Archive for the ‘observing’ Tag

A Slice of Sky   Leave a comment

For all my good intentions, I still don’t go out stargazing as often as I did in the years before I launched into self-publishing. It’s hard to justify spending time on a hobby when there are so many stories trying to claw their way out of my head. But the night sky can be insistent, and the urge can become overwhelming. A few days ago it became irresistible.

It was a clear evening, typical of the desert in springtime. The constellations of winter, Orion most prominent among them, were low in the west and slipping away. Sirius blazed and glittered in the southwest. Gemini was high in the west, and Leo was straight overhead with Jupiter just within reach of his paws. The arrangement of planet and constellation brought to mind a kitten chasing a toy, a strange fate for the King of Planets. Rising in the east were the constellations of spring and early summer. Boötes was almost horizontal, as if not quite ready to rise and shine from a long seasonal sleep. The Big Dipper was high in the northeast, and the North Star was, well, where you always find it. Plenty to choose from, in terms of targets, even with the narrow bit of sky I can see from the backyard these days.

In 2003, when I bought the new telescope and began to re-educate myself in the art and science of visual astronomy, setting up on the back porch was a workable option. I lost some of the north and northwest sky to the mesquites growing in the back yard, but there were only a handful of constellations I couldn’t reach. In the years since, the trees have responded to our care by doing what trees do best – growing. Twelve years later, setting up on the back porch leaves me with somewhat limited observing options, which has regrettably discouraged me from observing from home base. That night I was reminded that even a narrow slice of an infinite universe is a busy place.

Using a four-inch refractor under moderately light-polluted skies requires careful target selection. No galaxy hopping this time ‘round; I needed bright lights in the night sky. I went for familiar double stars and spent a lot of time looking at Venus and Jupiter. It was a cool, quiet evening that started out a bit windy, but settled to mere whispers of a breeze. The atmosphere was fairly steady, what astronomers call “good seeing.” The twinkling of stars that you sometimes see, famed in song and nursery rhyme, is actually a bad thing for stargazers. If I’d been able to look up that night and honestly recite “twinkle twinkle, little star,” I’d have gone back in to work on the next book. That didn’t happen, so I gazed the evening away, and was satisfied the time was well spent. If you’re at all moved by the sight of stars, just being out on a clear night will do it for you. I spent as much time seated and looking up, eyes alone, as I did at the eyepiece, relaxed and unworried for a while by recent events.

The Muse, however, is never silent, and for all that I focused my attention on Castor and Pollux, Mizar and Alcor, and the moons of Jupiter, the current work in progress was ever present. Bits of dialogue crept into my thoughts. An idea for resolving a plot wrinkle came to mind. Notes for the book appeared among the observing notes regarding the ruddy gold double star in Leo designated Gamma Leonis. The Muse nudged, but it was gently done, for a change, something always there, but otherwise leaving me at peace under that slice of the night sky. A fact of life, if you’re a writer. It never really stops. I felt no conflict between writing and stargazing as this went on, and that’s likely because amateur astronomy is such a blend of knowledge and imagination. Objects in the night sky are utterly beyond my grasp, and so I can only look at them with my eyes or a telescope, touching them with my thoughts alone. I consider what I’ve read about these things, about how long a star in a double system takes to orbit its companion, about the stars being born in that patch of light beneath Orion’s belt, and they assume a reality of sorts for all that they are far beyond my physical reach.

Telling a tale is much the same thing. The worlds I’ve invented are as unreachable, in their way, as the stars. They are built of knowledge and imagination, but they are real in my imagination, as real as the Orion nebula, because I have what I need, through a lifetime of reading and living, to make them seem tangible. And so it seems perfectly natural that, as I look up at the stars, I take their measure even as I imagine people living out there and having adventures. Stars and stories go together and always have, and I am hardly the first to be moved to tell tales while seated beneath them.

Stars in the Balance   5 comments

On the 27th of August, 2003, Mars and our Earth passed as close to each other as they’ve been in recorded history. No one alive will see such a thing again. This was all treated as headline news, at the time, and spawned one of the most persistent internet hoaxes I know of, that being the claim that any given August Mars will appear as large as the Full Moon in the night sky. The event also marked a turning point in my life, since it changed astronomy from a fondly remembered teenage obsession to a present day pursuit of wonders in the night sky.

