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Deepsky Observer's Companion tutorial
Part 3: Planning your observing

In this section: an observing programme, preparing for a session.

Planning an observing programme

"The 6 P's: Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance"


Searching for deep sky objects is a great way to hone your observational skills. It is a good idea to do some homework before you go out to observe. Find out when the Moon rises and sets, and work out how much time you will have to observe without the Moon interfering. Draw up a list of objects to view. When selecting an object, make sure it will be high enough above the horizon so that the murky atmosphere doesn't interfere.

If you are going to draw up your own lists, begin by looking for some of the brighter "showpiece" objects, and then slowly graduate to more difficult targets as your observational skills develop. Apart from choosing your own objects, you can work according to an established observing project.

Preparing for an observing session

Dress appropriately. Comfort is everything in backyard astronomy. If you're not warm enough, standing out there under a star-filled sky is no fun at all. Common sense, folks. I prefer to bring along several layers of clothing (e.g. warm long-johns, sweat suit pants, jeans) and wear as needed.

Snack food. Food is an essential part of any observing kit. My favourite is filter coffee and rusks. A good sandwich is most welcome after a few hour's observing. And sweets like wine gums last a l o n g time, although the eternal mastication they induce can unsteady your view at the eyepiece!

Bug repellant. Mossies. Bane of the deep sky observer. Nothing is more ominous than the high-pitched whine of these blood-sucking pests. Bug spray or lotion neatly solves the problem, although I regularly carry a tube of skin lotion, just in case one of them get a bite in first.

Torches. Besides your trusty red torch for observing, make sure you have enough batteries just in case. Since your observing light should be extremely faint, pack in a normal (unfiltered) torch that you can use to pack up with, or check if you've left anything behind. And don't forget the batteries.

Observing notebook. Don't forget your notebook. Even if you use a Dictaphone, one often needs to make notes. Some observers use a separate notebook to record their sketches.

Accessory table. You'll need somewhere to put all the stuff you've packed in. I carry all my maps, books, notebooks and "stuff" in several milk-crates, each measuring 29 x 35 x 53cm. These stack securely one on the other, making a handy table. Sometimes, an extra chair is also handy as a make-shift table.

Comfortable chair. It's likely that you'll be sitting for a long while behind your eyepiece. Make sure the chair you pack is comfortable and sturdy. Some deck chairs simply don't work well with tripod-mounted binoculars, since their wide, splayed legs often get in the way. I enjoy moving around while observing at the telescope's eyepiece, so I rarely sit down while observing. But the periods of standing are regulary interrupted by moments of sitting down, making notes, planning, and just enjoying the night sky.

Protect starmaps from dew. The best way to protect your star atlas from dew is to keep it indoors. I make photocopies of each map I use at the eyepiece. I like scribbling notes in the margin of the maps, and refuse to do so on the original book. The looseleaf photocopied A4 pages fit well in plastic sleeves. For complex regions requiring several maps, I suggest you use the 20-page plastic sleeve files, which will hold 40 maps back-to back. Also, a stack of maps, held in place on a clipboard, is well protected if a plastic sheet tops off the pile.

Zap the dew on your optics. Having your eyepieces dew up can unexpectedly end your observing session. A blast of hot air for a few seconds will defog the dampest eyepieces, mirrors or lenses. Commercially available 'dew zappers' are basically modified electric hair dryers.

Further reading

  1. Barclay, J. (1994) "Under the Southern Sky" Astronomy, October, 72.
  2. Cain, L. (1986) "Observer's Page: Visual astronomy rediscovered." Sky & Telescope, 72(6, December), 662
  3. Dodd, L. (1994) "Under the Southern Sky: Part 2" Astronomy, December, 78.
  4. Eicher, D. (1985) "Stars of the Circumpolar South" [double-page map] Astronomy, March, 34.
  5. Eicher, D. J. (1989) "Don't Forget the Bug Spray" [Be prepared for anything under the stars with these ten essential items. Don't leave home without them!] Astronomy, August, 67.
  6. Forrest, S. (1989) "Forum: Tricks of an Observer's Trade" Astronomy, August, 98.
  7. Harrington, P. (1994) "Running a Celestial Marathon" [One night, 110 deep-sky wonders. Observe them all and you've comleted the grueling Messier Marathon] Astronomy, March, 61.
  8. Houston, Walter Scott (1980) "Observing the deep sky." Sky & Telescope, 60(6, December), 476.
  9. MacRobert, A. (1985) "Backyard astronomy: Secrets of deep-sky observing" Sky & Telescope, 70(3, September), 204.
  10. MacRobert, A. M. (1987) "Backyard Astronomy: The art of planetary observing - II." Sky & Telescope, 74(6, December), 603.
  11. Nagler, A. (1991) "Choosing Your Telescope's Magnification" Sky & Telescope, May, 553.
  12. Polakis, T. (1995) "Deep-sky on Four a Day" [Is there life after observing the Messier objects? Try the Herschel 400 in 100 nights like I did from Arizona] Astronomy, June, 65.
  13. Rabalais, M. (1986) "How to Conquer the Messier Objects" Astronomy, December, 88
  14. Spevak, J. (1993) "Night of the Deep-Sky Observer" [Follow a lone sky watcher through a night of viewing springtime clusters, nebulae, and galaxies] Astronomy, March, 62.

Deep sky observing programmes in South Africa

The Deep Sky Observing Section of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA) currently offers various observing projects.

The first project is for the beginner, and calls for the observation of 31 bright objects. These objects originally appeared in an 18th century catalogue drawn up by French observer Abbe Nicholas Louis de la Caille (or just Lacaille).

A second project concentrates on the objects in the catalogue drawn up by the late Jack Bennett, comet hunter and dedicated amateur astronomer. Bennett's catalogue contains 152 objects which appear comet-like in smaller telescopes. Some of these objects can be quite challenging in small telescopes and binoculars.

Another project is dedicated to the work of Sir John Herschel, who was the first person to systematically survey the whole night sky with the aim of drawing up a comprehensive catalogue of deep sky objects. Between 1834 and 1838 he stayed at the Cape of Good Hope to work on the southern portion of his catalogue, which formed the basis of the NGC (New General Catalogue) which is still in use today. The Herschel project involves the study of 400 of these objects. Find out more about Herschel's work at the Cape in the "Southern Deep Sky Catalogues" article and on his Observer Profile pages.

Finally, a list of "Top 100 Southern Deep Sky Objects" has been compiled, a guide to some of the real gems of the southern skies.

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