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Explore nearby deep-sky gems

Interested in observing a red dwarf, supernova remnant, or galaxy cluster? We’ve got you covered.
The deep-sky observer’s neighborhood is kind of like yours. You know the house, grocery store, movie theater, beach, and mountain closest to your home. Deep-sky observers know the closest stars, nebulae, clusters, and galaxies in their solar neighborhood. But travelers can’t drive to visit these objects; instead, the light comes to them. Some are visible to the naked eye, others require binoculars, and a few necessitate a telescope — though none requires large optics.

You might think the closest deep-sky objects are distributed randomly across the sky, but that’s not the case. They are scattered in right ascension — some are “up” at any given time of the year. But oddly enough, there is a strong bias in declination. Of the nearest celestial objects featured here (see table on page 46), only two — the Hyades cluster and Andromeda — are north of the celestial equator. Three on the list — a red dwarf star, a multiple star, and a supernova remnant — are deep in the southern sky, beyond the range of U.S. observers. For those, the selection chooses the nearest suitable targets for mid-northern latitude observers. The remainder lie slightly south of the celestial equator.

Right: Palomar Observatory Sky Survey; Left: Anthony Ayiomamitis

Red dwarf: Barnard’s Star (6 light-years)

Note the red dwarf’s change in position between 1950 (right) and 2010 (left).

The most common stars in the Milky Way are not visible to the naked eye. Red dwarfs are inherently dim, and only those located near us are bright enough to be seen through the typical hobbyist telescope. The closest is Proxima Centauri, just 4.2 light-years from Earth. At 11th magnitude, it is 100 times fainter than the naked eye can see. It is also deep in the southern sky, below the horizon for most U.S. observers.

The next closest red dwarf, at 6 light-years away, is Barnard’s Star, discovered by Edward Emerson Barnard in 1916. It has the distinction of being the fastest star (known as “proper motion”) in the sky relative to the Sun. Since Barnard’s Star was discovered, it has moved 17.7'. That’s slightly more than half the Moon’s apparent diameter. That may not sound like much, but compared to the other stars, it’s haulin’ hydrogen!

Observing tip: Use a star chart to pick this 9.5-magnitude star out of a rich star field.

If you like creating themed observing lists, this is a place to start. Use the next cloudy night as an opportunity to research other targets. What is the closest red giant? The nearest O-type star? Dark nebula? Peculiar galaxy? Dwarf elliptical? Your choices are vast because the universe has incredible diversity with options for every observer — from those using their naked eyes to those viewing through behemoth telescopes. Start with the objects in this list, and then take it to the next level.
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