I was employed by a lab on the U of A campus that summer and saw an article in the campus newspaper about the close approach. There was an announcement of a related public event in that article, viewings of Mars from the campus mall on the weekend before and the weekend after opposition, hosted by the Flandrau Science Center and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Mars that close, viewed through a telescope? For free? No matter how low a level my astronomy interest had reached, it was too attractive a notion to pass up, so my wife and I attended the first viewing. The desert monsoon was in progress, and the clouds left behind by afternoon thunderstorms left us with mere glimpses of Mars, though I did wander the field examining telescopes and speaking with their enthusiastic users. It made me nostalgic for times past, to say the least. It was also a strange and wonderful feeling to actually look through telescopes of sizes and powers I could only dream of owning as a teenager.
The following weekend, just a day or two after the actual opposition, the weather was clear. We decided to give it another try, and were well rewarded for our effort. There were more telescopes on the mall, and more people had come out to have a look. It was a noisy event, punctuated by excited shouts as folk unfamiliar with telescopes had their first looks at Mars or some other celestial sight. I saw Mars as I’d never seen it before, and will never see it again. By the time we were home I’d decided on two things: the Old Scope was coming out of the box, and ownership of a newer, larger instrument was in my immediate future.

If you’ve read my short amateur astronomy memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies, you already know that this is exactly how it unfolded. Now I find myself sitting here, ten years after that event, contemplating the changes that have come since then.

For a time, amateur astronomy was everything. I bought gear, I bought books, and I joined the local club. I immersed myself in the hobby, attending star parties and outreach events, writing reviews and observing essays for the Cloudy Nights forum, on which I also served as a moderator and then an administrator. I wrote instructional material for the local club and helped run their beginners’ program for a time. Amateur astronomy became the major focus of my free time. This was possible because I’d given up writing.
I’ve mentioned that sad decision in this blog in the past, so suffice to say that after nearly two decades of selling ever fewer magazine articles, and not a word of fiction, I quit. There was no way I could continue to justify the attempt, especially knowing as I did that it was getting harder all the while for new authors to break in. I quit, but the creative energy was still there, scratching and clawing at me from the inside, seeking a way out. Astronomy provided that outlet. The planning and study required for observing, the interactions online, the reviews and observing reports, all these aspects and more soaked up that energy and then some. Because of this, some of the most creative times in my life involved no writing at all, or writing as incidental to astronomy, a tool to communicate and share my love of starlight and moonlight with others.
Along came the Kindle, and then Nook and Kobo. The digital revolution had finally caught up with publishing; it did so all of a sudden and in a big way. As a writer, I found myself with options that hadn’t (and couldn’t have) existed when I stopped trying to sell my words. When I realized there was a new reason to hope, a reason to write in earnest, writing experienced the same sort of revival that astronomy did in August 2003. Regrettably, this has happened at the expense of star gazing.

An unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of the writing revival has been a reduction in the amount of time spent at the eyepiece. For the last couple of years I’ve put all my spare time and energy into books and stories, and felt very good about doing so. As a priority, it’s a no-brainer. To have any chance of success I need to produce material for publication, balancing speed of output with quality. But here, a few days after the 10th anniversary of my return to my youthful obsession with star gazing, I find myself seeking a balance of another sort. I must write, for this is the very definition of my being. But I must find the time to go out and point lens and mirrors at the sky, to gather and focus ancient light on my eyes and imagination. The spirit in me craves both. The challenge before me is to placate the muse, and somehow manage to keep looking up.

Words Take Over   Leave a comment

Time and energy for making astronomical observations has been rather scarce of late. My interest in matters astronomical has never been stronger, but writing has taken such a firm hold of my life that other priorities have been set back a notch or two. (Gardening is one of these. You should see the weeds out there!) Until relatively recently I had the time to devote to astronomy (and horticulture) because I’d given up on writing. The creative energy once soaked up by writing needed to go elsewhere. It went into the Earth and out to the stars.

It’s not really a surprise that a return to writing has rearranged my life as it has. Now that modern self publishing (independent publishing, as many prefer to put it) has turned being published from a bottleneck to an open outlet, I have no reason to hold back. And for the past year and a half or so, I haven’t held back at all. Getting the words down, getting the stories told, is priority one, without question. So I turn my eyes back to the Moon and stars only at those times when I have gotten enough writing done that I feel comfortable taking some time at the eyepiece.

