So, how many deep sky objects have you seen since becoming an amateur astronomer? There's an easy way to know how many by beginning a quest for one of several observing certificates. The nationwide Astronomical League offers three seperate certificates for deep sky observing, beginning with the Messier Certificate.
Most amateurs who wish to begin work on an observing certificate start with the 110 object Messier List. Charles Messier was a French aristocrat who enjoyed looking for new comets in the mid to late 18th century. At the time, the King of France was offering a reward for the discovery of each new comet by a Frenchman of approximately $200. Although Messier hardly needed the money, he valued more the practice of having a comet named for its discoverer.
Messier would diligently scan the skies with his telescope (believed to be a 6" reflector) looking for "faint fuzzies". Comets typically appear as a faint, fuzzy object that is seen to move through the background stars from night to night. Given that Messier's instrument was greatly inferior to today's typical telescope optics, he regularly came across comet-like objects that never moved. Messier began to record these non-moving objects so that he and others would not waste time suspecting a comet from an object that was listed in what will forever be known as Messier's List.
These objects that form Messier's List are some of the finest deep sky objects available to amateur instruments. They run the gamut of object types from galaxies to star clusters to all types of nebulae. Virtually every chart of the heavens lists these objects with a designation number preceeded by an M, the well known M-objects.
Beginning a Messier Logbook is fairly straightforward and simple. The observer begins by using a logsheet that records the Date, Time, Seeing conditions, Instrument used, Power used, and a section where Notes on the objects appearance to the observer are kept. (download a printable copy of our AOAS Messier Log Sheet) A typical observation may go like this:
Object: M-22 Type Obj: Globular Cluster Location: Sagittarius
Date: 082303 Time: 21:55 LT (local time) Power: 100x Seeing: 7 - 8 good
Inst: 8" f / 4.5 Dobsonian
Notes: Fine cluster of stars! 100x shows it as a swarm of tiny stars in a round shape. Easy to find just east of the top star of the Teapot of Sagittarius.
The Astronomical League will award a Messier Certificate for finding a minimum of 70 M-objects, and after the observer completes the list of 110 objects the certificate can be upgraded to an Honorary Messier Certificate. No time limit is set for finding the objects, nor does an observer have to own his own telescope if they belong to an astronomy club or if you regularly observe with amateur astronomers. I located nearly half of my M-objects using other peoples telescopes during star parties before I built my first scope. I used scopes from a 3" refractor up to the 29" reflector at our original observatory site near Sugarloaf Lake.
Many amateurs find that they miss the challenge of logging new objects once they've completed their Messier Certificate, I know I certainly did. For a bigger challenge, you can then consider trying your hand at the much larger Herschel 400 List.
William Herschel was another aristocrat from England. He used larger telescopes over many years to view the objects that didn't move. With his scopes, Herschel was among the first to view hints of structure in nebulae, individual stars in clusters, and spiral arms in some galaxies. The total number of objects viewed and logged by Herschel is in the few thousands.
A Herschel Certificate is awarded for finding 400 specific deep sky objects. An observer logs the same general information as for a Messier Certificate, but it is preferable to give much more detail in the notes on how the objects appear through whatever telescope is used. It is further recommended that a scope of at least 8" aperture be used for these occasionally very faint objects. (download a printable copy of our AOAS Herschel Logsheet and Hershel Object List)
When trying for a Herschel Certificate an observer makes note of how many stars are in star clusters, whether they are tightly packed or loose, how many there are, the brightness levels of the stars and so forth. Galaxies are listed as being bright or dim, face-on or edge-on, how strongly the condensation of the nucleus is whether strong or weak, if the galaxy is elongated, or oval, what cardinal direction is the long axis of the oval oriented towards. Everything about the Herschel list is more challenging, and should be described in more scientific terminology.
Finally, for those who wish to push the limits of patience and determination, there is the Herschel II List. (click here for a printable copy of our AOAS Herschel II Logsheet and objects list)Another 400 different specific objects. Here, a telescope of at least 10" to 12" aperture is recommended. Again, the detail of scientific notation is encouraged, although not absolutely demanded. The idea for this new list of objects (added in 2000-2001) is to stretch an observers skills to new levels.
It's all up to the individual, 110 objects, 500 objects or 900 objects. Of course while logging your observations you will occasionally come across objects that are seen in the field of view with the object you're after, and you should log these objects seperately as well as describe how you determined WHICH object seen is the one you're after.
Just like sketching fine detail seen in planetary observations will help you to "see" more than just a casual glance will reveal, you'll also become a better observer by trying your hand at earning your own observing certificates. But it's a lot like running a marathon or starting college for a degree. The most difficult thing about it is taking that FIRST STEP!
NOTE! AOAS members are eligible to receive complete logbooks for the Messiers, Herschel I, and Herschel II objects. Just e-mail our Webmaster with a request, & we will return e-mail the Member's Logbooks.