As a beginning observer, once you find a object – a particular double star, a compelling open cluster, a nebula, or even a galaxy – you will want to come back to it. This is in fact a great way to hone your observing skills, and to really get a feeling for how the sky “rotates overhead” during the night and through the seasons.
We’ve all been told that the more senses we involve in the learning of something, the more we remember about it. Seeing something with your own eyes, reading about it, writing about it, and telling someone about it all improve our sense of it and our brains pay more attention to what we are sending it.
This is why, even for the first-time observer, I can’t over-emphasize the importance of logging what you observe, whether you are looking through binoculars, a telescope, or even naked eye stargazing. It might seem obvious to write down what you saw, how it looked to you, what eyepiece you were using, the weather conditions, etc. But also consider logging your feelings, the time and place, who you were with… any of these or the barest of these. The key is to write something down, even if it is just the name of what your saw or the next morning all you will remember is that you saw some pretty things!
When leading a class, my school children were told to write down the names of the objects they found and perhaps draw a picture of what they looked like. They loved it. All astro-minded persons I know (from the amateurs to the pros) keep logs of their observations.
So, what are should you write down? If you are observing with the naked eye, common things to note are the name of the object, the constellation it is located in, and the date and time. You should save a few details about the weather (were there clouds?) and the location. How dark was it and how bright was the moon? If you are using any kind of instrument, even if your equipment is very limited, you should record all of the above and some details about your setup. With telescopes some of the important fundamentals are the make and model, the type and size of the main aperture, and the eyepiece you used. If you are using binoculars, record the make and model and the dimensions (such as 7×50). More details can be added as one desires. As you gain more experience, learn new things, and upgrade your equipment these notes will be a very welcome resource to go back to again and again.
One of the most interesting- and fun- ways I have found to record my observations is to draw what things looked like to me. The BONUS I discovered is that it actually helps me see MORE than any other way of seeing. I consider drawing to be an enhancement of my night vision. By looking carefully at where you see a brighter place than the velvet black you scan every “pixel” area to decide if your pencil makes a mark there or not.
I know what you are thinking: you are not an artist, but certainly you can make dots and smudges, right? Start with a simple circle to represent what you see through the eyepiece (or the area of the sky if you are doing naked-eye). An important tip is to use a pencil. So many objects in the night sky have some fuzziness or nebulosity that you can, very impressively, recreate by drawing what you see and smudging it with your finger.
Now of course my pencil marks are a negative translation of what I SEE, but my brain doesn’t mind that translation at all. Where I see nothing, my paper remains white. Where I see something, my pencil records that even if it is a dot or a smudge. A hazy area around a bright star translates to a galaxy with a bright central core.
One of my beginning drawings of Andromeda surprised me when I finished. I looked at it and was shocked to see more detail than I remembered in my earlier impressions. That was at Point Supreme in UT on a clear night in August 1988. A year later in Joshua Tree using my 10-inch Dobsonian and 9mm Nagler eyepiece again, I sat down to draw M33 and discovered that I actually could see spiral arms I couldn’t detect before.
On a cold, very cold night in Saunders Meadow CA, my 10” Dob gave me a beautiful view of M82, one of my favorite galaxies. I tried it again the next month at our old star party site near Victorville using “Mira”, a 32” Dobsnian our club owned. It set my heart a-shiver as I had the chance to sit with such a great scope for an hour seeking out the bright-vs-not bright spots to do a drawing. In the morning, as we had breakfast at Denny’s someone broke out a magazine with a just published photo of M82. I took out my drawing and Holy Smoke! I had detail in my drawing that was no mistaken smudge. Later I took my drawing of M82 (and the others mentioned) and put them into a photo app that turns your photo into a negative. I will never forget the thrill of seeing that my drawing is definitely what it looked like!