Now that I’ve enjoyed the night sky with my first scope for about a year, I’m reminded of a line from an old movie. I don’t remember which movie, but the characters were probably Abbot and Costello or the Three Stooges. One guy whispers to the other “What was that????” The answer back is “I don’t know, but here it comes again!!!!!” That’s one of the many beautiful things about the night sky—if you didn’t get a good look the first time, it will probably come around again, giving you another chance a year later.
Good thing, too, for someone like myself who is just getting acquainted with the mysterious night sky. What’s really amazing is how the same night sky I gazed at a year ago looks familiar, but now somehow seems different—even better than before!
The sky that seemed like random patterns of stars a year ago now almost naturally seems to fall into constellations and asterisms that serve as my road map. Now when I take a casual look, I may not always be able to distinctly see the double cluster or the ring nebula in the increasingly light polluted sky near my home, but I know they’re up there and exactly where to find them.
I knew very little about deep sky objects then. I didn’t know how to find what I was looking for, or what I was looking at when I found it. I wasn’t even sure if I was looking at what I thought I was looking at.
Last year, when I aimed my scope at Orion, it seemed like the only object of interest to me was its great glowing nebula. This year I’ve followed the bouncing ball pattern of NGC1981. I’ve split Iota Orionis and have found a smidgen of nebulosity in NGC1977 all within arc minutes of M42. I’ve also come to appreciate every wisp, every fold and every detail of something that just looked like a very interesting glow only a year ago.
I’m sure very little has changed up there in the past year (or in the last billion years for that matter), so it must have been me or my equipment or how I was going about doing things. Actually, the answer is all of the above.
I have a Meade ETX 125, which I love. It has a GOTO feature that is useful and fun for a novice like myself. But before long, I realized that I just wasn’t getting to know the night sky as well as I would have liked. I was just pushing buttons and looking through the eyepiece and was too often disappointed in what I saw.
Before my scope even arrived, I was already considering an array of shorter focal length eyepieces and barlows in order to get the highest power possible. I wanted to really push this scope to the limit. This would be great for lunar/planetary observing but unfortunately, even the 26mm eyepiece that came with my 1900mm focal length Meade yielded about 73x which was not well suited, as I found out, for scanning and locating deep sky objects.
The first thing I had to do is to develop a better “sense of power”—magnification that is. I realized that what I needed was less magnification, not more, in order to develop a sense of vicinity and appreciate the richness of the objects I was looking at. It wasn’t long before I was shopping for a long focal length eyepiece. I purchased a 40mm plossl by Meade, which at least reduced the magnification to just below 50x.
That helped, but I still felt lost until I purchased an Orion Starblast. It’s an inexpensive, 4.5”, grab-n-go, rich-field reflector (450mm focal length) on a modified Dob base (it also now comes on a tripod with EQ mount for a few bucks more, which might be worth the extra money). This was great, I could scan the sky to locate faint fuzzies at about 15-30x and then pop in a shorter focal length eyepiece or Barlow that would take me to about 40-70x as needed. For a closer look, with a bit more aperture and better optics, I’ll crank up my Meade.
Best of all, the Starblast came with an “EasyFinder” (a 1x finder like a Rigel or Telrad). I could point that little red dot anywhere in the sky and suddenly I had a direct relationship between what I saw in the eyepiece and it’s location in the night sky.
My son gave me a book last year (NightWatch by Terence Dickinson). It’s filled with outstanding general information for someone just starting out and has been an excellent resource in helping me select equipment, learn about the universe in general and locate objects in particular.
I also subscribed to Night Sky Magazine. Along with many terrific articles, each issue has a featured star hop. I’ve really enjoyed reading about clusters, planets, nebulae, etc., and then following step-by-step instructions on how to find them. They give me recommendations on what magnification works best and other helpful hints.
I also joined a local astronomy club and have enjoyed the meetings, e-mails, newsletters and open house star parties. At my first open house, I thought all I had to do was set up my telescope and let people look through it. But wouldn’t you know it—people actually asked me questions about what they were looking at. This inspired me to read and learn more. The next open house I was much better prepared and have become a much better observer as a result.
A year does make a difference when you’re just starting out in astronomy and the intricacy and regularity of the universe is an excellent gauge to measure just how much. Hey, by the way, what was that thing I saw in Auriga last year? I don’t know, but here it comes again!
Lee Vincent is pictured here trying to figure out the proper settings for this Meade “coffee grinder.”
“Let’s see... that’s flat bottom with paper filters....”
Actually Lee is seen here with his Meade ETX 125 and Orion Starblast getting ready for a night of observing!
Image by Lee Vincent