The Joy of Seeing Stephen’s Quintet

Standing at the top of a tall ladder in the dark, I steadied myself as I peered into the eyepiece of an amateur 30” telescope. The four blobs I saw were the most distant objects in the universe that I’ve seen with my own eye. Three of the blobs were galaxies, the fourth consisted of two galaxies, so close that I couldn’t resolve them individually. The person holding the ladder yelled to me, “That’s Stephan’s Quintet.” I’ll never forget that night. It was exhilarating to view the compact galaxy group known to be the first of its kind identified by astronomers.

This was about 25 years ago at the Oregon Star Party in the Ochoco National Forest, a gathering of astronomy enthusiasts. Thanks to John Dobson, amateurs can afford to make their own portable reflector telescopes using his specifications. Indeed, the telescope through which I gazed was one such design.

When the first images of the Webb telescope were revealed to the public, I was ecstatic to see that Stephan’s Quintet was one of the objects in the line-up. It is glorious to see the detail in the image. The details will help astronomers piece together a better understanding of the universe. From an amateur astronomer’s perspective, however, there is nothing like the experience of seeing one of these deep-sky objects, no matter how fuzzy, with one’s own eyes. Try to get to a dark sky star party sometime!

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