From the November 2006 issue

Bob Berman’s strange universe: Playing favorites

November 2006: Bob names a few of his favorite objects in the sky.
By | Published: November 1, 2006 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Bob Berman
A star party is a festival of favorites. People look at their pet sky objects using their best eyepieces. After an hour, you conclude everyone has excellent taste: They like the same things you do. The universe may contain 125 billion galaxies, thousands of NGC targets, 109 Messier objects, and 8 observable planets, but dollars-to-donuts, we all will return to the same ones.

This is more than mere inertia. Countless comments from backyard astronomers throughout the decades, and outright votes at astronomy clubs since 2004, make it clear what our peers regard as the crème de la crème. See if you feel the same way.

This level of agreement often surprises raw beginners, who imagine experienced observers adore thousands of celestial objects more-or-less equally. Not so. In fact, let’s stop pretending we even like sparse open clusters like M36, when nice rich ones like M11 — and especially the globulars — beat them coming and going, backward and forward.

Start with some favorite naked-eye objects. In the favorite constellation category, the top two winners are Orion and Scorpius, in that order. Not Ursa Major, even though civilians name the Big Dipper ahead of everything else. Some of us say Sagittarius or Cygnus, while our friends Down Under often vote for Crux. A few serious amateurs choose something truly deviant like Gemini, for reasons only their therapists understand.

Let’s stop pretending we even like sparse open clusters like M36.
Favorite challenging naked-eye object: This probably depends on where you live. In Los Angeles, the Moon is sometimes hard to find, so you might pick M45 as a faint and elusive treasure, while those in the country would be more apt to say, “Seeing more than eight Pleiads.” So which is it? The naked-eye view of the Hercules globular? The Moon-size blob of galaxy M33? (Ya gotta have superb conditions for that.) The unnamed open cluster that surrounds Orion’s “belt” in black skies? Not enough votes in yet.

Naked-eye spectacle: Here, everyone picks either a total solar eclipse or an aurora.

Star name: Winning entries are usually Betelgeuse, Vega, or Arcturus. Contrarians go for esoteric ones like Zosma. Nobody ever picks poor Spica. What about hardest-to-pronounce? If you can say “biscuit mixer” 10 times, you’ll have no trouble pronouncing Vindemiatrix.

Favorite binocular target: Cowinners are the Pleiades (M45), the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and the Beehive Cluster (M44).

Telescopic nebula: Here there’s unanimity. You knew it. The Orion Nebula (M42).

Nebula using a filter: The envelope please. The winner: the Veil Nebula (NGC 6992–5) in Cygnus through an OIII filter.

Telescopic galaxy: Sorry, large apertures only. Two winners share the prize: The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) and NCG 4565 in Coma Berenices.

Double star: One winner alone: Albireo. We all love Albireo. Plus, it’s got your high-school colors — blue and gold.

Telescopic planet: Split decision. Some say Jupiter, others pick Saturn.

Lunar feature: In the mountain-range category, it’s the Apennines. In the crater category, it’s Copernicus. Tycho is famous, but doesn’t get a single vote.

Star cluster: Again, it’s unanimous. The Great Globular (M13) in Hercules. People who live in the far south pick Omega (ω) Centauri, and you can’t blame them.

Variable star: I love Lambda (λ) Tauri with its 1-magnitude metamorphosis and 4-day period. Here-today-gone-tomorrow Mira is a candidate, too. You’d think the popular vote would go to Delta (δ) Cephei, the famous Cepheid prototype, plus it’s circumpolar. But no, the crowds have spoken. The winner is Algol (Beta [β] Persei).

Let me add a few weirder categories that nobody’s yet voted on.

Favorite hemisphere: Although the Southern does have Crux, Omega Centauri, and a superior Milky Way, I’d pick Northern, thanks to its better-looking galaxies.

Most vividly colored star: We’d have to disqualify the blues because none is sufficiently saturated. And there’s not one green star in the heavens. We’re forced to pick a red. I’d give the honors to R Leporis or Mu (μ) Cephei through any telescope. Both are visible this month.

Strangest-colored star: Use medium power to check out the pastel companion to Cor Caroli in Canes Venatici. Have your friends vote on what color they see. Everyone says something different. Some say violet, some yellow. Weird.

Most-disappointing object through a telescope: I’d pick Mars.

Worst constellation: Should we say Leo Minor? Musca the Fly? There are a dozen equally pathetic candidates.

Space-choices are dynamic, just like the votes on those oldies radio stations. This isn’t the last word. Post your nominees on my web site, and we’ll keep a tally. Next year, maybe we’ll have new favorites and even weirder categories.