Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Love Affair with the Sky: A Brief History

I’ve always been something of a backyard astronomer. I remember being very young and harboring the belief that the sky was this massive black dome and the stars were pinpricks which let light in from whatever lay on the other side.  It was also about this time that I really started watching the moon from the backseat every time we were driving after dark.  I didn’t understand how it always seemed to be moving at the exact same speed we were, holding its position in the sky regardless of how fast or slow my parents drove.

A little later on, I got one of those telescope kits for either Christmas or my birthday.  It came with a microscope and the eyepieces were interchangeable, which sounds pretty nice.  But this was a kid’s telescope. The focuser, like the rest of the telescope, was plastic and minute adjustments were nearly impossible.  The included tripod was so small that I had to lay flat against the ground to look through the refractor and offered very little in the way of balance.  The slightest tap would send the thing wildly off course, but I didn’t mind.  While the resolution wasn’t strong enough to view the planets pictured on the box, it did allow me to see faint little blobs of light where the naked eye only saw darkness… but very little else. Even the moon didn’t appear as close as the box had led me to believe. It was actually easier and more comfortable to simply stretch out in the grass, put my hands behind my head, and look up.  While I ended up using the microscope way more often than the telescope, that little toy clued me in that there was a lot more going on up there than I’d first thought.

My grandfather had always been a hunter, which meant he had a pretty good pair of binoculars, and when I’d spend the night at their house, I’d wander into the backyard with the glasses slung around my neck … but still no rings of Saturn or the moons orbiting Jupiter.

Flash-forward to my early twenties:  I was living in the House of Hot Beverage with my roommates Larry and Erin; out of the blue, my mom gifted me with a nice, 90mm refractor for apparently no reason at all.  It had a nice assortment of eyepieces and I remember standing in the yard, looking at the Hale-Bopp comet as its interstellar trajectory passed our own.  Hale-Bopp was awe inspiring.  The main body of the comet was like the largest and brightest star I’d ever seen and twin tails shot out the back.  Looking at the tails, I could certainly see why early cultures associated comets with serpents and dragons.  The tail looked exactly like a bifurcated tongue of flame, each segment flickering and licking independently of the other.

A year or two later was my first year of marriage. My wife and I were renting a trailer way back at the top of a ride, far removed from the light pollution of Charleston. In the evenings we’d lay out on the deck, gazing upward at a sky brimming with stars and try to pick out the fast moving satellites orbiting the earth. Some simply looked like travelling stars, but others seemed to wink as they crossed they sky. I would later learn that these satellites were out of control and the flashing was created by the sun reflecting off solar panels spinning wildly through space.  But again, this was all naked eye stuff. The telescope my mom had given me had come and gone, being a casualty when I moved out of the House of Hot Beverage.

We’d been in Parkersburg around four or five years when my next scope entered my life.  Farrell and Devin had given it to me for Christmas, allowing me to pick out the one I wanted beforehand.  It was a Meade reflector with a four inch mirror, a red dot finder scope and computerized go-to mount. With the attached controller, I could enter ascension and declination coordinates and the drive motor would automatically move to the object, slewing just enough to keep it centered, no matter how long I chose to view it.  Another nice feature were the tours pre-programmed into the computer which would correlate  the date, time, and my longitude and latitude  and then guide the scope to the “highlights” of the sky overhead. How long I spent on each one was entirely up to me as the tour wouldn’t continue until I pressed the proper button on the controller.

My favorite thing to do was to lug the scope over to the graveyard that was across the road from our house and start the evening off with one of these tours.  After that, I’d spend an hour or so exploring the heavens with manual adjustments to the scope  and this is how I got my first look at another galaxy. I just stumbled across it one night, this fuzzy little patch of light in the sky; it was roughly ovular in shape and looked a bit like a distant cloud. However I could see an arc of darkness near the center, which gave the impression of an eyelid, and just below this arc was a bright, spherical pupil. This was one of those moments in life which completely touched my soul. It was as if I’d looked into space and discovered something looking back.
Since I knew the portion of the sky I’d saw it in and instantly recognized it as either a galaxy or nebula, I immediately  pulled out my planisphere upon returning home. A few adjustments to the concentric rings and I saw that the only deep space object in that section of the sky at the time I was viewing it was M64 in the Messier catalog.  Once I had the catalog number, I was able to look it up in my field guide and identify it as the appropriately named Black Eye Galaxy.

Shortly after this, I bought an 80mm refractor for times when I just didn’t feel like hauling the Meade outside and messing with the counterweights.  It was through this trusty little scope that my breathe was taken away when I decided to view M45, better known as the constellation Pleiades. When viewing most stars, there’s a lot of seemingly empty space surrounding them, even when viewed through a high powered telescope. The Pleiades spring up in the eyepiece though as a densely packed region of stars. There’s so many, in fact, that it looks like glitter blown into the night sky from the cupped hand of God.  This is, by far, my most-viewed object in the sky. I have this connection to the constellation that’s kind of hard to explain. When I’m viewing her, nothing else exists.  I am completely and utterly at peace with both myself and my place in the cosmos, so much so that it’s become a spiritual experience.  Anytime I spot Pleiades overhead it’s almost as if it reaches out to touch my soul. I feel that same sense of well-being and can’t help but smile as I whisper, “Hello, old friend…” (true story, I actually do that).

I’ve also got a Celestron Powerseeker 127EQ reflector in my stable now.  Its six inch mirror provides more aperture than my Go-To Meade did, but it lacks the bells and whistles. In all honesty, I haven’t used this one much because collimating the mirrors is kind of tricky, even with the help of a laser collimator; without them in proper alignment you really can’t get quality detail, so I think I need to find someone with a little more experience who’d be willing to walk me through the process. I’ve tried looking it up on Youtube, but it’s just not quite the same since you can’t ask a video questions.

Earlier today, my wife and I drove to the planetarium of a local college for a viewing of the Cowboy Astronomer, followed by a star talk describing what can be seen in tonight’s sky.  It was the first time I’d been in a planetarium since I was a kid and the experience was everything I’d hoped it would be and more; it even inspired my wife (who’s always been more into history and physical science than astronomy) to come with me on one of my outings in the near future.  It’s time to get that Celestron in working order, so we both don’t have to take turns with the same scope but can independently explore the cosmos and share what we find.  Which sounds like an awesome date to me.

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