Stargazing with Pat J: What Do Amateur Astronomers Observe with Their Telescopes?

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by Patricia Jeffery © 2022, Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

If you said ‘stars’, you’d be wrong. Even the mighty James Webb telescope can’t resolve a star to more than a pinpoint of light. Despite being enormous, thermonuclear reactors, which emit radioactive energy in the form of light and heat, unless you are observing a whole cluster of them, a solitary star has the charisma of a twinkling light bulb.

Instead, backyard astronomers spend their time prowling the night skies in search of our neighbouring solar system planets, as well as thousands of other amazing sights interspersed among the stars. But none are more impressive than the 110 that form the Messier objects.

So, what is a Messier object you ask? Well, Charles Messier was an 18th century French astronomer. Passionate about comets, he did all his observing from Paris, using a telescope with only a four-inch diameter aperture. He would eventually discover 13 comets, which is an amazing achievement, but it was the 103 entities he could not identify that have granted him everlasting fame. Over time, that list was expanded to 110 and includes 40 galaxies, 29 globular clusters, 27 open clusters, 10 nebulae, and 4 additional objects. Apart from the galaxies, the remaining 70 objects are mostly located inside our very own Milky Way.

Each spring, astronomers gather for ‘Messier Marathons’, when all the objects can be observed over a single night. Once you nab all 110, which can take several years, you qualify for a certificate and pin.

Most folks have likely already seen two of the objects: M42 (Orion nebula) and M45 (Pleiades) which are both visible to the naked eye during November evenings in our southern Alberta sky.