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Are observing programs for you? The Astronomical League has a project for every taste and skill level.

IT'S A CLEAR NIGHT. Your scope is set up and pointed skyward. You're ready to start your observing session. And then comes that moment of indecision: What am I going to observe tonight?

If you have ever asked yourself that question and found that the answer was "the usual things"--or worse, "I don't know"--then let me suggest tackling an Astronomical League observing program.

If you're a member of an astronomy club, there's a good chance that you are also a member of the Astronomical League; more than 240 astronomy clubs are member societies. Individuals, too, can join the League as members at large. The forty-plus observing programs (formerly known as observing clubs) are one of the great benefits of membership in the League.

More than just a list of objects to observe, an observing program offers a specific goal to work toward and comes complete with some well-earned bragging rights. The recognition of your fellow hobbyists is marked with a certificate, a lapel pin, and a spot on the awards list published in the League's quarterly newsletter, The Reflector, as well as permanent honors on A great many observers find a source of pride and accomplishment in earning these awards.

There are a host of benefits to be gained by working the programs. They will help you develop new observing skills and introduce you to objects that you might otherwise never encounter. The logging requirements will foster better note taking. The requirement to describe or sketch objects will improve your eye for detail and make you more observant. And in addition to improving your observing skills, these programs may introduce you to aspects of astronomy that you had not previously encountered, sparking new interests and greater understanding of the science behind the hobby.

There seems to be a program for almost any observing interest, skill level, or degree of commitment. The observing lists are themed. They're typically comprised of objects that are either of similar type: globular clusters, open clusters, or planetary nebulae, for example, or that have some historical association, such as the Messier, Galileo, and Herschel programs. There are programs designed specifically for novices, such as the Constellation Hunter and Universe Sampler programs. Children under 10 can complete the Sky Puppy Program. At the other extreme are the Flat Galaxies Program and the Galaxy Groups & Clusters Program, advanced target lists that will challenge even the most experienced observers.

The requirements vary considerably. The Messier and Caldwell programs are designed to encourage observers to learn their way around the sky. As such, they require that traditional star-hopping methods be used to find the targets. Most of the programs, however, allow the use of Push To or Go To device-aided technology to locate objects. Star-hopping is still generally encouraged--nearly all the programs acknowledge manual location as a particularly noteworthy accomplishment. But the emphasis is more on observing objects than on finding them.

Several of the programs encourage observers to sketch what they see, but only a few actually require sketches. You shouldn't be put off by a sketching requirement, because no matter how hopeless your artistic talent, your sketches will be accepted.

Imagers aren't left out either. Several of the programs can be completed by imaging the objects rather than observing them visually. Indeed, a few of the programs were designed specifically with astrophotographers in mind.

Completing the program means observing the required objects and recording those observations in a rather specific way. Again, the requirements vary, but there are some universal aspects to the logs. The date and time of the observation and an estimate of the seeing and transparency for the session are pretty standard requirements. Customary, too, are the aperture of the telescope, the magnifications employed, and a description of the object.

Beyond that, many programs require the observer to classify the object by some specific scheme: estimating the Trumpler class of an open cluster is an example. All of the requirements are designed to improve the observer's skill, encourage careful observation, and promote meticulous note taking.

The most popular observing program, by far, is the Messier Program. In fact this has become almost a rite of passage in some astronomy clubs and is, more often than not, the first program attempted. Observers are expected to star-hop to any 70 of the objects from Charles Messier's catalog to earn a certificate. The rules make it quite clear that no object-locating devices are allowed. Finderscopes and unit-power finders such as Telrads are fine, of course. But Go To, Push To, and setting circles (both mechanical and electronic) are forbidden. Smartphones and tablets are fine if you just use them to display star charts, but not if you use their built-in compasses and accelerometers to locate objects. The intent is to encourage and reward the effort of learning the night sky.

To earn an Honorary Certificate and an attractive lapel pin that depicts Messier's own signature monogram, the observer must locate and observe all of the Messier objects. For a novice observer, retracing the discoveries of Messier and his contemporaries using nothing more than a star chart and a finderscope is a significant accomplishment, and it's accompanied by a remarkable transformation. One cannot help but learn to recognize the constellations and the brightest stars of the Northern Hemisphere while seeking out the 110 objects. By the time the logs are submitted for the award, the sky has become a familiar place, and the observer has become a confident member of an exclusive circle of sky-savvy observers.

The late British astronomy icon, Sir Patrick Caldwell Moore, inspired another popular observing program by authoring a list of objects that appeared in a December 1995 Sky & Telescope article. The Caldwell Catalog, as that list has come to be known, comprises the target list for the only other A.L. observing program that must be accomplished in the traditional way.

League members who complete five required observing programs (the five most popular ones) and five more programs of their choice earn special bragging rights in the guise of the Master Observer Award. As I write this, fewer than 135 observers have earned the master observer designation.

The value of these observing programs and awards as a motivational tool to re-energize your astronomy club should not be overlooked. They can enliven your club's observing sessions by serving as frameworks for group projects and training venues for novice observers.

A little more than a decade ago, I was witness to an utter makeover of my own southeastern Virginia astronomy club created by a concentrated focus on these observing programs. Once a few prominent members of the Back Bay Amateur Astronomers started earning these awards, with a suitable fuss and ceremony accompanying their presentation, more and more members started to try their hand at them. They became the hub of our observing sessions, and attendance at our monthly Skywatch star parties spiked, as members were eager to work on their awards. The best part was that new members novice observers--were getting out under the stars with ambitions to find and observe lists of objects and were being given expert guidance by other members who a short time before had been novices themselves

The motivational impact didn't stop at just completing existing programs. Creating a new program became a stimulating club project. All of the Astronomical League observing programs start as the brainchild of a League member or member society. In my own case, it was disappointment over not having a program dedicated to ray favorite type of object, planetary nebulae, that impelled me to inquire of Bob Gent, then League president, why there wasn't a Planetary Nebula Program. His answer--that it didn't exist because I hadn't created it yet--was both a revelation and a challenge After that challenge was relayed to my astronomy club, we were able to motivate a considerable portion of our membership toward building the observing program. Each observing program in the League's repertoire, no doubt, has a similar story.

Whereas most of these observing programs require that you be a member of the Astronomical League to earn an award, the Herschel 400 Program is an exception. So if you're not currently a member of the League, you can start there. The idea for a Herschel program was inspired by a letter written to Sky & Telescope by the prolific astronomy writer James Mullaney. He suggested that the objects in Sir William Herschel's original catalog would provide a challenging and worthy observing project. Members of the Ancient City Astronomers in St. Augustine, Florida, agreed. They selected what they considered to be the 400 best objects out of Herschel's 2,500-object catalog to create the program that has become a traditional "next step" after the Messier list.

I opened this commentary with a question, asking if you ever experience that bit of trepidation at the start of your observing sessions--that nagging remorse that a clear night might not be put to its best use for want of an exciting observing plan. I think that beginners and experts alike can find inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose in these observing programs. More important, you just might find that they're a lot of fun.

Contributing editor Ted Forte works on completing observing programs from his backyard observatory near Sierra Vista, Arizona. He is the coordinator of the Astronomical League's Planetary Nebula Program.
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Title Annotation:Astronomy with a Plan
Author:Forte, Ted
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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