What’s on your bucket list?

August 7, 2012

First off, many thanks to everyone who has responded about the Suburban Messier Project. I’m going to do it, sooner or later, and I’ve started a draft outlining how my thinking has moved forward, thanks to your answers, but I haven’t had time to work on it much. I’ve been in summer teaching mode and anything not directly related to human anatomy has had to be fitted into the scraps of leftover time. Exhibit A: this post, which I started writing weeks ago, and only just finished.

Actually, work bears on this post in a way, in that it was work-related stuff that got me thinking along these lines. We’ve had a lot of discussions lately about goal-setting, and our annual reviews are shifting to be based more on the goals we set for ourselves. I’ll be honest, at first I thought this was one of the fairly pointless exercises of the kind that have made “academic” a curse word (“it’s all just academic”, etc.). But I’m warming up to the idea, now that evaluation is tied to it, because it means I can sort of set my own criteria for advancement (within reason).

ANYWAY, this has sort of spilled over in my stargazing. As you may have noticed, I am a bit of a gearhound, and I especially like to try out new (to me) scopes. About two dozen telescopes have passed through my hands since I first got into amateur astronomy in the fall of 2007. About two thirds of those were purchased used, and I sold most of them for about what I paid for them, which is a nice way to audition telescopes without spending a bundle. This summer I’ve been on a kick to thin the herd a bit, and cut back to just those scopes that I actually use. And I’ve realized that I’m pretty happy with my current scope lineup. I’d like to have a bigger, ultralight dob someday, and I’d like to try out an ED or APO refractor, but I no longer feel compelled to pounce on every affordable scope that comes over the horizon.

Free from the constant distraction of ten-night stands with hot little scopes, I’ve been thinking more and more about–gasp!–observing, and specifically my long-term goals as an observer. Either a bigger dob or an APO will require saving up dough for quite a while, possibly years. If I’m going to invest in a scope on that level, I should be pretty darned sure that it will show me stuff I want to see.

So, what do I want to see?

My imagination has been fired by the achievements of observers I idolize. Steve Coe observed something like 2000 deep-sky objects over a couple of decades–all of those visible from his latitude (in southern Arizona) that are listed in Burnham’s Celestial Handbook (see this sidebar page for a similar list). Uncle Rod just finished the Herschel 2500–all of the deep sky objects catalogued by William Herschel and his sister Caroline. And Jay Reynolds Freeman’s essay “10,000 Objects” has been lurking out there like Mount Everest.

(I should say here that some people dismiss observing thousands of objects as a form of celestial stamp collecting. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it’s quite the opposite. These things are really out there. They are part of our universe, and I want to see them for the same reason that I want to visit as many countries as I can in my lifetime, and see as many earthly splendors as possible. The universe is very big, human lifetimes are very short, and there is just so much to see.)

But the observing list that has stuck most firmly in my head is one posted by Don Pensack on Cloudy Nights, in a thread on telescope aperture. It’s worth quoting at length, so I will:

For years I thought an 8″ scope was a “lifetime” scope. Probably around 15000 DSOs are reachable, and pretty much all star clusters. You could spend a lifetime with one and become quite an accomplished observer.
But my interests shifted more to galaxies so I moved up “a magnitude” to a 12.5″. And while I certainly can see more galaxies and details therein, the biggest difference in appearance came with the mundane, easily visible, brighter objects.
I’ve seen (and it wasn’t possible in an 8″):
–individual stars in M31 (NGC206 stars)
–stars across the face of M14
–tons of H-II regions in most of the nearer galaxies
–white swirls inside the GRS on Jupiter
–brightness variations on Ganymede
–differential colors in the Galilean moons
–the Keeler Gap in Saturn’s rings
–the outer spiral arms of M81 and NGC7331
–to-the-core resolution on M15
–red giants in M13
–dark lanes in tons of edge-on galaxies
–M17 and M16 as part of the same nebula
–wonderful striations across the face of NGC6888
–B33 (Horsehead), both with and without a filter
–galaxies in some faint Abell Galaxy clusters
–several Abell planetaries

I sit when I observe except at the zenith.

The next logical step (to gain a magnitude): 20″
But it’s too big to easily carry by one person and transport in a small, high-mileage, car. I regularly observe at dark sites frequented by others with larger scopes, and I’ve learned that, by and large, most big scope observers don’t go after targets any fainter than I do.
And I hate standing or using a ladder to observe.
A 20″ f/3 would work, but the issue of lifting the scope would still remain.

So, for me, though I’m tempted by larger apertures, MY serious aperture is 12.5″. I guess the key is, if you observe a lot of things, and use the scope quite a bit on a variety of targets, that constitutes serious observing. And, no matter what aperture is used, by extrapolation that’s serious aperture.

Okay, so his list wasn’t presented as a list of observing targets per se, more like some highlights from his move up in aperture. But I still read them and thought, “Damn, I’d like to see that stuff for myself.”

In that spirit I’ve been working on a list of stuff I want to see; an astronomical bucket list. Some things that might be on a general astro bucket list are not on my specific list, in some cases because I’ve already observed them. So as I was making up the bucket list, I made a parallel list of my favorite observations to date. Not all of them were challenging, but all were memorable. They delighted me, and the chance to possibly recapture that delight is my major motivation for going out to observe.

On to the lists! Both are arranged roughly from the center of the solar system out toward the edge of the observable universe.

My Favorite Observations to Date

My Astronomical Bucket List

  • Chart sun’s rotation using sunspots
  • Total solar eclipse
  • Transit of Mercury
  • Night sky from a ship in the mid-ocean
  • Southern hemisphere skies with more than 50mm of aperture
  • Up-close rocket launch–okay, so this isn’t technically an astronomical observation. But hey, it’s my list.
  • Phobos
  • Major asteroids
  • Zodiacal light–this is supposed to be an easier catch than the Gegenschein, which I have seen. Possibly I have seen it and not known what it was.
  • Jupiter or Saturn being occulted by the moon
  • One or more moons of Uranus and Neptune
  • Pluto
  • A great comet (this one is up to the universe)
  • Barnard’s star
  • Track a high proper-motion star as it moves in front of background stars (will take 2 or more observations some years apart)
  • Sirius and the Pup
  • Herschel 500 double stars
  • Detail in the Crab Nebula (M1)
  • Central star in the Ring Nebula (M57)
  • “Pillars of Creation” in M16
  • Horsehead Nebula (B33)
  • Bright, naked-eye nova or supernova (again, this is up to the universe)
  • “Propeller” in M13–apparently there are three dark lanes in M13 that form a propeller shape. I’ve never noticed them.
  • Globular clusters in the Andromeda galaxy (M31)
  • Jet in M87 (will definitely need a bigger scope!)
  • All 110 Messiers in a Messier Marathon
  • Herschel 400, Herschel II 400, and Herschel 2500–I’m not quite a third of the way through the Herschel 400, so I’ll be climbing this mountain for a long time. But the scenery is well worth it.
  • More, and more distant, quasars

I’m sure more things will occur to me in the future. In the meantime, quite a few things on my bucket list are achievable with the gear I’ve already got. I just need to get out and see more–and that is a goal I can work on anytime. May it ever be so.


  1. “I’ve realized that I’m pretty happy with my current scope lineup.”

    Long-time readers will recognise this as the prelude to Matt buying another ‘scope.

    In fact, since this was posted all of 15 days ago, my guess is that he had already done so. Matt, is my guess on target?

  2. Har. Don’t you have a complete season of Dr. Who to be reviewing?

  3. No, I’ve been fully up to date on my Doctor Who reviews since October 6 last year.

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