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The Herschel Objects and How to Observe Them (Astronomers' Observing Guides)

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Many active amateur astronomers today, having already surveyed the clusters, nebulae, and galaxies contained in the popular Messier and Caldwell catalogs, are seeking new horizons to explore with their telescopes. None better can possibly be found than those discoveries made by the great English astronomer Sir William Herschel in the late 1700s to early 1800s. But rather than just over a hundred objects found in each of the former two listings, Herschel’s catalog contains some 2,500 entries. This sheer number of targets has discouraged most observers – however avid they may be about deep-sky observing – from attempting to explore these unsung wonders.

In a letter in the April, 1976, issue of Sky & Telescope magazine the author suggested a way to make Herschel’s list more attractive to observers. His discoveries were arranged into eight Classes, designated I to VIII (see Chapter 3). Of these, 1,893 lie in Classes II and III – his faint and very faint nebulae. Dropping these and taking only those entries in the remaining classes as a working list results in 615 objects – a much more manageable and realistic number of targets to view. This letter was followed by a full-length article on this concept in the January, 1978, issue of Astronomy magazine and (much later) another one in Sky & Telescope for September, 1992. As a result of these published pieces, observation of the Herschel objects began to grow in popularity among the stargazing community, and acting upon the author’s suggestion an actual Herschel Club was started by the Ancient City Astronomy Club in St. Augustine, Florida. This local effort was eventually adopted on a national level by the Astronomical League, a federation of most of the astronomy clubs in the United States. (See Appendix 1 for more about this and other Herschel Clubs, including a short-lived one dating back to 1958.) Unfortunately, the target list adopted by these organizations contains a total of only 400 entries rather than the full 615 that I had recommended (although some of its founding members are now going after the entire Herschel catalog). Among them are many objects of Classes II and III – which are for the most part anything but exciting at the eyepiece – while a number of real Herschel showpieces are overlooked.
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