Monday, January 18, 2016

Another one of my interests: Astronomy

I made this. Really. Well, the picture...not the Moon.
After reading some - or all - of my previous posts, one may come to the conclusion that I only like rockets. And complaining. OK, fair enough - I guess I *do* like both (especially complaining), but that's not all - I also have quite the fondness for astronomy. In fact, the 'astronomy bug' bit me almost as early as the 'rocket bug'.

Considering the speed with which I succumbed to the "fever", I must've been highly susceptible to their infection...and, quite honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. If one has to be bitten by something that molds their life and interests, why not something so basic - and exciting -  as exploration?

However, just as with my experience with rockets/spaceflight, my interest in astronomy did wane for a while. Must've been a time in my life when happiness was difficult to come by...and if I wanted to pay a bajillion dollars for a shrink to figure it out, I'm sure they could nail down the cause. However, since I didn't win the lottery...I'll choose to look forward rather than to the past.

My first telescope was a gift from my parents: a 60mm Bushnell refractor. It was mounted on a simple tripod, with basic alt-azimuth (up/down - left/right) controls, and had a couple of eyepieces. Though not the best telescope, and I quickly outgrew it, it's what helped foster my interest in looking at the heavens.

If my first telescope was a bicycle with training wheels, my second was a 3/4 ton truck with a manual transmission. A gentleman in my local astronomy club was selling one of his telescopes: a huge 8" Newtonian reflector on a German equatorial pier mount. Being a gainfully-employed, and very naive, teenager, I jumped at the chance to get this beast. Unfortunately, my skills and knowledge weren't nearly up to the task of making use of even a little bit of this scope's capabilities, so it sat - more often than not - in my room as a piece of decoration. A very large piece of decoration.

Rather than let it continue to languish, I sold it to someone else in the club when I went off to college. Better to let someone else love it rather than have it gather dust. And thus started my 'Astronomy Dark Ages'. I was still interested in the night sky, and I followed news and discoveries with great interest, but I was now a sidelined observer rather than actively participating.

Fast-forward about twenty years, and I began to feel the urge to get another telescope. We happened to be in a store that had their scopes on sale, so I snagged a Meade 114mm computerized reflector for a hair over $200. It's not the best scope...but at that price, from a brand like Meade, well...I couldn't pass it up. Unfortunately, living in metro Atlanta, light pollution here is a huge issue, so the scope didn't get used as much as I would've liked. After a couple seasons of taking it out to look at the Moon...and Jupiter...and Saturn...and the Orion Nebula...well, it kinda sat unused for a while. Until today.

I've taken it out of storage, dusted it off, and cleaned the cobwebs out from the tube. Now to get some batteries and hope the tracking motor isn't as bad as I remember it (I hope I was just doing a poor job of aligning it). Next clear night, I plan to take it out to reacquaint myself with the wonders of the night sky. Until then, I'm relegated to taking pics of the moon (like the one above) with my DSLR.

How do I get started? Is it expensive?
As with any hobby, astronomy can be as cheap - or as expensive - as one wants it to be. In fact, all that is required is the Mk I Eyeball. That's it. Just look up at the stars. Take it all in. Get to know the sky in your part of the world (yes - the sky can look markedly different depending on where one is located). Read online content about naked eye observations, and learn the major constellations. All of this can be had for the low, low price of 'time'.

Once you feel you're ready to progress beyond simple stargazing, you may feel the pull to get a telescope. There's nothing wrong with that...but BEWARE the siren's call of 600x zoom telescopes (and the like) from the big box retailers. If the seller's key metric is the zoom power of the telescope, away.

Also, you might want to first decide what type of astronomical viewing you want to do, and let that influence what type of telescope to consider. Though all telescopes do basically the same thing - gather the light from a distant object, magnify it, and direct it to your eye - some perform better at certain tasks than do others. If you're going to only be looking at bright objects, such as the Moon...Jupiter...Saturn...etc., then a simple (but decent) refractor may be all you ever need (especially if you live in a heavily light-polluted area). Are you more interested in faint, deep-sky objects? Then you might want to invest in a "light bucket" - a.k.a., Newtonian reflector. How about a 'jack of all trades' (but kinda pricey) scope? Then a catadioptric scope (like a Schmidt-Cassegrain scope) may fit the bill. Also, you may already have something handy to extend your stargazing just a bit: binoculars. Even simple 7x35 binocs can give one an entirely new view of the night sky.

If it's still a bit murky, which is entirely understandable, I would recommend you seek out a local astronomy club to see what they have. Talk to the club members, get their advice, and take a look through their eyepieces. From my time belonging to an astronomy club in my hometown, I can readily testify that there's almost nothing more enjoyable to amateur astronomers than to share with others.

The fine people over at TMRO have produced a set of videos (Space Pods) explaining the differences (and a bit of history) between the three types of telescopes mentioned above: