Favorite Objects in the Sky
These are the objects to which I often turn my telescope, things that draw my attention night after night.
All of these objects are visible—and very enjoyable—even under a light polluted sky. I regularly observe them high in the sky in my backyard three miles to the east of downtown Portland, Oregon.
I took the pictures that appear below with a point-and-shoot camera mounted on a wooden brace and pointed into the eyepiece of my telescope. Unfortunately, many of the objects I describe are too faint for my crude astrophotography setup to pick up. All of them appear best when one looks at them directly in a telescope or binoculars.
Solar System Objects
The easiest thing to find in the night sky, the moon offers lots of detail in the eyepiece of a telescope. Each phase of the moon reveals different parts of its character.
I took this photo on May 3, 2017, when the moon was about seven days old:
When one observes the sun using a proper filter—and this is an absolute must, since one will severely and permanently injure one's eye without proper solar filtering—the sun offers a constantly evolving view of sunspots and other subtle detail.
I took this picture on the afternoon of November 1, 2015:
Go to SpaceWeather.com for current conditions on the surface of the sun and for other interesting tidbits.
Saturn is one of my very favorite objects to observe. I'm always amazed to see Cassini's Division and more subtle cloud belts on the planet's disk. Indeed, to be able to see that much detail on something 746 million miles away with only a modestly sized telescope in my backyard is truly astounding.
Another source of fascination for me is the King of the Planets. Along with the four Galilean moons—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto—one can also see the Great Red Spot and variously colored cloud belts on the surface of Jupiter.
I took this photo of Jupiter on May 6, 2016, showing the Great Red Spot as well as the shadow of Callisto on the bottom of the planet's disk.
Because of a runaway greenhouse effect in an atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide, Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system even in spite of the fact that it is further from the sun than Mercury. Like the moon, it has phases as it orbits the sun, and it's visible to us either before sunrise or after sunset.
Deep Space Objects
NGC 457 / Owl Cluster
Open Star Cluster in Cassiopeia (01h 19m +58°)
A very interesting cluster that fills the whole field of view of a low-power eyepiece, the shape of an owl with its wings spread is immediately apparent, as are two conspicuous "eyes" at its head.
NGC 869 and 884 / Double Cluster
Open Star Cluster in Perseus (02h 20m +57°)
A rich pair of clusters between which I will often move my scope back and forth to observe (fitting them both in the same field of view in my lowest powered eyepiece is a challenge). NGC 869 has a number of reddish stars while NGC 884 has a conspicuous orange star near its middle.
Messier 45 / The Pleiades
Open Star Cluster in Taurus (03h 47m +24°)
Visible in the naked eye as a haze even in urban light pollution, the Pleiades, for the ancients, was a test of one's eyesight. In binoculars, this cluster appears as a wonderful gathering of several very bright stars.
Messier 42 / Great Orion Nebula
Reflection and Emission Nebula in Orion (05h 35m -05°)
The superstar of the winter sky, the Great Orion Nebula is situated just below Orion's belt and is visible to the naked eye even in the city. Through the eyepiece of a telescope, I've spent lots of time gazing at its intricate and sprawling detail.
Open Star Cluster in Auriga (05h 52m +32°)
In a telescope with modest magnification, M37 is a swarm of countless pinpricks of light surrounding a conspicuous red giant near the center of this open cluster.
Open Star Cluster in Gemini (06h 08m +24°)
Filling the whole field of view of a low-power eyepiece is this amazing mass of colorful stars.
Zeta Ursae Majoris / Mizar and Alcor
Double Star in Ursa Major (13h 23m +54°)
One of the stars in the Big Dipper's handle is actually two stars, Mizar and Alcor, which are easily seen in binoculars. In a telescope, Mizar, the brighter of the two, is itself a double.
Globular Star Cluster in Hercules (16h 41m +36°)
Perhaps the most famous globular cluster in the northern hemisphere, M13 is often the first object to which I'll turn my telescope once the sky darkens at night in the summer. It's a wonderful aggregation of finely resolving stars spread across a wide area. In the above photo, which I took through a 4.5-inch reflector telescope, the fuzzy gray mass in the center is M13; note the orange and blue star on either side of the star cluster. Unfortunately, I was unable to capture any resolving stars in this difficult-to-photograph object.
Globular Star Cluster in Hercules (17h 17m +43°)
While I often find myself going for M13 mainly because it's so easy to find in the keystone shape of Hercules, M92 is more satisfying to observe. It has an intensely glowing core surrounded by a spray of stars.
Epsilon Lyrae / Double Double
Double Star in Lyra (18h 44m +39°)
In a pair of binoculars, Epsilon Lyrae appears as two stars relatively close to each other. Turning to a telescope with higher magnification, one will realize that each star is in fact two doubles themselves, each a very tight pair that can be somewhat of a challenge to split.
More information: Wikipedia.
Messier 11 / Wild Duck Cluster
Open Star Cluster in Scutum (18h 51m -06°)
In my eight-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at 100x, I would estimate that some 100 or 150 stars are densely packed together in this wonderful open cluster. It gets its name the Wild Duck Cluster from its "V"-shaped resemblance to a flock of flying ducks. It's my very favorite open star cluster, worth every minute of the many times I've spent observing it.
M57 / Ring Nebula
Planetary Nebula in Lyra (18h 53m +33°)
A tiny donut-shaped puff of nebulosity, the Ring Nebula is easy to find between two bright stars near Vega. More aperture will reveal subtle detail, but most telescopes will be able to pick up its distinctive ring.
Collinder 399 / Brocchi's Cluster / The Coat Hanger
Asterism in Vulpecula (19h 25m +20°)
With its line of stars with a hook-shaped string in the middle, this fun-to-observe wide pattern of stars resembles, as its name suggests, a coat hanger. It's best seen through a pair of binoculars. I took the above image through a telescope using very low power.
Beta Cygni / Albireo
Double Star in Cygnus (19h 30m +43°)
Albireo is one of the most beautiful double stars in the sky. A golden yellow primary and sapphire blue secondary make for a very interesting pair to observe.