Astronomy Challenges

Crystal Coast Stargazers Observation Program

Amateur astronomers are inquisitive by nature.  Why else would a sane person spend hours battling insects, weather, and fatigue to peer at the night sky?  The thought that one might see or discover something no human has ever seen lies at the back of every amateur’s mind, but generally we have a profound curiosity to investigate, catalogue, and contemplate the marvelous universe that unfolds each day and night before us.  Every observer will reach a point where they have seen the popular highlights from each season, and their observing time seems repetitive.  Favorable weather patterns and work schedules rarely cooperate and seem capricious of our limited observing time.  Observing programs are a great way to explore differing types of objects, enhance your observing skills, and help one maximize precious time under the night sky.

The Crystal Coast Stargazers have created basic observation programs which are designed to present our members and friends a formal program to explore various classes of objects, develop observing skills, and promote our collective appreciation and fellowship, while we enjoy our universe.  If you enjoy the challenge and concept of observing programs, please join the Astronomical League. They have a fantastic website, and the Astronomical League is a definitive source of observing material and programs which span every level and interest of amateur astronomy.  Each program is a cumulative effort of many talented amateurs and professionals to promote and share their passion for amateur astronomy.

Messier Program 

If you can’t spend five minutes at a star party or community outreach night without hearing M something or another, send thanks to Charles Messier (1730-1817).  Messier was a talented French comet hunter who created a catalogue of “comet like objects” to eliminate any confusion during his observing sessions.  Messier’s 110 catalogue items cover a broad range of astronomical sights.  The majority are fairly “bright” and well within range of the most unsophisticated telescopes.  If you are having trouble finding any of these objects, please ask any club member during our star parties.  The object of the program is to observe the objects and record your visual impression. A fascinating side note is to observe the same object through telescopes of differing optical configurations.  The Orion Nebula looks completely different in an 80mm refractor compared to 14” Schmidt Cassagrain (both of which you can find at the star party).  A certificate will be awarded for observing the complete Messier catalogue and a silver level certificate for observing 50 objects in the Messier catalogue.


Submit your Observing Log to the program coordinator.  The Log need not be elaborate, but should contain the following information:  Name, date, location, time, object, instrument used, and visual conditions.  There are several visual condition scales.  Explore which makes sense to you and consistently apply it to your observations. I use a scale based from 1-5 (5 excellent) for seeing and from poor-marginal-good-excellent to evaluate transparency.  Lastly record your visual impression of the object e.g.  the general shape, the density or how the density varies, color, is the object distinct at the periphery, or does it have irregular borders?  The description isn’t for a creative writing class, quite honestly, it’s hard to initially describe a 13th magnitude galaxy as anything but a faint smudge, but the more you focus on trying to record what you see, the more your observing skills begin to increase.  The Log goes into effect 2021, anything prior to that, no Log is required.

Messier Challenge 

Try to catch them all in a night.  Accomplish that and you get knighted by the Queen Mum herself or an OBE.

I’m stoked! Where are these M things that I might record them?  The interwebb grasshopper will provide you all you desire and more: books, charts, schedules, schemes, lists. lions, tigers and bears.

Carbon Stars

My personal favorite.  Often overlooked, these are some of the most intensely beautiful stars you will encounter.  They often appear like isolated crimson beacons in interstellar velvet.  The product of stellar evolution, the majority are late red giants whose atmospheres are loaded with carbon molecules to the extent that shorter wavelengths of star light are filtered and visually the stars appear to favor the longer end of the spectrum giving them their intense ranges of red, yellow, orange or a combination of beautiful hues.  These are variable stars, so visually they are fascinating to observe through their cycles.  The Astronomical League has a comprehensive observing program and guide book for carbon stars that is very informative and a worthwhile endeavor.  Whatever quadrant you are observing, take a moment to see if there is a carbon star about, you won’t regret it.

Carbon Star Certificate 

Observe and record the following 30 Carbon Stars using the Log Book guide line listed in the Messier Program.

