The WAS 25, 20 & 50 Projects
These are observing projects to encourage members in making and recording observations of selected astronomical objects either using binoculars (the WAS 25 Project) or using a telescope (the WAS 20 Project and the more challenging WAS 50 Project). The numbers in these titles indicate the number of observations required in each project. Of course non-members visiting our site are welcome to embark on these projects; however, only members of the Wycombe Astronomical Society can submit their observations to an assessor within the Society and, if satisfactory, receive a certificate to reward their endeavours.
There is little formal input provided to you, other than the lists of objects set out and a few viewing tips – these are essentially self-teaching projects allowing you to learn at your own pace using resources such as books (e.g. the Society’s library), web sites and software utilities; and of course the friendly, yet formidable, knowledge and help from the experienced astronomers in the Society.
1. What are the WAS 25 and the WAS 20 & 50 Projects?
The objects to find
The WAS 25 Binocular Project has been devised for either new or younger members wishing to explore whether astronomy is for them, and whether they enjoy it sufficiently to invest in the purchase of a telescope. Even a pair of opera glasses will provide a better view of the heavens than the naked eye, though the magnifications offered (typically x3) are really insufficient for astronomy. Magnifications of x25 are available but at this level binoculars are quite big and heavy (thus difficult to hold for extended periods) or require a tripod or mount (since hand shake becomes a problem); and the field of view is also reduced making large astronomical objects difficult to observe. A good compromise, as general guidance, is a pair of 10x50's. Even better are image-stabilised binoculars (e.g. the 12x36 model from Canon) but you do pay for this luxury and could buy a pretty decent telescope for the same money!
In terms of telescopes, a modest 60mm (2½ inch) refractor or a 90 mm (3½ inch) reflector will enable all the objects to be seen, and of course the Society's 280 mm (11 inch) Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope is available to all members. A good steady mount is the key to successful observing. And it is perfectly acceptable to use a computerised GoTo mount when tackling the telescope projects
2. Equipment required
Types of object one can see. The WAS 25 Binocular Project features solar system objects (the Moon, the major planets and their moons, even the Sun), stars, constellations, double stars open clusters and asterisms. The two telescope projects, WAS 20 and WAS 50, feature in addition galaxies, nebulae and globular clusters.
How to observe the Sun safely. WARNING! Do not use binoculars (or a telescope for that matter) to observe the Sun directly – to do so will make you completely blind and may also damage your instrument. Those doing the WAS 25 Binocular project will use either the back-projection method or use special solar filters on their instrument. Before attempting to observe the Sun, check with an experienced astronomer (for example the Society’s Observatory Officer) to ensure you know exactly how to observe the Sun safely.
How to navigate around the sky. This you will do using charts and by star-hopping, or using a GoTo telescope.
How to record your observations. There are no hard and fast rules here, though some guidance on this is given below.
Appreciation of the differing sizes of objects. Some objects, for example the Double Cluster or M45 occupy a lot of sky! Other objects, say ε-Lyra, will need very high magnification .... and good seeing!
How to observe and navigate round the Moon. You will learn about the Moon’s phases and appreciate the implications this has for observing the various features of it. The monthly orbit of the Moon has profound implications regarding the times of the day you can see it and the appearance (or even visibility) of some of the objects you must find.
The diurnal and seasonal nature of the heavens. Not all the objects can be seen all the year round or at all times of the night/day – M42 for example, is best viewed in the winter months, β-Cygnus in the summer, though these are by no means hard and fast rules. And, of course, the planets have minds of their own when it comes to putting in an appearance! (Mercury, by the way, is by far the toughest target in these projects– any opportunity you get to view Mercury, grab it!). It is clear to see that these projects may take some months to complete!
Alternative observing sites and extra objects. It is not intended to make these projects impossible. Whilst most objects should be visible from your own home location, for some objects you may need to visit a darker site, a site with a clear view in a particular direction or visit the Society's observatory location, where you can obtain assistance in finding any particularly difficult subjects and perhaps try other members’ instruments that are available at the time. But just in case there is some difficulty, (say Mars won’t put in appearance for six months or there is bad weather at a critical time of the year) you don’t need to keep everything on hold; there are a number of extra objects to select from.
Classification systems. You will need to get your head round M things (Messier objects), and the NGC and Caldwell objects. The α, β, γ, δ, ε notation for the individual stars in constellations (and their trivial names) will soon make sense to you.
Resources. You will learn which are the best books, websites and software utilities for astronomy – and who are the most helpful and knowledgeable people in the Society who can assist you! These resources will tell you about the features on the Moon and where to find them, and when (and where) all the other WAS Project objects will be visible. Those tackling the WAS-50 Project may find the Society’s finder charts and field of view sheets helpful though these have perhaps been superseded by more modern aids.
