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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Step 4 – Get thee to an observatory! (In your backyard)

I’m often asked what sort of a telescope a newcomer to astronomy should buy. There are two traditional answers to that question, both good:

1. Don’t get a telescope, get a decent pair of small binoculars –  10X50.

2. The best telescope for you is the  one you’ll use the most – one size does NOT fit all! (Of course the catch is it’s not easy to understand which telescope you’ll use the most – but it’s usually smaller and simpler than what the beginner gets.)

Yep – but I really have a different piece of advice – the first thing you should “get” is an observatory. Honest. And before you give a great big gulp and say that’s impossible, let me explain what an observatory is and why it’s a good starting point and why it’s absolutely possible.

An observatory does not have to be a building  –  it’s simply a place from which you observe  – a place  that offers the following benefits:

  1. Convenience
  2. Security
  3. Good view of  a lot of sky and shelter from artificial lights.
  4. Protection from wind and dew
  5. Places to put:
  • books
  • charts
  • lights
  • binoculars
  • drawing materials
  • and a hot drink

OK, you may not use – or need – all that stuff, but you’ll need some of it. And right now you may be saying,  “Wow! That’s a lot to think about. I thought it was simpler.” Sure it’s simple. Astronomy is most enjoyable on a clear dark night – but cloudy, rainy, or even sunny days are a great time to do astronomy planning, and planning goes a long way to making your observing experience satisfying.  A little planning time on a cloudy day will make those dark, clear nights so much more fun.

So in real life just how complex does an “observatory” have to be? For me it is as simple as having a comfortable, outdoor chair on the upper deck with a small table and covered plastic box nearby. That’s it.

Of course, that’s not my only place to observe. I have an observing deck with a semi-permanent telescope and a tall, solid fence around it, and a small, sheltered work area. I also have a very small rotating dome, garden-shed-observatory, which is my main winter window on the universe. I use all three “observatories.” But then, I’m retired and I’ve been at this activity for more than half a century.  Start small and simple – but start by thinking about and arranging – in daylight – a place where you will observe at night. Don’t simply wait until it’s a clear night, grab a few things, and walk out into the backyard. That may work for those inclined to being spontaneous; but it will probably end up frustrating you. Let’s look more closely at our list of needs.

1. Convenience

This should be obvious, but if the place from which you observe isn’t convenient, you’ll lose interest after the initial burst of enthusiasm.  Astronomy isn’t easy because most people do it at the end of a day when they’re tired and when they are inclined to flop in front of the TV and do nothing.  So you should have a place to observe, if possible, that you can reach by just walking out the door.  Even in fairly light-polluted areas , you’ll be surprised by how much you can see,  and by how a few  moments in the cool night air, under the stars, can relieve the weariness of the day, refreshing both body and spirit.  Of course, it may make a lot more sense to walk or drive a few minutes to a local school yard, park, or other convenient location. And for some, the only solution may be much more involved, in which case observing is going to become a special event done with advanced planning when there’s plenty of time – but in any case, you need to have an “observatory,” and here are the other considerations after convenience.

2. Security

If you’re not afraid of the dark, bless  you. I am. And I think most people are whether they admit it or not. Vision is our major sense and we lose a lot of it at night, so we tend to compensate with artificial lights. Truth is, the dark isn’t as dark as most people think – even when there’s no moon.  And if you’re at all like me, most of your fears are a tad irrational. But do look at them closely and do decide if any pose a real threat to your safety. There’s no getting around it – nearly all astronomy is done in the dark and generally away from a place where there are others because others are using artificial lights.

So take a moment and think about the security risks. At my age, for example, there’s good reason to be concerned about being isolated and alone – even just 100 feet from home – and having a health emergency – a stumble, or sudden illness.  My solution: carry a cell phone and be careful. You can avoid stumbling around in the dark, for example, by simply planning in the daylight where you will be in the dark and making sure the path is clear. I frequently have visitors to my observatory  who are walking around in the dark in a strange backyard.  My solution? I made a path from the driveway to the observatory and I used broken sea shells – they’re white – as the paving material, but any light-colored material would work. However, even on the darkest night and with eyes that are not yet dark adapted, that path is clear and easy to follow.

You don’t have to make such a path, though it’s handy. Once your eyes are dark adapted, you can see most major obstacles, but think ahead. Don’t leave garden tools, hoses, and other obstacles in the area you’ll call your “observatory,”  or on the natural path from the house to this area.  Scout before you go out at night.

You have less control over other areas you might use as your observatory, so again, scout ahead in daylight. Become familiar with where you plan to observe. And, of course, don’t put yourself in danger in an isolated area. If you think it’s a good idea to carry a pepper spray, alarm, or cell phone – do so. It’s also a good idea to have a friend or family member with you, but this isn’t always possible. Just use your common sense. I observe alone in isolated areas and have never encountered a threat – but again, I think a cell phone is a great precaution and where I go is hardly considered areas of high crime risk.

Beyond these common sense concerns I have one rational fear – skunks. I just don’t want one trotting by, startling me, or me startling it! So when possible I like a building around me – or at least a fence. And I don’t do what one friend did and leave a half eaten box of donuts lying around while I go merrily about my observing chore – little animals like food!

And, of course, I have several irrational fears running the gamut from coyotes – a vague possibility in my area – to werewolves, a great possibility when my imagination takes over 😉  I think about these in advance and put them back in the mental closet where they belong, shutting the door. But I admit, they sometimes creep out from under the door and gnaw at my ankle as I’m walking out alone at 3 am on a cold, dark morning.

