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Binoculars open up new worlds, 150,000 stars can be seen with a simple pair

Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

OGDEN, Utah (AP) -- It doesn't take a giant telescope and years of study to find your way through the maze of stars above.

Karen Pierce of Farmington says it can be done with a $25 pair of binoculars from Kmart and a children's book from the local library.

There are more than 3,000 stars visible with the naked eye, but that number jumps to 150,000 with a pair of 7-by-35 binoculars.

Pierce calls it ''binocular astronomy'' and credits 18th century comet-chaser Charles Messier with the definitive list. Messier, with a telescope weak even by 18th century standards, spent most of his life searching for comets and cataloguing objects that might throw future comet-watchers off the track.

These objects that resembled fuzzy, streaking comets were distant galaxies, nebulae and star clusters, and Messier's list is now used as a road map to some of the most beautiful objects in the sky.

Regarding them as little more than a nuisance to his aim of discovering comets, Messier didn't even bother to name them. He labeled them simply M1 through M110. And though most of the objects had been documented before, Messier's list remains a good starting place for beginning astronomers.

Nearly every object on Messier's list is visible through cheap binoculars on a moonless night away from city lights.

But without a guide, either human or literary, locating even the most basic celestial objects is next to impossible.

Pierce recommends ''Find the Constellations'' by H. A. Rey as a good starting point. The creator of the ''Curious George'' children's books, Rey introduces the constellations and their stars in his trademark style -- clear, informative and entertaining. Even after 12 years of serious stargazing, Pierce frequents the children's section to learn her stars.

''I'm still learning on a children's level. And I like to share what I learn on a simple level,'' she said.

Constellations are a good starting point for exploring the cosmos and can point observers to slightly less visible objects very beautiful in their own right.

For example, an easy way to find the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is to start with Cassiopeia.

In early August, find Cassiopeia, the big W, and follow its last leg two lengths to see with your naked eye an object 2.5 million light years away.

One of our galaxy's nearest neighbors, Andromeda is the most distant object visible without aid. Look through binoculars and its elliptical swirls come into delicate focus.

The Ring Nebula, an exploded star, M57, is another that can be seen with binoculars, if you know where to look. Again, it's easy if you know your constellations. Find Lyra in the eastern sky. Look directly between the two stars at the bottom of the parallelogram with binoculars, the small, fuzzy spot is the Ring Nebula.

But the more powerful the telescope, the more beautiful the sight. It takes magnification of about 100 times to see the inside of the ring and 500 times to see the star that dots its center.

The Ring Nebula is a star on its deathbed; the Lagoon Nebula, M8, is labor and delivery in what Hansen Planetarium Director Seth Jarvis calls ''downtown Milky Way,'' the thickest area of star-forming activity in our galaxy.

Sagittarius, the archer or teapot you'll see near the southern horizon at about 10 tonight, can point you to the Lagoon Nebula, 5,000 light years away from earth. The nebula is just above the teapot's spout.

To become familiar with the heavens, Pierce recommends starting small, and practicing often.

A member of the Ogden Astronomical Society, Pierce has been attending ''star parties'' with astronomers of various experience for 12 years. At first, she made it her goal to find one new star on each outing. The next time, she would find the old star and a new one. Quickly, her list grew.

''Everyone starts out as a beginner. They've all learned their stars one by one,'' she said.

Chloe Solaimanian, Sandy, made the trek to East Canyon State Park for the group's annual public star party after stumbling upon it last year. She made it despite having nearly all her belongings in boxes after a short move.

Solaimanian is still learning her stars, but with access to large telescopes and knowledgeable guides, star parties are a great opportunity to learn, she said.



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