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The 5 things it has taken me half my life to learn about viewing the sky

Posted by Steve Coe   10/02/2004 00:00:AM

I started out to be a professional astronomer 27 years ago, it seemed like a great idea. After completing a hitch in the Navy as a submarine sailor, I went back to college at Arizona State University to start down that path. After a year or so of college I found that I had made a mistake. Measuring the Universe was not my goal; I wanted to observe the Cosmos. I wanted to see for myself the beauty of Nature on its grandest scale.

My 55th birthday is next week and so I have spent half my life in the pursuit of dark skies, clear nights, steady seeing and good friends with which to share the view. My beautiful wife supports my life choices and I am very grateful to her for that. I am also fortunate that I have been a member of the Saguaro Astronomy Club for most of the time I have been an amateur astronomer, their camaraderie, enthusiasm and knowledgeable members have been a joy to know over the years.

With that as a background, I would like to share a countdown of 5 things that I have determined are important if you are planning to really enjoy this avocation and give yourself a chance to see the most of Our Universe.

1) Show others the sky. Folks, you might not believe this, but if you can find the Big Dipper, Jupiter and explain the phases of the Moon-you are WAY ahead of the average "person on the street". Most people know very little about what there is to observe in the sky and even if you are a beginner, please set up your telescope and show someone who is curious what there is to see. I set up my scope on the sidewalk in front of my house every Halloween. There is always a line of children yearning for a chance to see that double star for themselves. There is no substitute for looking at the sky with your own eyes. Also, it will help you get in touch with the first time YOU saw the rings of Saturn.

2) You can observe, even in the city, just do it. There are a wide variety of things about the sky to observe, anytime, anywhere. Even if it is partly cloudy, there are color effects from the Sun and Moon. Sundogs, the Ring around the Moon and, obviously, rainbows are fascinating. All you have to do is keep looking up. Even with no optical aid you can watch the Moon moving among the stars and changing shape from night to night.

3) Stop worrying about equipment. Spending your time looking at the advertisements for sexy gear is great. But, you can do a lot with minimum equipment. Every time I go out to observe I spend a little time just looking at the beauty of the night sky. Just sit in that folding chair and soak in the beauty of the Milky Way, star colors and maybe spot a meteor or two. This is lots of fun and demands no equipment.

Even though I do have a great new GOTO telescope, I love to just pick up the 8X42 binoculars and scan the star clouds in the Milky Way and bright clusters and nebulae. Hanging on my wall is a signed and framed certificate from the Arizona Messier Marathon chairman, A. J. Crayon. It certifies that I saw 82 Messier objects with those little binoculars at the 2002 Marathon. OK, A.J. has been my observing buddy for over 20 years, but I did see those "M" objects, honest. You just don't need thousands of dollars of stuff to enjoy the beauty of the sky overhead.

4) Make a list of what you want to observe, tonight and far into the future. I have seen so much because I knew where I was going. It is certainly fun to just put in a wide field eyepiece and scan the sky for whatever you bump into. However, most observers quickly want to know "what is the name of that cluster?". To make the most of that precious time under the stars, create a list of what you want to see tonight. Take some notes about what you saw and you will have a permanent record of that observation. I also like having a long term goal. Recently, I finished a project that took 18 years. I completed observing all the deep sky objects in Burnham's Celestial Handbook that I can reach from Arizona. Having that long term goal will add some enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment to your observing. Another friend of mine, Tom Polakis, has been writing a deep sky observing column for Astronomy Magazine for many years. Maybe your long term project could be to see those objects for yourself.

5) Get with some other observers and share the fun. Regardless of how you go about it, spending time under the stars is just more fun if you share the joy. It is very gratifying to be able to show an observing buddy something they have never seen before. It is also great when you
get to see a new cluster, galaxy or nebula in the telescope of a friend.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to get in touch with other astronomers. I have already mentioned one of the most satisfying, in my opinion, and that is a nearby astronomy club. Most large cities have a club in their area. Call a librarian or the planetarium. If you are an Internet user, the possibilities are massive. This web site has a wide variety of groups from which to choose. Newsgroups, mailing lists, Yahoo groups and many other outlets provide an electronic astronomy club that meets 24 hours a day.

I hope that you find my list useful, if you start you own, get in touch. I would like to hear your input. After all, that is a big part of the

Steve Coe is the Vice President of the Saguaro Astronomy Club in Phoenix, Arizona. He has written a book, Deep Sky Observing-The Astronomical Tourist. It is published by Springer-Verlag. Steve is one of the helpers with the NGC Project, so his email address is