthmore College, U.S. Naval, Very Large Array, and Yerkes. Plus, a host of smaller ones owned by amateurs. My home base was the Moore Observatory operated by the University of Louisville with its 21″ telescope. In recent years I’ve observed with Will Olliges who has a portable 25-inch reflecting telescope. Observations are made from a tall ladder.
For many years, I made sketches of what I observed. These allowed me to document stars, nebulae and galaxies through different telescopes, different magnifications and varying skies. I have made close to a thousand sketches over the years.
Favorite double and multiple stars
Alberio – Beta Cygni, Yellow and blue (easy)
Epsilon Lyrae – a double-double (naked eye and telescopic)
Gamma Andromedae (Almach) – Similar to Alberio
Trapezium in the Orion Nebula – quadruple star
Mizar – in the Big Dipper, a pair of white stars
Sigma Orionis – a quintuple star
Castor – Alpha Geminorium – looks like unequal car headlights!
Zeta Cancri – another beautiful multiple star
Favorite open clusters
The double cluster in Perseus – visible with the naked eye, resolved in a small telescope
Messier 11, the Wild Duck cluster in Scutum
M35, the brightest cluster in Gemini
M46 in Puppis, a rich cluster with a planetary nebula in the foreground
NGC2169 – I named it the “37” cluster because the stars align in that shape. Here’s a link with a good photo.
NGC7789, a rich but faint cluster in Cassiopeia
Favorite globular clusters
Messier 13 in Hercules is the brightest cluster in northern skies. It is resolvable in a 6 to 8-inch telescope.
Omega Centaurus is the brightest globular in the sky, barely visible from my location at 38 degrees north latitude. In southern latitudes the stars can be resolved in a small telescope.
M22 in Sagittarius is a fine cluster near the band of the Milky Way easily resolved.
M3 in Canes Venatici is the best cluster in spring skies.
NGC6522 & 28 in Sagittarius are a pair of faint globulars in “Baade’s window” a gap in the Milky Way providing a window to more distant stars.
M15 in Pegasus is the best in autumn skies.
M92 in Hercules – almost as good as M13, and not too far away from it.
M71 is Vulpecula is often overlooked and some people think it’s a rich open cluster because it’s so loose.
M79 in Lepus – the best in the winter skies.
Favorite planetary nebulae
Ring Nebula – M57 in Lyra, is the classic ring-shaped planetary nebulae in the summer & autumn evening sky.
Dumbbell Nebula – M27 in Vulpecula is one of the largest and brightest. The central star is visible in 6 to 8-inch scopes under dark skies.
Blinking Planetary Nebula – NGC6826 in Cygnus is named because it seems to blink on and off when you look at it. Green color.
Eskimo Nebula – NGC2392 in Gemini has a “face” surrounded by a “parka.”
Helix Nebula -NGC7293 in Aquarius is the largest bright planetary. It has a low surface brightness and needs dark skies. It’s bright enough for binoculars in rural skies. No color can be seen visually – just in photos.
Saturn Nebula – NGC7009, also in Aquarium, looks nothing like the Helix. It has an oval disk with symmetrical projections (ansae). Bright green.
Owl Nebula – M97 in Ursa Major is easy to find near Beta Ursa Majoris in the Big Dipper. It’s circular with two dark spots forming the eyes of the owl.
NGC7027 in Cygnus is a compact box-shaped nebula that is in the early stages of formation. It is bright green in moderate-size scopes (and larger).
Favorite diffuse nebulae & supernova remnants
Orion Nebula – M42 in Orion, is bright, shows a lot of detail and color (green or dusky red) in large telescopes.
Lagoon Nebula – M8 in Sagittarius shows a lot of detail though no color.
Trifid Nebula – M20 in Sagittarius is best in a dark site where the three intersecting dark nebulae become conspicuous, I’ve seen it deep red at the Texas Star Party.
Veil Nebula – in Cygnus, goes by many names. It’s a large broken circle of wispy gas that also resembles cirrus clouds. Wide field telescopes give great views, but the nebula is bright enough to show incredible detail with larger apertures and magnification.
Crab Nebula – M1 – Charles Messier’s first non-cometary object – was the result of a supernova observed in Taurus in 1054 C.E. It’s bright and easy to find.
NGC4565 is a thin edge-on galaxy in Coma Berenices that shows a narrow dark lane.
Whirlpool Galaxy – M51 in Canes Venatici one of the brightest interactive galaxies with spiral arms visible in relatively small (6 to 8-inch) aperture telescopes.
Sombrero Galaxy – M104 in Virgo is an edge-on galaxy tilted slightly off the equatorial plane giving it the shape of a luminous wide-rimmed hat.
NGC4038-9 is the ring-tail galaxy in Corvus. It is two interacting, highly distorted spiral galaxies. It forms the background at the end of the movie, “Galaxy Quest.”
NGC5128 is an odd-shaped object that is the bright radio source in Centaurus. It looks like an elliptical galaxy with the dust of a spiral galaxy.
NGC6946 on the Cepheus-Cygnus border that is called the “Fireworks Galaxy” because it produces more supernovae that most. Nearly face-on, it requires dark skies to be easily seen. The spiral arms are visible in moderate aperture telescopes.
Andromeda Galaxy and companions (M31, M32, M110) – in the constellation of Andromeda, it’s the brightest naked eye galaxy visible to the naked eye. The glow you see has traveled 2.3 million light years, meaning the light departed at the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch (Ice Age).
My Favorite Interactive & Peculiar Galaxies
These are among my favorite observing targets. Can I see it? Do I see any detail? Challenges vary depending on the size of the telescope and darkness / transparency of skies.
Favorite “Combination” Objects
Statistically speaking, there have to be random occurrences with different types of objects in the same telescope field. Open clusters and planetary nebulae, galaxies and globular clusters, etc.