Observing clubs are guided observing programs that are designed to expand you experience in a specific area of astronomy. They are self driven. You accomplish the recommended observations and document them. Those documents are ten inspected by the club chair or other designated person. If you are judged to have met the requirements, you get a certificate and a nice pin. More importantly, you get the knowledge you gained from the experience.
I recently completed the Lunar Club observing program. I have looked at the Moon for years but with a small amount of time spent, I have really gained a new appreciation for the Moon. In fact, I now look forward to those clear moon lit nights rather than considering them a "wasted" deep sky observing opportunity.
Yesterday, I completed the requirements for the Binocular Messier observing club. I observed 53 Messier objects using my Canon 15x50IS binoculars. The observations of the following objects are recorded:
M 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 31, 33, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 51, 52, 55, 65, 66, 67, 79, 80, 81, 82, 92, 103
I independently located each one of these objects using nothing more than a star atlas and except for rare exceptions the binoculars were hand held.
I found this to be a most valuable experience. At the start, I just saw this observing club as an appendix to the telescopic Messier club. I was observing and recording my observations from a dark sky site about 50 miles from home. The distance and the fact that it is a private residence limits the frequency that I use the site. So work on the observing list was going slowly. I had previously tried to locate deep sky objects from my backyard (mag 3.5 to 5 skies depending on conditions) using an 8” Celestron SCT only to give up in frustration time and time again. In fact, I was given the C8 in 1976 by my parents. Over all these years, it has been sparsely used because it is not GOTO and I was never able to find anything other than planets with it. I am also working on my Urban club list with a CPC1100 and that is going quite well. On night when observing some Messier objects at home using the CPC1100, I was inspired to see if I could not observe the same object with the binoculars. Lo and behold, I was both able to find and observe the object with unexpected ease. This emboldened me to attempt the remainder of the Binocular Messier list from my backyard. I am proud to say that 33 of the 53 observations I submit were made in this fashion. Finding the objects with the binoculars has substantially improved my skill at navigating the sky. In fact, I am now much more successful with the C8 than I every was before. I plan on attempting to complete the remainder of the telescope Messier Club list from my backyard as well!
A good star map is of course the sky to finding deep sky objects. Over the years, I have invested in several but I have found the digital planetarium programs have proven to be much more useful. I fact, much of my success needs to be credited to the program StarMap for the iPad. It was completely revolutionized my observing. It is better than a paper start chart in 2 major ways. First, I allows you to easily change the scale of the map. This is a tremendous aid for orienting yourself in the night sky. No more getting “lost” in the night sky. The second and even more important feature is the ability to zoom in and give you a simulated view through your eyepiece. This allows you to be absolutely certain of your object identification and allows you to effectively star hop even under very adverse sky conditions.
I encourage any of you who are interested in expanding your astronomical observing experience to look up the observing clubs. They certainly are a great way to learn the sky!