The point is, I want to focus on the universe and when I do that I’ve turned my back on this world – quite literally – and if I can’t have someone watching my back, I want to know that I have at least a minimum amount of protection around me.  So look at my personal  “observatories.” Skunks and coyotes can’t climb to my upstairs deck, so this is nicely secure without a fence. My observing deck is surrounded by a solid fence with a gate, And my little garden shed-with-dome is most secure of all.

3. Good view of  a lot of sky and shelter from artificial lights

Ideally you want to be on a hill-top with no trees for hundreds of yards and no neighbors, towns, or shipping centers within 50 miles. Most of us settle for much less. My upper deck “observatory” has trees blocking some sky to the south and the house blocking most of the sky to the west. But it is a beautiful view to the east and north – however, there are light domes from cities and shopping centers 5-10 miles away to the northwest, north, and northeast.  When in either of my other locations I have a significant amount of sky blocked by trees to east and south. These rise as much as 40-50 degrees above the horizon in places. But the truth is, this still leaves me an awful lot of sky visible – enough to keep me happily exploring the universe on one clear night after another.  Would I like to cut some trees down? Sure. But they’re in a neighbor’s yard. So if they’re blocking my view of something, I just wait for the trees to move – that is, for the Earth to turn. What is blocked at one hour of the night – or one season of the year – may be clearly visible at another hour, or during another season.  Bottom line: A clear horizon is nice, but don’t be fanatical about it – just go for as much sky as you can get while keeping in mind  your other requirements – convenience and security.

How about light pollution? It’s a problem. I’ve actually planted trees and built fences to avoid outdoor lights neighbors felt they had to leave on all night. Of course, if the problem is serious you can approach them and see if they are willing to turn them off. Car lights can be a hassle, too, ruining night vision if you’re not careful. In my case I’m part way down a hill, well sheltered from the road, so it’s a non-issue.  But some excellent observing sites I visit are frequently  hit by headlights, and the simple solution is to just close your eyes and turn your head until the car has passed. That way it ruins only a few seconds of observing.

Living on the Eastern Seaboard in the Boston-to-Washington corridor it is next to impossible to escape severe light pollution from cities and towns.  I’m lucky in that I have mostly rural countryside , a  bay, and an ocean to my south, southeast, and southwest. This means as suburban observing sites go, I have it very good. My skies are dark.  But even with a lot of light pollution around you, you should be able to see the brightest stars and major planets, plus the moon. These “poor” conditions can actually make your learning of the sky easier. Go off to an isolated mountain top in New Mexico and you’ll find yourself looking at so many stars it’s just plain confusing. So treat your light-polluted skies as a bonus in disguise and use them to learn your way around – then, of course, get to a better location when you can.

4. Wind and dew

These are two natural problems and clear, star-filled nights can come with either, though usually not both at the same time.  Some of your security precautions speak to this issue as well. Again, look at my three locations. My upstairs deck happens to be on the east side of my house. Clear nights frequently appear as a cold front moves in with a northwest wind – and my house blocks the worst of that wind from the deck.

Next, that solid fence around my observing  deck is there primarily  to block the wind. Yes, as explained, I see it as security precaution, but on a night-to-night basis its most frequent use is to block the wind.  Wind is a real hassle. It shakes the telescope, and at high magnification little shakes are magnified into big shakes.  It also blows  papers and pages about making reading charts or writing notes difficult,  and it’s cold. Windchill, as I’m sure you’re aware, can lower temperatures significantly.

So even if you’re simply learning how to find a few bright stars, some sort of wind break is useful. In choosing a location for your “observatory” think about existing wind breaks – houses, outbuildings, shrubs, and trees. Especially try to protect yourself from wind from the northwest. And if there’s no ready solution, don’t give up. Bring your own with you. One simple field solution for me is a large, inexpensive, plastic storage bin – the kind you get in discount stores for a few dollars and are meant for packing stuff in to get it out of sight.

Take the lid off one of these, lie it on its side on a table, and you immediately have a shelter for charts, notebook, flashlight, binoculars . . . whatever.

And if you don’t have something like that for wind, use it to protect from dew. I do. On my observing deck, my large telescope is constantly sheltered by a relatively small building that looks like an old-fashioned outhouse. But this is very light construction  and it rolls off on casters. I roll that building to the side of the observing deck to make the telescope available, but then I put a sheet of  plywood down at waist height  inside the building and this serves as a sheltered table. My little garden-shed observatory has plenty of bench-top space, and on the upstairs deck – or when going in the field – I use the plastic container on a small, collapsible table. Actually, at my favorite field location I position my parked car to block the wind; I turn off the car inside car lights; and I open the door – instant observatory! And you can get in and close the door to warm up as well.

5. Places to put:

  • books
  • charts
  • lights
  • binoculars
  • drawing materials
  • and a hot drink

As mentioned, dew is another challenge  to books, drawing materials, computers, binoculars, eyepieces, etc. At some point you may want to bring any, or all of these items with you. Depends on how long you plan to be out and exactly what your planned observing task may be. But even when I’m using a telescope, I almost always have a notebook, chart book, binoculars, and cup of tea with me, and I need a place to put these other than the wet ground.  The large plastic box is part of the solution, but a small table, portable or fixed, is certainly helpful as well.

So if I were creating a minimalist observatory, here’s what I would do. Locate  a convenient, safe place, where I could see a good chunk of sky and I had some ready-made protection from the wind. I’d try to make it as free of neighboring outdoor lights as possible and make sure there were no obstacles for me to trip over as I made my way to it in the dark. I would have – or bring to it – a comfortable chair, a small table, and some sort of box to shelter my charts and notebook from wind and dew.

Final  advantage to starting with an observatory? It gives you a great sense of purpose!  It can be a nice place to visit in the day, as well. My observing deck is surrounded  by small trees and shrubs and this means plenty of birds. I’ve enjoyed many daylight hours there as well.

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