The heavens are full of beauty. I love the great globular clusters such as M13, M4, M91; colorful paired double stars such as Albireo; ghostly planetary nebulas such as M57 the Ring and M27 the Dumbbell; and expansive open clusters such as the Pleiades and the spectacular Double Cluster between Cassiopeia and Perseus. I love the way I, and every passerby I show it to, pull back astonished the first time they see Saturn in the telescope with its rings. Despite all these wonders, to which I return over and over on stargazing nights, one of the most exciting moments of observing was the first time I saw the Horsehead Nebula. Even in the dark skies of rural Newfoundland, it was too faint for my eyes unaided at the scope (a Celestron Edge HD 8”), but with my DSLR mounted on the scope, and pointing in the general direction of Orion’s belt and sword, it was clearly visible on the camera flip screen after a 30-second exposure. I shot many frames that night, and stacked them later on the computer with Deep Sky Stacker (how exciting to use tools similar to those developed for the Hubble Space Telescope), so the final image is much brighter and more detailed, but no more exciting than that first view out in the field beside the farmhouse. My fascination with the Horsehead Nebula stemmed from my teenage years and reading Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novel, The Stars Like Dust, in which the Horsehead features as a plot element. The novel is set in the far future when the origins of many astronomical names have been lost, and the hero speculates that it might be named after a “Horace Hedd”. Someone else says it supposedly looks like a horse from earth, but the theory can’t be confirmed as no one by then knows what a horse looks like! No spoilers, but in the end democracy will prevail over the dictatorial Tyrrani. It’s decades since I first read the book (which also includes a fairly intense kiss, or at least intense to a teenager and in the 1970s), and seeing the Horsehead myself, even on the camera screen, was thrilling and a definite item checked on the bucket list.
- Mark Samuels, 2020