GAZE AT THE STARS,
Amateur astronomy: Isn't that a hobby
devoted to looking at stuff in the sky? After a brief dip into the culture
of our hobby, you may start to wonder. The emphasis seems to be on the
quality of telescopes, optics, and accessories, and the potential price
tag zooms to an astronomical size. And heaven help you if you already have
a small, inexpensive telescope. What have you gotten yourself into?
Relax. You have finally found a kindred
soul, someone who enjoys looking at the sky, the largest public recreation
area anywhere. Despite what you may have heard, there is no entrance fee.
You may want to pick up some guidebooks and maps, and perhaps some viewing
aids, but you can buy these gradually and come back as often as you want.
Besides, you were born with the most important optical equipment you will
ever own. That's right, your eyes. With these wonderful devices, you have
the ability to see nearly 3 million light years into space. When you start
exploring the sky, I advise you to take them along. Regardless of what
other gear you have, you can start naked eye.
LEARNING YOUR WAY
Hello. I'm Wes Stone, Sky Ranger. Like I
said before, this is a big place. You could spend a whole lifetime here
and still not see everything. It's also easy to get lost. I'm too busy to
help every newbie who can't find M31, so I'd appreciate it if you spent
some time close to home, familiarizing yourself with the landmarks. Yep,
I'm talking about constellations here. A lot of people don't bother to
learn them. Sooner or later, though, I know they'll be calling on me to
drag them out of a rut. Take my advice and get a couple of pathfinders.
The Stars: A New Way to See Them is by H. A. Rey, the guy who wrote
the Curious George books. When you learn the constellations with the help
of this book, you will never forget them. It's sold through Sky
Publishing, but I always checked it out of my school library when I was a
kid. You'll also want a helpful little gizmo called a planisphere, to show
you which stars are up when.
The sky rewards the patient and persistent
watcher. It takes a while to get acquainted with the general order of
things. Every day, the stars rise four minutes earlier by our clocks, due
to the Earth's motion in its orbit around the Sun. The Moon goes from a
sliver in the evening to a Full Moon to a sliver in the morning, all in
the period of a month. Planets wander slowly along the ecliptic, their
motion evident over a few nights to careful watchers. Occasional meteors
dart here and there, and artificial satellites lumber steadily along in
their orbits. It's hard to believe that many amateur astronomers pay
little mind to these motions.
AN INFESTATION OF FLIES
IN THE OINTMENT
I'd like to tell you about some problems
we've been having up here. Just as non-native species have taken over many
ecosystems on Earth, there is an outside menace infringing on our views of
the night sky. I am talking about light pollution, and if you've ever
compared a city sky with a rural sky you know its effects. You can't see
as many stars in the city, you have a hard time seeing the Milky Way, and
the sky background is a washed-out pink, orange, or gray instead of a
beautiful black. Light pollution's effects are even worse for amateurs
hunting big game through telescopes. Fortunately, if you drive for an hour
or two in the right direction you can escape most of the skyglow. Try to
do this several times each month around New Moon, when the Moon isn't
adding its own natural light pollution to the mix. These excursions will
show you the sky as it used to look from just about anywhere.
Sky conditions, including weather and light pollution, will
dramatically affect what you see. So will the type of optical aid you're
using, if any. But there is one more important factor: experience! You
won't see as much when you're first starting out, but don't let this get
you down. It also means that every hour spent under the stars is valuable
and will eventually lead to you seeing more neat stuff than you ever
thought was possible.
THE BIG GAME HUNT: MORE
POWER TO THE OBSERVER
When you're ready to move on to viewing
with binoculars and/or a telescope, I'd like to refer you to
Skytour hypertext. I've got lots of pix and information on all
sorts of objects in there. For right now, here's a sampler of what you can
see when you combine your observing experience with an optical instrument.
||The Moon. The Moon has more detail to
offer than any other single object in the night sky. Even 7x
binoculars will start to reveal craters, and the view through a
telescope is stunning. As the Moon goes through its phases, sunrise
and sunset fall on different features, accentuating them with shadow
detail. At Full Moon, the shadows disappear, but we can see long
straight rays of impact ejecta from large craters like Tycho and
The Planets. Aside from the Moon there is one telescopic sight that is a
perpetual winner, and that is the planet Saturn. Small telescopes show a
tiny disk circled by a ring, and when I show this to first-time observers
they can hardly believe that it's real. As you gain experience and use
better instruments, it just gets better. Jupiter, too, stands out in a
small telescope. Its disk is crossed by two or more dark cloud belts, and
its four brightest moons can also be seen. Venus is brilliant and
impressive to the naked eye, but watch it over a period of months in a
small telescope and you will see it going though its Moonlike phases. The
rest of the planets are tougher nuts to crack. Mars is a dinky red dot
most of the time, but every two years we get close to it and have a chance
to see vague surface markings. Mercury goes through phases, just like
Venus, but stays close to the Sun. Uranus and Neptune are starlike points
that require effort just to find, but of course you'll want to see them.
Pluto is even fainter, out of reach of small telescopes but another object
you'll want to see someday.
||The Stars. If you've done your
reading, you won't be disappointed when you look at a star through a
telescope and it looks like, well, about like it looks to your naked
eye. That's the nature of stars. They're just too far away for us to
see any detail. Stars are most interesting for the company they keep.
One of the most enjoyable experiences is going out to a dark site on a
summer night and aiming a pair of binoculars at the Milky Way. It
dissolves into a multitude of faint stars and fuzzy patches and dark
areas of obscuring dust. Looking more closely at some stars, you may
find that they are double. Wondering what those fuzzy patches are?
Welcome to the world of deep-sky objects.
||Deep-Sky Objects. Some of the fuzzy
patches are loose, open star clusters. The Pleiades or Seven Sisters
is a very bright, nearby example of an open cluster. Others are
tightly packed, spherical globular clusters that can be hard to
resolve into stars without a good-sized telescope. Then there are the
gaseous nebulae like M42 in Orion's sword. Last, but by far the most
rather than the least, there are the galaxies. Under good conditions,
you can see the Andromeda Galaxy with your naked eye, and binoculars
will reveal many more of these island universes. Some are round, some
are elongated, and some are almost edge-on, but in small telescopes
structures like spiral arms and dust lanes remain elusive. Develop
your observing skills, and you will start to see them. Deep-sky
objects are hard-hit by light pollution, becoming unimpressive or
invisible in city skies or bright moonlight.
I hope you've enjoyed your first forays
into amateur astronomy. May your skies be clear and dark, and may you
always find what you're looking for.
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