WZ Cassiopeiae Y Persei V466 Persei U Camelopardalis
UV Camelopardalis S Cephei TT Tauri R Leporis
EL Aurigae W Orionis TX Aurigae SY Eridani
UV Aurigae RT Orionis Y Tauri TU Geminorum
UU Aurigae GY Monocerotis RY Monocerotis W Canis Majoris
T Cancri

RX Pegasi

AQ Sgr

U Hydrae


V Cyg

RU Puppis

T Lyr

Tx Piscium

V1942 Sgr

Comet Program 

 Certificate awarded for observing 5 comets.  The most difficult aspect is waiting for five comets.  One comet may include a previously observed comet.  Your log should follow the same general format as the Messier Program with the exception of sketching star fields for comets which do not reach naked eye visibility.  The starfield sketch should be record the comet position on 2 differing nights or any time period that indicated the comets path across a visually observed starfield.  Any single image or video will be accepted in lieu of a sketch.

Planetary Nebula Program

A star’s life is a constant battle between expansion and contraction.  In stars of around 8 solar masses or less, this cycle creates a class of the most visually attractive objects.   Hydrogen fusion produces an expansive pressure against fuel consumption and the relentless force of gravity.  This struggles eventually leads to an abundance of helium in the core and an expansion of hydrogen fusion in the outer shells around the core.  The atmospheric shells expand and cool, the core loaded with helium cools and begins to contract with the resulting gravitational pressure igniting Helium fusion.  This cycle repeats itself and continues to expand its outer shells while the core begins to fuse carbon and oxygen. The end result is that high energy stellar winds compress ejected outer shells promoting photoionization of the gaseous shells while intense ultraviolet radiation from the core create a beautiful, but transitory celestial phenomena, the planetary nebula.  This is an elementary explanation of a very complex process and you can go as far into the Hertzsprung-Russell as you desire. The Astronomical League has an outstanding program addressing planetary nebula (comprehensive manual / observing targets), and you won’t regret a moment as you work through the program.

Planetary Nebula Certificate 

Create an observing log following the guidelines for the Messier Program.  The focus of this log is to record your visual impression of the planetary nebulas you observe.  Some of these are faint and possibly beyond your seeing conditions or may require a dark sky site.  If you have trouble, have a club member with a larger scope lend a hand, I’m always happy to assist.

Points of interest:  Can you see the central star, is there any color, can you discern density differences across the object, is the object bipolar, do you need an OIII filter to detect the object, is there a halo or ring structure, does the object appear stellar, is the object symmetrical, or can you see any ansae (bright extensions that are similar to “vase handles)?

Observe  any 15 of the following Planetary Nebula:

1 NGC 40 Cephes 2 NGC 246  Cetus 3 M 76 Cassiopeia
4 IC 2003 Perseus 5 NGC 1535 Eridanus 6 IC 418 Lepus
7 NGC 2392 Gemini 8 NGC 2438 Puppis (within M46) 9 NGC 3242 Hydra
10 M 97 Ursa Major (Owl) 11 NGC 6309 Hercules 12 NGC 6309 Ophiuchus (Box nebula)
13 NGC 6543 Draco  (Cat’s Eye)

16 NGC 6818 Sagittarius (Little Gem)

19 NGC 7009 Aquarius

14 NGC 4361 Corvus

17 NGC 6826 Cygnus (The blinking planetary)

20 NGC 7027 Cygnus

15 NGC 6741 Aquila

18 M 27 Sagitta (Dumbell)

Herschel 400 

William Herschel, “Messier hold my beer”, the supreme ruler in the Pantheon of astronomical observation.  Finish all 400 objects (take a breath this is only the Herschel I list) and collect a certificate.  Join the Astronomical League and you become a proud member of the Herschel Club (there aren’t that many of us, so I will furnish a celebratory beverage of your choice and a special award to the club meeting), and the League will send you a sweet certificate and pin.  The best method of attack is to order James O Meara’s book, “Herschel 400 Observing Guide”.  The book breaks down the list month by month, each object has a finder chart and image, a few targeted each week.  There is a handy check list in the back.  Just complete the check list.  This seem dauting, but it is truly a rewarding endeavor.

Open Clusters 

I’m currently working on the Astronomical Leagues open cluster program.  There are some rather obscure objects, and I am trying to shift through things that are appealing in apertures of 102mm (that just happen to be the size of my refractor). This should provide the club with a variety of objects that fall well within the range of our members’ scopes. I’ll update the list periodically as I go through the seasons.  Just log these as you go, no need to sketch them unless a Muse speaks.

1 NGC 7789 2 Stock 23 3 NGC 1444
4 NGC 1502 5 NGC 457 6 M 35
7 M47 8 NGC 2362 9 M 41

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