Learning to see
As with any worthy endeavor, it takes time to become a good stargazer. Even the smallest telescopes and binoculars are spaceships to other worlds, but you have to learn to run the controls.
Most of all, you have to train your eyes and heart to see. Your initial views of star clusters and galaxies are inevitably disappointing. They look at first like balls of lint. Where are all the details visible in those long-exposure photographs you see on the Internet?
The details are there, oh ye frustrated stargazers. The longer you look, the more you will see.
A deep-sky object is anything outside our solar system. The catalogs of these astronomical splendors tend to include everything that isn’t a star and appears at first as a fuzzy patch in astronomical instruments of small size.
The mother of all deep-sky objects is the Great Nebula in the sword of Orion. In a small telescope, you will see a tiny patch of glowing gas surrounding a rough square of four stars called the Trapezium.
Don’t look away. Try to catch the light patch out of the corner of your eye, a technique called averted vision. Look at the edge of the field of view and not at its center. The Great Nebula will explode into complex swirls, a cloud of gas where stars are being born at the very moment you are reading these lines.
Averted vision is also helpful at the end of stellar evolution. As stars die, they shed their skins and form a sphere of glowing gas. The dead star glows less brightly at its center, usually as a collapsed white-dwarf star.
The classic case where averted vision will help you is the Blinking Planetary in the constellation Cygnus. (Sorry. You’ll have to wait for summer to see it.) Stare directly at it in a telescope and you will see only the central star. Use averted vision and a tiny blue snowball will appear around the star. Glance away and toward the object, and the blue ball will appear and disappear as if by magic.
Another classic case is the star cluster designated as M35 in the Messier Catalog of deep-sky objects. M35 is easy to find and makes a great introduction to this “harder” class of telescopic objects.
Just after dark, look for the constellation Gemini high in the east. You’ll see two bright stars, called Castor and Pollux, of equal brightness huddled fairly close together. Two parallel strings of bright stars extend to the south from Castor and Pollux. Follow the upper string and hang a left.
In binoculars, you will see a smallish, round blob of light. You’ve found M35.
Look just to the side of it, and view the light with your peripheral vision. After a time, the light will look lumpy, with patches a little brighter than the rest. The blob is now a structured blob.
Now turn to your telescope. Even in a small instrument, the blob will resolve into a few bright stars caught in an unresolved haze.
You see so little because your brain is drawn to what is most easily seen. You must trick your eye to see more.
Use your peripheral vision again. Slowly, you will see more and more stars as your eye trains itself to see what’s really there. Eventually, you will see at many as 50 stars surrounded by the haze of hundreds of unresolved stars that fill the spaces among the brighter points.
But don’t stop there. You have learned to see, but the process has just begun.
Now consider what you are seeing. M35 is several hundred stars crowded in a region about 30 light years (180 trillion miles) wide. It is perhaps 2,800 light years distant.
A few of the stars are yellow or orange. They are giant stars that have reached maturity and beyond. Having lived a quick and violent life, they will soon perish.
Most of the stars are hot and blue, meaning they are newly formed from the enormous hydrogen cloud that gave them birth. The cluster was born only 50 million years ago, a snap of the fingers compared to our 5-billion-year-old sun.
Learning to see is more than a trick of the eye. When you know at last what you are seeing, when you learn the meaning of the stars, only then will you be transported to distant worlds.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.