Backyard Astronomy: Go outside and look up!

This is part of a continuing series on backyard astronomy. While there is no set frequency on the posts, you can find them (and the initial introduction) here.

I remember like it was yesterday when I saw the Milky Way for the first time. My dad and I were camping, and as we sometimes did, we camped with only the stars as our tent and the granite Sierras as our floor. Looking up, far from city lights, I observed a multitude of stars strewn across the night sky, taking my breath away. Then, over in one section of the dark expanse of the universe I saw it:a band of faint but certainly discernible light touched by darker splotches, both extending across the night sky, almost as if someone had taken a cosmic milk bottle and spilled it on the canvas of the cosmos.

800px-ESO-VLT-Laser-phot-33a-07

Image of the night sky above Paranal on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky. A wide band of stars and dust clouds, spanning more than 100 degrees on the sky, is seen. This is the Milky Way, the Galaxy we belong to. At the centre of the image, two bright objects are visible. The brightest is the planet Jupiter, while the other is the star Antares. By ESO/Y. Beletsky [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Astronomy does not start with expensive telescopes or fancy software. As I used to tell my English students, the best way to get started in one’s journey with the stars is to get away from the lights and look up. Only by using your own two eyes, unaided by any equipment, can you get a true idea of the sheer immensity of the universe. Well, you may not even get a true idea, but you might get an inkling!

So what happens if someone comes to me and says they are interested in studying astronomy? Here is what I would tell them:

  • First, shelf the plans for buying a telescope. You won’t need it for at least a year, although a good pair of binoculars will come into the picture before then.
  • Second, buy a planisphere. These hand-held charts are portable and should be part of the toolkit for any budding astronomer. Find a size that suits you, and make sure it corresponds to your viewing area! Case in point: when I travel to Mexico for language immersion this summer, I need a different planisphere than if I were back at the seminary in Oregon. The planisphere will help you to identify many common objects in the night sky and help you to grow more comfortable in navigating the cosmos.
  • Third, find a small flashlight and cover it with red transparent film. This will help your eyes stay adjusted, as it can take up to 30 minutes for our eyes to grow accustomed to the dark skies. One stray beam of unfiltered light can hamper, or even restart, that process. Use it to view the planisphere, or write in your journal (more on that in a later post).
  • Fourth: Find a comfortable viewing area that gives you a wide-open view if the sky, unhampered by trees AND city lights. Bring some snack and water too, and if it’s winter, don’t forget to dress warmly! If you want to stay off the ground, bring a reclining lawn chair or something similar; the idea is to stay comfortably while you look up for extended periods of time. The light issue is something that is increasingly difficult to overcome as urban sprawl and development continues unabated. Many of my students had never even been stargazing, much less seen the Milky Way!
  • Contact a local astronomy club! Even if you don’t plan on joining the club’s viewing parties, their websites often include tips for local viewing, even providing directions to particularly lucrative observation locations.
  • Finally, share it with someone! Whether it is the local astronomy club as mentioned above, a close friend, significant other, or even an online community, amateur astronomy can bring a lifetime of enjoyment, and what better way to experience the fullness of that enjoyment than by sharing it with like-minded individuals? When we share our experiences, we not only can help teach others, but we can gain new insights ourselves.

Notice how I made no mention of apps or other software. For now, stay away from them, at least while you are actually outside observing! For your first few trips, grow familiar with the night sky by just using the planisphere, rather than relying on technology. When you move on to binoculars or telescopes, it will make your viewing much easier and more enjoyable. I am not saying to never use star-finder apps, just don’t use them yet And by all means, use the internet for research before heading out. If you do end up using a phone app, however, make sure it has a a “red filter” mode or something similar, so as not to disrupt your night vision, and turn off any automatic lock screens and timers that will cause your phone to exit the app, again, for the same reason. See how much simpler it would be without the technology, at least when you are getting started?

There you have it: 6 steps to taking your first foray into night-sky viewing and amateur astronomy; next I will talk a bit about equipment. If you have any questions, comments, or anything to add, let me know. Until then, keep looking up!

Pax.

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