Observational Astronomy: The basic skills of science

I’ll be honest, when I ordered my telescope in September I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no agenda other than to have a way to look more closely at planets, galaxies and other objects in the night sky. Pretty simple really. After the first few sessions with the telescope I started thinking that I should keep track of the objects I was viewing. I started doing that but then realized I could probably be recording more than a simple list of what I was viewing. So I started keeping track of the date and time of the observations. Well, why not note which eye pieces I was using too? Ok. Check.

At the two week mark I’d done enough reading to see that there were organized observational “programs”, essentially, lists created to help guide and teach amateur astronomers how to go about learning observational astronomy. So I did a bit of checking and saw that in those programs they also record atmospheric conditions such as “transparency” and “seeing” as well as free form observational notes. Okay, why not?

Fast forward to today.  I’ve been consistently recording each observation, 211 thus far, but realized that I was not recording much in the way of a free form description. Some people sketch what they see and I may try that in the future but for now I’d rather use words. The problem? I don’t really have the skills to properly describe what I’m seeing. More to the point, I don’t have the vocabulary which, in a sense, is also the instruction set for observation. The vocabulary is the framework. While this is just the most basic example of one step of the scientific method I think it is useful to recognize it as such. Amateur astronomy, if combined with just a little bit of discipline, can be a valuable experiential tool for learning observation skills.

So, I spent the morning searching around and have made some progress. Because I am a nerd I must of course share in the hopes that someone will find this useful. This particular bit of information is specifically helpful for the observation of deep sky objects. Planetary and other solar system observation of comets and meteor showers is a different set of concerns and techniques!

The below is just one page from a nice set of very informative pdfs over at Astronomy Logs.

Galaxies

  • Did you use direct or averted vision?
  • What is the overall shape?
  • Is the core noticeable, compact, stellar ? Can structure be seen in the galaxy, mottling, bright or dark patches or lanes?
  • Are the outer edges sharp or diffuse? Identify any other DSO in the field.

Globular Clusters

  • Did you use direct or averted vision?
  • Is the core bright, compact, or not distinguishable? Is it highly or loosely concentrated?
  • Is any part of it resolved into stars, averted vision or not, or does it show mottling, or stars resolved at the edges?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.

Open Clusters

  • Is it easily distinguished from the background stars, is it well defined?
  • Is there a overall shape?
  • How many stars can you count in the cluster?
  • Are the stars concentrated in any one area?
  • Is the cluster fully resolved or is background nebulosity noticed?
  • Are there areas where stars are absent in the cluster? Are there any brighter stars in the cluster and do
  • any stand out in color?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.

Open Cluster/ Nebulosity

  • Did you use direct or averted vision to view the cluster and nebulosity, are filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Can both the cluster and nebulosity be seen with direct vision, or is averted vision or filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Are the stars concentrated in any one area?
  • Is the cluster embedded in the nebulosity or is there a distinct separation?
  • Is any part of the nebula brighter or more concentrated?
  • Are there any voids or dark patches or lanes, bright filaments or streamers in the nebulosity?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.

Nebula

  • Did you use direct or averted vision? filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Is any part of the nebula brighter or more concentrated?
  • Are there any voids or dark patches or lanes, bright filaments or streamers in the nebulosity?
  • Is there an open cluster nearby or involved or any obvious stars involved with the nebulosity? Identify any other DSO in the field.

Planetary Nebula

  • What is the overall shape, is it disk shaped or more stellar?
  • Are the edges sharp or diffuse?
  • Is it easy or difficult to identify in the field?
  • What is the color of the Planetary?
  • Is the center brighter, darker or uniform brightness as the edges?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.