Astronomy can be a difficult hobby if you’re a beginner. You’ll need to choose from a vast array of sometimes-expensive equipment, the skies are spoiled by outside lighting, and many of the objects you see in telescopes look like faint smears of light. Beginners need help from more experienced amateur astronomers like you might find in your local astronomy club or at places like Perkins Observatory.
Sadly, I tried to go it alone. My own experiences with my first, rickety homemade scope were pretty awful. After some struggle, I was finally able to find the Andromeda Galaxy, a whirling island universe, a pinwheel of 300 billion stars.
Admittedly, it didn’t look like much from my backyard. I was observing underneath one of those back-alley streetlights that are so common in Clintonville.
Even so, I was excited. I had found the Andromeda Galaxy. All by myself. It looked like a smudge, but there it was.
I ran into the house and dragged my wife into the backyard. I probably should have told her what I wanted before we got outside.
“What is it! What is it?” she said with alarm.
“Looky, looky, looky,” I panted, pointing at the scope.
She looked. “Oh, a smudge,” she said flatly.
My jaw dropped. “But it’s the Andromeda Galaxy, a whirling island universe, a pinwheel of 300 billion stars!!”
“Yes, dear,” she said. “It’s a very nice smudge.”
There are a couple of lessons to be learned from this experience. The first is never to drink 12 cups of coffee before you go stargazing.
The second is not to expect too much of yourself and others. Objects like galaxies are incredibly far away, and dim.
To appreciate them, you have to train your eye to ferret out faint detail – what experienced stargazers call “learning to see.”
At first, look at objects you know you’ll be able to see even without a telescope. They will look even better in your ‘scope, and they’re easy to find. The moon and planets like Jupiter and Saturn fall into this category.
Take a good, long look. You’ll be surprised at the detail that begins to appear after you’ve stared at an object for a while. The dark bands on Jupiter begin to resolve into oval storms and swirling clouds. Divisions begin to appear in the rings of Saturn.
Not all of these details are real, however. When you start to canals on Mars or Martians waving at you on Mars, it’s time to get some sleep.
For faraway objects like the Andromeda Galaxy, you’ll need some special techniques.
1. Look at photos of the objects you are planning to observe. That way you can impress your observing partners by pretending to see features that really aren’t visible in the scope. Ha, just kidding. Seriously, if you know a detail is there, you’ll know exactly what to look for, and often you’ll see things that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
2. Protect your night vision. You’ll see a lot more once your eyes have gotten fully adapted to the dark. Often, that takes over an hour, so think twice before you use a flashlight to look at a star map.
Experienced stargazers wrap a piece of red cloth around the front of their flashlights. (My wife still occasionally asks, “Honey do you know whatever became of my red silk blouse?”) Red light doesn’t spoil your night vision the way white light does.
3. Stargaze in rural areas far from city streetlights. If there are outside lights in your observing area, you must neutralize them. I block them by observing behind trees and buildings. My mentor, the irrepressible Biff Smooter, liked to use his 22-caliber squirrel gun. His way works better, but mine avoids police intervention.
4. Use an old stargazer’s trick called “averted vision.” Don’t look straight at the fuzzy thing you’re observing in your scope. Look just to the side of it, catching it out of the corner of your eye. Because your retina is more sensitive at the edge than at the center, you’ll see more.
5. Try rocking your telescope gently. We see moving objects better than stationary ones, a remnant of an earlier time when we had to worry about fast-moving saber-toothed tigers.
6. Don’t fake it. I remember pretending to see a lot of faint objects just to satisfy the person who was showing me stuff in his scope. (“Hmm, yes, very interesting. Well, time to go home now. Bye.”)
Instead, ask the telescope operator to tell you what to look for in the eyepiece.
Biff used to say things to me like, “Dang it, Burnsie, it looks long and skinny like one of them good Peruvian ceegars.” It helped a lot to know what to look for.
Also, ask the expert to describe the exact location of the object in the field of view of the scope. He or she will say things like, “between those two bright stars at the lower left.” You still might not see it, but at least you’ll know where to look.
7. Keep looking. Keep trying. You’ll see more detail the 20th time you look than the first. Biff was once showing me how to make a drawing of Mars. I thought I had done a pretty fair job until I saw his drawing. “Keep lookin’,” he said. I did, and I have for the subsequent 35 years.
If you can overcome the beginner’s blues, you will know, as few on the planet do, the glorious panorama of the universe. It’s worth the extra effort.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.