Cosmic Challenge, The Ultimate Observing List for Amateurs - a personal observation

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by , 11-21-2018 at 04:37 PM (498 Views)
Title: Cosmic Challenge, The Ultimate Observing List for Amateurs
Author: Phillip S. Harrington
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2011

(image courtesy of philharrington.net)


In keeping with my love of books about astronomy, I recently acquired a used copy of this book in excellent condition from a public library via an Amazon seller. It appears as though it were very used very little, if at all, before the library sold it off. Phil Harrington is of course well known to many of us, as a noted columnist and contributing editor to Astronomy Magazine, as well as having authored many books and articles throughout the decades. He writes the monthly column “Cosmic Challenge” for the Cloudy Nights website, which draws from this publication. In fact, it was the May 2018 edition of his article pertaining to Messier 109 in Ursa Major that drew my attention to this publication.

The book puts forth a large number of observing challenges for the observer, ranging from naked eye to telescopes of 15 inches and larger (called “monster scopes” by the author). As described in the introductory page at the front of the book, it contains a “Listing more than 500 sky targets, both near and far, in 187 challenges, this observing guide will test novice astronomers and advanced veterans alike.” Though he clearly states 187 challenges, there are in fact 188 challenges contained within the book – a very minor quibble.

Chapter 1 is aptly titled, “Meeting the Challenge”, and is basic guide to preparing oneself for the challenges that begin in Chapter 2. Phil covers a wide range of issues from preparing our eyes to binoculars and telescopes. He also covers other peripheral issues that some may not think much about, such as baffling and flocking, limiting magnitude and resolving power. He also touches on eyepieces, with a discussion about exit pupils and their importance, as well as magnification. He then delves into filters and their application, ranging from planetary to deep-sky. The intent of this chapter is give the reader a bit of an overview of things to consider when preparing for the challenges within, as well as observing in general.

The author then touches on the observing site and conditions, delving into seeing and transparency. He also mentions the thermal adaptation of the optics and chimney effect, then briefly touches on the matter of judging one’s observing site quality. Here he presents the Bortle Scale, and interestingly to me, he attempts to tie in the colors from the proliferation of colored light pollution maps to the Bortle Scale. I know for a fact that such attempts make John Bortle bristle, as his original scale has no direct correlation to these maps and any similarity is pure happenstance as they are based on very different criteria. But that is another argument for another day, between John and Phil!

Once he concludes his preparatory guidance in the first chapter, the author then forges ahead with his categorized challenges. These are broken down in chapters 2 through 7 as “Naked-eye Challenges”, “Binocular Challenges”, “Small-scope challenges: Giant binoculars, 3- to 5-inch telescopes”, Medium-scope challenges: 6- to 9.25-inch telescopes”, Large-scope challenges: 10- to 14-inch telescopes” and “Monster-scope challenges: 15-inch and larger telescopes.” He rates each challenge for difficulty using a scale of 1 (easiest) to 4 (most difficult) stars which is found in the banner at the beginner of each challenge article.

After the last challenge one will find the author’s epilogue followed by three appendixes and finally the index. Appendix A is a table of all the challenges listed in order with related data, which is very useful to get a quick snap shot if one wishes to quickly scan for particular ones. Appendix B is a listing of “suggested further reading” by the author which includes publications, software and websites. The final Appendix C is a nice add-on of “100 challenging double stars” selected by the author to supplement the contents of the book.

More to the Point:

So exactly what kinda stuff are we talking about here? Well how about M81 with the naked eye? Phil doesn’t waste any time in throwing the gauntlet down, as he leads off with this supreme challenge that requires very dark and transparent skies as well as lots of observing experience and strong optical acuity. Though this is the very first challenge in the book, one shouldn’t look at that and simply toss the book aside because there are more reasonable challenges within each category. But do understand there are some real white knuckle ones there as well that make a poke in the eye with a sharp stick look awfully appealing!

Rest assured, there are indeed some stiff challenges and some may find themselves reaching for a bit more aperture than that prescribed in the text in order to conquer some of them. But there is also a good mix of easy, reasonable, difficult and downright hair pulling challenges laid out by the author within each section. I purposely chose four descriptors to sort of coincide with the authors four star rating system. Overall they run the gamut of deep-sky objects (and in some cases enhancements or features within them), solar system targets (planets, some of their moons, asteroids, features on the Earth’s moon), double and binary stars, stars with high proper motion. Phil does an excellent job of bringing to the table a wide variety of challenging targets to task all levels of observing skills, conditions, equipment and interests.

So, do you wish to tackle Pease 1, the planetary nebula within Messier 15 in your monster sized scope (15-inch+), or perhaps Einstein’s Cross or the gaggle of galaxies behind Messier 44? How about Messier 74 or the Veil Nebula with small binoculars? Wanna conquer NGC 6822 (Barnard’s Galaxy) or the quasar 3C 273 with a 3-to 5-inch scope? Have a hankering to split Sirius and its pup in your medium scope (6- to 9.25-inch), or maybe take a peek at the planetary Jonchkheere 320 in Orion? Did I hear you mention that you’d really love to observe some of the emission nebulae within Messier 101 or Messier 33 with your large scope (10- to 14-inch)? If Messier 81 is too much for you with the naked-eye, well how about counting the number of Pleiades (M44) that you can see without optical aid or spotting Messier 35 and/or Messier 41 with just your simple 1x6s?

Well, they’re all in there, plus a lot more. With a total of 188 challenges of all shapes, sizes and difficulties, there is indeed something for most everyone who likes to roll up their sleeves, dust off their optics and eyeballs, and get down to the hard core side of observing. But don’t say I didn’t warn you! So don’t go in thinking you will get them all within each category. Actually there is no shame in bumping up a notch or two in aperture if required. The main thing to remember here is to push, push, push and push some more. Make yourself do it and you might just be surprised how your skills have grown. I recognize that while it can be fun and addicting to push oneself, it can also be extremely frustrating at times. None of us like to fail. But turning those failures into lessons learned and finally victories is exponentially rewarding.

A very important facet to his individual challenge narratives is that the author provides excellent illustration. This is typically done by use of a chart showing the surrounding field, frequently with nearby patterns of stars noted that one can use as signposts to help locate the intended target. There are also field sketches included for a great number of the objects you are pursuing to give a frame of reference as to what you are looking for in the eyepiece. All in all, the author provides you with excellent tools and guidance in succinct and to the point articles for each challenge.

In Conclusion:

So there you have it. Phil’s book is not your typical observing guide. This one is geared to a unique sub-set of celestial objects that are hand selected to put one under the gun and make them work hard for the most part. While it is a bit of a niche subject matter, it is well written and illustrated to inspire and guide the observer to greater heights. While it is easy to languish within the same small group of objects night after night, it is through challenge that we grow and develop into the kind of observer that we are truly capable of becoming. Phil has provided us the platform to do just that. So I encourage those who are adventurous or even those that are curious to pick up the gauntlet that the author has thrown at our feet, and see where it leads you. With that in mind, I wish you good luck and hope you will enjoy the challenge of Cosmic Challenge.

Updated 11-22-2018 at 12:15 PM by KT4HX

Book Reviews - a personal observation
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