Our Celestial Life List

This Spring we are developing an idea to increase interest in our skies. Borrowing and modifying the Life Lists started by our fellow naturalists, the bird watchers, we have created our own version for the skies. Our Life List consists of maps to be labeled and over 200 celestial objects for you to find and identify. Everything on the list can be seen from Charlestown RI. The list is organized by season and by category. More than half the items can found and identified with your eyes alone. Most of the remainder can be sighted through binoculars, although some items are best seen in a large instrument like FDO's Meade 16" telescope.

You can keep track of the list on your own or we'll post your results at FDO with those of others if you like. This activity is intended to anyone from children to seniors and can be as simple or as intensive as you like. What you put into it will be returned many fold. By the time the list is half way to completion the sky will be familiar to you, forever.

We will offer the Life List in two forms - as a free file from www.frostydrew.org/observatory and as a preprinted packet for a nominal fee. We also have a companion answer sheet for teachers or anyone who won't be able to visit FDO to check results. The files are color and symbol coded to help you plan when to try to view an object. For example, don't try to see the brightest star in the sky [Sirius] in Summer. It is far below the horizon then. We don't explain why an object is interesting. We'd like you to ask one of us in person, or go to our web site or read a book for additional information.

When you first see the fuzzy patch in the sky called the Crab Nebula [M1] it doesn't seem like much. Everything changes when you see it in a large telescope and learn about its spectacular history. In 1054 Oriental astronomers reported a "guest star" (what we call a supernova) near the borders of the constellations Tsui and Shen (or what we now call Taurus - the Bull). Paintings by native Americans almost certainly record this same event. M1 was so bright that it was clearly visible in the daytime sky. Yet no European account of this explosion exists. Europeans considered any "nova" to be an prophesy of royal death. No one dared bring the nova to the attention of their ruler! This expanding cloud of illuminated matter has grown to more than 10 light years across (60 trillion miles) in less than a millennia.

Our Life List is full of additional wonders, we have stellar nurseries, dying stars, galaxies being torn apart by larger galaxies, the Moon, its craters and seas (the most under appreciated object in the sky), the planets, meteor showers, odd sources of light (the Milky Way, auroras and gegenshines), beautiful star grouping, multiple stars that rotate each other like planets, whirlpools of stars, seventeen natural and untold artificial satellites, constellations and maybe we'll even see a nova or a comet in the next year or two. We have stories about these objects - some of our stories are myths, some are historical perspectives and some of them are leading edge science. All of them are interesting.

This is a good time of the year to introduce our Life List. The bright planets are inconveniently placed near the Sun until late this Summer. Usually when someone asks to see a specific planet which is behind the Sun, we offer another planet as a satisfying substitute. Currently only the outer planets, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are in the night sky. Uranus and Neptune are of limited interest since they are barely big enough to show a discernible disk. Pluto is visible by sufferance only. It looks like a dim star against a background of other stars. The only way we can identify Pluto is matching it against star charts.

So while the planets play hide and seek with the Sun, let's concentrate on the constellations, make bright star identifications, and explore the wonders of deep space. Let's not forget our next door neighbor, the Moon. Only the Moon can be explored in great detail with modest optics. Everyone knows that Neil Armstrong made his "one small step for a man, one giant step for mankind" at Tranquillity Base. Can you point out which of the dusky areas (mare pronounced "mar ray") is Mare Tranquillitatis? Can you see the brilliant crater called Tycho? Can you tell which direction the Moon moves? Can you find the central ejecta mass when long ago giant meteors gauged the craters on the Moon? There is lots to do until the planets return.

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Mar 1, 2000
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
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