Stargazing: Training your eyes and heart to see, Part 1

After Christmas, I always get a few calls from people who either can’t figure out how to use their new computer-controlled telescope or are disappointed in the views they are getting.

For the first problem, I’d recommend joining the Columbus Astronomical Society. They specialize in teaching newbies the ins and outs of their telescopes.

The second problem is more difficult. Amateur astronomy has a long and sometimes steep learning curve.

As with any worthy endeavor, it takes time to become a proficient stargazer. Even the smallest telescopes and binoculars are spaceships to other worlds, but you have to learn how to run the controls.

Most of all, you have to train your eyes and heart to see. Your initial views of star clusters and galaxies are inevitably disappointing. They look at first like balls of lint. Where are all the details visible in those long-exposure photographs that fill the pages of the coffee-table astronomy book you got for Christmas or appear daily on Astronomy Picture of the Day on the Internet?

The details are there, oh ye frustrated stargazers. The longer you look, the more you will see. Your eye will never match the images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. However, the direct experience of the sky and all the wonder contained there is far more emotionally and intellectually satisfying than simply flipping through a book or surfing the Web.

A case in point is the star cluster designated as M35 in the Messier Catalog of deep-sky objects.

A deep-sky object is anything outside our solar system. The catalogs of these astronomical splendors tend to include everything that isn’t a star and appears at first as a fuzzy patch in astronomical instruments of small size.

M35 is easy to find and makes a great introduction to this “harder” class of telescopic objects. Of course, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by coming to on of our wintertime programs at Perkins Observatory. You can also use that fancy “go to” computers attached these days to many telescopes.

Or you can do what humans have done throughout most of their history. You can learn the sky and gain the simple but profound pleasure of cosmic familiarity. The nighttime sky is also beautiful beyond measure, especially if you see it from a dark, rural locale far from city lights and know it well enough to identify a few constellations.

Of course, you’ll need a decent star map, many of which are available as apps for your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. You can also break down and go online or, even better, to a bookstore (remember those?) and buy one on paper (remember paper?). Grab an inexpensive red LED flashlight so you don’t ruin your night vision, and off you go.

Just after dark, look for the constellation Gemini high in the south. You’ll see two bright stars, called Castor and Pollux, of equal brightness huddled fairly close together. Two parallel strings of bright stars extend to the south from Castor and Pollux. Follow the upper string and hang a left.

In binoculars, you will see a smallish, round blob of light. You’ve found M35.

Don’t look away. Try to catch the light patch out of the corner of your eye, a technique stargazers call “averted vision.”

Look just to the side of it, and view the light with your peripheral vision. After a time, the light will look lumpy, with patches a little brighter than the rest. The blob is now a structured blob.

Now turn to your telescope. Even in a small instrument, the blob will resolve into a few bright stars caught in an unresolved haze, especially if you use your averted vision.

You see so little because your brain is drawn to what is most easily seen. You must trick your mind to see more.

Use your peripheral vision again. Slowly, you will see more and more stars as your eye trains itself to see what’s really there. Eventually, you will see at many as 50 stars surrounded by the haze of hundreds of unresolved stars that fill the spaces among the brighter points.

But don’t stop there. You have learned to see, but the process has just begun. Next week, we’ll examine some of the individual stars in the cluster and see what we can find out about them by consulting books and the Internet.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.