Writing follows me to the eyepiece, and has changed the way I practice astronomy in a way that I didn’t expect. With my mind so focused on making words work for me, these days, I find myself wielding a pencil less often, when I record observations. Instead of sketching each object, I find myself taking ever more detailed notes. It was a subtle drift from one method to the other as the dominant technique, and it’s far from a complete change. I still apply graphite to the blending stump on a regular basis, especially when working on something like an Astronomical League observing project. But for observations made for the sake of observing, I just don’t sketch things as often.

Many artists focus on one form of self-expression to the near exclusion of others. (People who can draw, sing, and play a musical instrument with equal facility leave me awestruck.) The art I practice is that of wordsmithing, and it has always suffered competition without much grace. I suppose for me it’s a sort of artistic monogamy. And the more involved with writing I am, the more ways writing finds to express itself in my daily life. For astronomy, writing always had a role, but for years I spent as much timing illustrating observing reports as I did writing them. Words are my thing, now more than ever, the medium in which I best express what I see and think and feel while out under the stars.

I crossed a divide of sorts when I started using a digital voice recorder, instead of scribbling in the dark. Even a faint red light reflected off a white piece of paper (and it doesn’t matter if I’m sketching or scribbling) reduces dark adaptation, a necessary trade-off for effective sketching. With a DVR and a sense for words, I don’t need to reduce my night vision as much, though reading star charts still has an effect. Use of the DVR promotes spontaneity as I search for ways to describe what I see. The following day I use those spoken words for a foundation, and write essays to fill my observation reports. Allowing the medium that comes most naturally to me take over when recording observations has made visual observing a more vivid experience for me. As was true of sketching, making the effort to come up with just the right word or phrase focuses my attention in ways that links my mind more clearly to the process of observing. Just as it happens with sketching, that focus means I see more, and see more clearly. The act of observing becomes an interaction between lenses, eyes, and mind, and not a merely passive collection of photons by the retina.

As with any art, the more you write the more you can write, and with greater facility. The desire to write also grows. The more writing I do, the more I want to write, so it really is no surprise that I practice astronomy the way I do, these days. At least, when I manage time to do a little observing, that is. The writing habit that has taken the sketch pad out of my hands also keeps me working on the next book or short story. That leaves me with little time for star-gazing as I work to get another book written and published.

Dawn Patrol   Leave a comment

The Dawn Patrol is proceeding as planned. So far there’s been one observing session that started between 2am and 3am (MST), and the rest have begun closer to 4am. I’m finding it much easier to rise an hour and a half earlier than normal, rather than to stay up until midnight or so, as I did a few days back. Except for a day that involved high winds in the wee hours of the morning, these Dawn Patrol sessions have involved pleasant and beautiful conditions. Little or no wind, and then just light breezes, combined with mild temperatures between 58°F and 65°F. (14°C and 18°C). The skies have been clear and the transparency good, and as the Moon has waned more and more stars are out and easily seen. And it is quiet, very quiet, in the cool pre-dawn hours. The sounds of the city around me are muted, and on this Sunday morning almost inaudible. No voices, no cars on the street, with only a mockingbird singing loudly in the light of the Moon. He is singing less, now, and starting later, as the light of the Moon fades. Now and then a White-winged Dove awakens early. These calls and songs do not banish the morning quiet so much as define it. The awareness of how quiet the world is at such an hour is accented when the Mockingbird’s last note fades.

This morning the lunar terminator was a complicated thing, in mountainous places rough and ragged, with bright arcs of brightly lit stone and black bays of inky shadow where the divide between day and night passes through cratered terrain. It’s easy to think of the lunar terminator as a simple dividing line between lunar night and day, and where it crosses the surface of maria this may come close to the truth. But more often than not the terminator is anything but simple. This morning served as a fine example to prove the point. Half lit craters with shining west facing walls to the north of Mare Frigoris, with the shadows within clinging as much to the north as to the west. Plato broad and dark and smooth, with no sign of craterlets using such modest aperture (102mm) under mediocre seeing conditions. The lunar Alps presented a crazy jumble of gleaming bright peaks in a black matrix made of the mingled shadows at their feet. Farther south the proximity of craters such as Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel created bulges of shadow reaching to the light of day, and bright broken curves of light where high crater rims and the tips of central peaks were bathed in the light of the setting sun. South to more heavily cratered terrain, where outlines grew more confusing, and the black bays of intruding shadow were smaller and rimmed with silver light.

Observing the Moon is always about tricks of the light. For this morning’s Dawn Patrol, it added up to quite a show.

Posted May 13, 2012 by underdesertstars in Amateur Astronomy

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