Astronomical Observing Methods

There are several astronomical observing methods that can be used.

 Wandering Around the Sky
 Three to Ten Minute Quick Look to Learn the Sky
 Planned Observing Session
 Searching for Something New

When I was starting out in observational astronomy I would go outside at night and look around the night sky. Being a beginner and not knowing much about astronomy I quickly realize I needed to learn about what I was looking at. Therefore I took astronomy books and charts outside with me during my observing sessions to help me learn about what I was looking at. As a result, most of my observing time was spent in reading or looking up objects in charts or astronomy guides for things that I could observe. What I had learned was studing and researching objects to observer was better complished before starting the night time observing session so that more time was spent observing.

The current observing methods I use most are the "Three to Ten Minute Quick Look" and the "Planned Observing Session". Both of these observing methods have been more productive in that I spend more time sky observing and less time reading references during an observing session. But at times, when mood suits me I will wander around the sky to find objects that I have never observed before.

 Wandering Around the Sky  

This method entails searching the sky, finding a sky object of interest and then researching it to identify and to learn about the object. Observational astronomy by wandering around the sky is fun in that it explores the unknown (to you) and that you discover astronomical objects with no set agenda or plan. The key to observational astronomy by wandering around the sky is knowing what to look for and then having an excellent method of researching astronomical objects in order to identify them and to learn about them.

 Three to Ten Minute Quick Look to Learn the Sky  

The objective for this quick glance at the sky observing method is to learn the unaided eye visible night sky throughout the year. My definition of the visible sky is the Moon, constellations, bright stars, planets, Milky Way and a few bright deep sky objects like M31 Andromeda galaxy, M44 Beehive cluster, etc. This method is composed of two parts:

  1. Studying a star chart with the constellations for a few minutes each day, usually before bedtime.
  2. Observing the night sky whenever it clear. The observing is done without any charts or any other astronomy materials and is done at moment's notice. For example, I observer whenever I close the garage door at night, leave work in the dark, or any other time that the stars are visible.

In other words, take a quick look at the sky and try to identify and to recall as many constellations, bright stars, planets, and to occasionally try to find a faint fuzzy deep sky object if sky conditions permit. A typical quick look is composed of the following observations:

  1. First locate the Moon if it visible and determine its phase.
  2. After the Moon locate any planets if visible.
  3. Next find Ursa Major (Big Dipper) and/or Cassiopeia. From these constellations locate Polaris and Ursa Minor (Little Dipper). Finding Polaris establishs the North reference direction and all other directions (South, East & West). The stars of Ursa Minor is a good constellation to determine how faint of a star can be observed.
  4. Starting at Polaris identify the constellations that are on the meridian to the South horizon. From the constellations on the meridian identify constellations to the East and West horizons. After completing the constellations try to recall the names of the bright stars of the sky and the constellations they are located in.
  5. Finally, depending on how faint one can see try to locate the Milky Way and bright deep sky objects like M31, M44 etc.

I have found this "Three to Ten Minute Quick Look" observing session is an excellent method to learn the night sky.

 Planned Observing Session  

Planned observing sessions are researching astronomical objects that can be seen and then planning a nightly observing session to observer them. This method has the high ratio of observing time of the sky versus total observing session time which includes telescope setup, reference work, sky observing and telescope tear down. This method of observing for a beginner is recommended because unskilled observer will not easily recognize certain astronomical objects. Also, in observational astronomy by wandering the sky researching unknown astronomical objects requires good use of astronomy references resources in order to identify them which may be a bit over whelming to a beginner.

 Searching for Something New  

This method entails searching the sky for new objects such as comets, supernovas, etc. A sky search pattern is developed based on the type of object being search for. The seach pattern is implemented on a ongoing schedule with a goal to optimize the chance to be the first person to discover a new object such as a comet, supernova, etc.

Star Field