Last night I went in search of hidden treasures of a totally different kind—treasures hidden in the stars. I went up to Ridgecrest with the guys from the astronomy club. I hadn't been out with my telescope since September and the warm days we have been having with no clouds or fog made the prospects good for a perfect evening of stargazing. Actually, we ended up at Del Mar High School which is nearby because the folks at Ridgecrest have added a new lock to the gate and no one had the key. Quite a few visitors managed to find us anyway and there was a continuous stream of people coming to have a look through our scopes.
It had been so long since I used my scope that I almost forgot how. I did forget to bring my binoculars which I use to find my bearings in the sky, but after a failed first attempt at alignment, I was off and running with no further problems the rest of the night. When I go out, I make a list of things that I want to see and when I have exhausted the list, I go hunting. I am much more familiar with the summer sky (I wonder why?) than the winter sky. Orion is there in the winter, of course, and the Orion Nebula is always a spectacular sight to view with any scope or even just binoculars. But I decided to concentrate on other wonders "hidden" in Orion.
A few months ago, I purchased James O'Meara's Hidden Treasures, published by Cambridge University Press. It's a sequel to his Deep-sky Companion books on the Messier objects and selected items from the Caldwell catalog. His idea was to write a book about other interesting things to look at with a small telescope that are not on either of these two more popular lists.
The focus of my attention last night was Hidden Treasure No. 34 (NGC 2024, known by many names including the Flame Nebula) and the area around Alnitak, one of the stars in Orion's belt. (The famous Orion Nebula is the second star of his sword.) This area includes several interesting things to look at. First of all, there is Alnitak itself which actually is a tight double star with a third companion, then there is NGC 2023 as well as 2024, IC 431, 432, 435, and 434 which contains the famous Horsehead Nebula. Just slightly below Alnitak is Sigma Orionis, another multiple star. I had trouble seeing the nebulosity in this area due to the glow of city lights and did not see the Horsehead, but still enjoyed getting to know this part of the night sky. Click on the links to see some spectacular photos of these nebulas and you'll see why I went in search of them.
My "hunting" brought me to M36, 37 and 38. These are three open clusters in the constellation Auriga. At first I couldn't tell which one I had, but finally found all three after carefully examining their structure. I take notes as I observe and try to draw a picture of what I see in the scope. This can be a very tricky thing to do when you have a cluster of hundreds of stars, not to mention trying to draw by the light from a small red flashlight. Nebulas are also very hard to depict. I need to get myself better drawing tools. But someone commented that you really haven't observed something until you have tried to draw a picture of it.