What You Need to Be a Successful Deep Sky Observer
Recognizing Star Patterns
This is the most important skill for any observer. It takes years of practice to easily translate the patterns of stars on a chart to those in the sky. This is the same skill that allows you to recognize constellations, star hopping routes in your finder, or the star field surrounding a difficult object in the eyepiece. This skill breaks down into to main parts: sorting out stars of equal brightness and memorizing geometric patterns.
Learning the brighter constellations from the city is relatively easy because all but the bright stars are washed out. People who have learned to recognize constellations in this way are often overwhelmed and disoriented by the sky as seen from a dark site. The solution to this problem is to learn to recognize the brightest stars first. It may help to ask yourself which are the 2-5 brightest stars on the star chart. Now look at the chart again and ignore all but those bright stars. Does a geometric pattern emerge? Now translate this to the sky using a similar process.
A friend of mine always laughed when I described three stars arranged in a triangle because three stars will always form a triangle. But triangles are useful guideposts because you can learn to recognize a triangle of stars by its shape. It may be a nearly equilateral triangle, a right triangle, or it may be long and skinny. In addition, note where the brightest and faintest stars of the triangle reside. Rectangles and parallelograms also make for distinctive patterns.
An excellent way to learn this skill is to star hop. Star hopping requires learning to translate what you see on your charts to what you see in your finding device, often working your way from a bright star to the location of your target. There are many ways to star hop, but they all involve the recognition of star patterns. You may at first be a little frustrated in finding things, but like learning a musical instrument, you will improve with practice. In addition, star hopping fosters patience, which is essential to observing fine detail and faint objects.
Many long time observers, myself included, actively discourage beginners from using goto telescopes. These telescopes use a computer to slew to objects automatically. When a beginner uses a goto telescope he can cheat himself out of learning his way about the sky and out of practicing this most important skill. For although recognizing star patterns may not be necessary for finding bright objects with a goto scope, it is essential at the eyepiece when looking for those challenging faint fuzzies. Not only that, but it is very easy to simply rush on from object to object without stopping to really see each one. There is a lot to be said about the joy of the hunt and the satisfaction that comes from truly knowing the sky.
That doesn't mean that goto scopes don't have their place--I'm merely saying that I don't believe them to be the best choice for those just starting out.
Another important skill is averted vision; the centering of the eye to the side of a faint object in order to see fainter. Your eye is designed such that you can detect fainter objects slightly away from where it is pointed. It takes a little practice and a lot of patience to learn the best eye placement to bring out faint details. When at the eyepiece don't forget to experiment with the position of your eye. You will be amazed at how much more you can see with a little practice!
Deep sky observing is definitely not for the impatient. Perhaps Tony Flanders said it best when he wrote, "There are plenty of flashy things in the sky, but astronomy is not a flashy hobby; it is meant for people who like to take life slow and savor its subtleties. It requires patience and persistence; its essence is the accumulation of knowledge and the cultivation of skill."
There are many levels of patience required of the deep sky observer. There is the wait for the opportunity to visit a dark site; the wait for a dark night; the wait for good weather; the wait for that night with exceptional conditions which will reveal some challenging object for the first time; the wait at the eyepiece for moments of good seeing when detail briefly becomes apparent; the willingness to spend the time to work your eye about the field using averted vision. It takes time to drink it all in, and perhaps most of all it takes patience to learn the skills necessary to see the faint objects and subtle detail that are visible to the experienced observer.
Detecting faint detail in a deep sky object takes time and effort. For many deep sky objects you have to work at seeing them, trying various eye positions for averted vision and waiting for moments of good seeing. You have to learn to snatch quick glimpses of detail, storing it away with all the others to make a complete picture in your mind. The best way to learn how to do this is to sketch what you see at the eyepiece. You may not be Picaso, but you will be amazed at how quickly you will notice previously unseen subtle detail.
next --> Good Finder Charts