3. WHAT WILL YOU LEARN?
In short, whichever project you undertake, you will become a pretty good amateur astronomer! More specifically you will learn the following:
Your task is to demonstrate to an assessor that you have indeed observed the objects in the lists. There are no hard and fast rules about what to record, or how. Notes and sketches are the most common methods, but some successful WAS 50 candidates have photographed all the objects!
You may find using the Observation Log sheet below a useful, consistent and reasonably comprehensive approach way of recording what you have seen.
Link to WAS Observation Log Sheet
Most of the information suggested is pretty obvious (and easy – like the date and time!) and you don’t have to be overly rigorous – rough estimates of the direction you were looking and the angle upwards you needed to point your instrument, are fine. The description of the object will allow you to amplify what your sketch includes – such things might include:
● how you located the object (e.g. for ζ-Ursa Major “second star in from the handle of The Plough”; for the Double Cluster “followed the line from Ruchbah through γ-Cassiopeia about double the distance”);
● the seeing/clouds/weather;
● the colours of objects (particularly the planets and double stars);
● the need or otherwise for averted vision;
● the position, phase and brightness of the Moon when you were observing.
When describing the instrument you used, be sure to mention which eyepiece/filter/barlow/focal reducer you used as well as which instrument. If you are sketching, it doesn’t need to come up to Leonardo’s standards!– but you do owe it to your assessor to show you have made a good stab at it. For example M45 has between fifty and hundred stars in it – at least make a reasonable go at the main six!
5. RECORDING GUIDANCE
Environmental factors contributing to successful observing. You will learn to avoid (or live with!) light pollution, the cold, variable seeing and dew, and will have an appreciation of what it takes to find a good viewing location.
Binocular users will understand:
● the magnification and field-of-view capabilities of their instrument
● how to focus and hold binoculars properly
● how to observe comfortably.
Telescope users will learn considerably more:
● How to assemble a scope either in Alt-Az or Equatorial mode.
● How to use a finderscope.
● How to align a scope and, for equatorial mounts, how to polar align a scope.
● How to find objects with or without GoTo.
● Use of different eyepieces, Barlow lens and Focal Reducer.
● Use of filters, both coloured, narrow band and city light suppression filters.
● Use of a wider field-of-view scope for larger objects.
● Control of a scope with GoTo capabilities or using other software (e.g. Carte du Ciel).
● The importance of good collimation.
● Use of Hartman or Bahtinov Masks for focussing.
● How to operate a DSLR camera, a webcam or a CCD camera.
● Use of software to stack images and process video images.
● Digital image calibration and image processing.
● how to guide a telescope.
Astrophotographers will learn yet more:
● Allow your eyes to dark-adapt before viewing. The fitter you are, the more rested you are (and the less inebriated you are!), The quicker your eyes will adapt. A red head-light is a very useful accessory to prevent you bumping into things, and finding your bits and pieces like eyepieces, notebook etc.
● Binocular viewers need to be steady. Support your hands, elbows and arms on any object nearby that is suitable for viewing the height of the object you have selected. Alternatively, keep your hands against your body to assist in steadying your binocular view. Try using an adjustable lounger type garden chair as a means of avoiding neck strain.
● So, be comfortable. Use a chair even at the telescope if you can.
● Telescope users should not to touch the telescope while observing since that will cause vibrations that will spoil your view. That said, if you are not sure whether some faint detail or object is real, you can jiggle the telescope ever so slightly to set the sky in motion – the eye is better at detecting tiny moving objects than stationary ones.
● It is often useful to use averted vision by looking to the edge of the eyepiece and therefore seeing the object using the (more sensitive) outer parts of your eye.
● Some astronomers use hyperventilating (quick heavy breathing) to oxygenate their bodies, thereby increasing the sensitivity of their vision. (On the other hand, if you are in the company of another observer, this may be misinterpreted!)
● Try holding your breath for a short while which can help steady the view.
● Use a dew shield or electric dew heater if the night is damp.
● Use low power eyepieces initially on an object, then move up to higher magnification once you have found the object. Be aware that using too high a magnification often reduces what you can see.
● Minimise light pollution by turning your back against it and using any form of screening, e.g. trees and garden sheds. Avoid viewing low down objects over houses since air currents may blur your view.
● Understand the field of view of your instrument. This will help you to know exactly where you are looking, particularly if you are trying to find an object by referencing a star map.
● Be warm by making sure you are suitably clothed and have suitable footwear on. The nights can change quickly in temperature and humidity.