A few years into the astronomy hobby — make that obsession — I was outside most clear nights enjoying the wonders God set before us. Some nights it was so cold the beverage I took outside began freezing by the time my equipment was set up. Several times each year, I took my telescope “on the road” to both public and private “star parties,” where I shared the stellar experience with others. As part of an astronomy society with public outreach as part of their mission, this was really easy and fun. I offered to talk to local middle school classes about the topic and host private star parties for the students on clear nights. While all this was fun, I still felt I lacked knowledge of the sky. The way I saw it, I had two choices: spend years learning the sky, or let technology do it for me.
We live in an amazing era. Modern telescopes can put any galaxy in the eyepiece with the click of a few buttons or a mouse. It was time to upgrade. My two requirements: computerized pointing and a larger mirror. The computerized pointing had several benefits. It would let me share views of many more objects with the public quicker, and it would let me find the dim objects that I passed over previously. The bigger mirror, or “light bucket” as they are known, would make every object even brighter and easier to see. Being budget-conscious, I shopped around in the used marketplace until I found my next telescope. Some unfortunate person just bought an 11” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and then his job moved him to right outside Washington, D.C. Not even an 11” telescope can fight the light pollution of the nation’s capital. It was a cold, rainy day when I drove my family to D.C. to buy it. They still tell stories of that trip and their crazy father.
Ten years later, that telescope remains my main telescope for “observing.” Observing is the fancy word astronomers use for looking. Today it is hooked up to a laptop computer to provide a view of the object of my choice with just a few clicks of the mouse.
I learned a lot of very practical things that you only learn by staying up all night. While summer nights can be quite warm, spring and fall nights can get downright cold. After setting up, astronomical observing is a pretty sedentary activity. As a result, you really have to dress warm and bring layers. I also learned some tricks to staying up all night, like taking power naps during the day and relying on caffeine for that extra kick. Today, when I go out for a night of observing I generally stay up until it starts to get light or the clouds roll in for good.
While you can really enjoy astronomy with modest equipment, you need to be in a dark site to see much. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I was in a parking lot with a good view of the sky. I looked up and saw … two stars. Yes, Las Vegas is a two-star town in my book. From my deck I can see the Milky Way once or twice a year. While this is pretty good, finding dark skies will improve your experience, whether you are just looking with your eyes or with a big telescope. My astronomy club owns an acre of land adjacent to Eckley Miners’ Village that we use as a dark sky site. It is darker there than at my house. For years this was where I went for those all-night observing sessions. Between the new 11” telescope and the dark site, I found a second love. While some people find the challenge to “split” or see the gap between double stars and others look at planets for hours waiting for those few seconds when the air is calm and the details just pop, neither of these excited me. My second love was “hunting faint fuzzies” — dim and distant galaxies.
I cannot fully explain why I like staring into an eyepiece and use all kinds of observing tricks to “see” a galaxy that is barley brighter than the background sky. It’s inspiring and relaxing to see all the collections of billions and billions of stars. It’s simply amazing how many galaxies I can find with relatively modest equipment.
This passion drove me to darker and darker locations. In 2010, I went to the only Gold level International Day Sky Association site east of the Mississippi River, Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, Pa. Yes, only a few hours away is one of the best places to do astronomical observing in the eastern U.S. I no longer use my telescope in my backyard; I have to drive to Potter County or Eckley at least.
But even all this was not enough. An obsession can have power. And there were too many objects I just could not see with my eyes, but I knew a camera could. I had no idea the challenge ahead of me.