Observational Challenges for the Non-Astronomer

Dearest readers,

Last week, I went to a public astronomy observation event and brought my boyfriend along for what turned out to be his first time ever looking through a telescope.  Had I known beforehand that this would be his first time, I’d have prepared him.

I can sense that you just quizzically raised an eyebrow.  Let me explain:

You see, it is my theory that the Hubble Space Telescope, which caused a revolution in the public’s interest in astronomy, has come to “spoil” the next generation of the public.

And now I’m sure that the other eyebrow just quickly followed suit.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Hubble and all of those awesome space telescopes as much as the next person!  They have been amazing tools, not only to do revolutionary science, but also to garner the public’s interest in science and astronomy.  However, when looking through a moderate-sized telescope in a moderate-sized community (thus it has a moderately light-polluted night sky), it is easy to be disappointed with what one sees through that itty-bitty eyepiece.

On the evening of the observing event, my dear boyfriend was regaled by the sight of about 5 fuzzy blobs, each subsequent one looking about the same as the previous one.  The objects we saw are all part of the Messier Catalog, all of which are viewable pretty easily with binoculars or a small telescope on a decent night, and many of which were made quite famous by the Hubble.

(Cute little aside: My college astronomy professor said that when Mr. Messier made his catalog, it was basically a list of all the “fuzzy blobs” he could see in the sky – it always tickled me that my old, crotchety, curmudgeonly astro prof used the phrase “fuzzy blob” like it was a technical term, so it has stuck with me.)

The fuzzy blobs we saw consisted of the Andromeda Galaxy and the Ring Nebula, which are both totally cool, and the rest were star clusters.  There are two types of star clusters: open, and globular, and once you’ve seen one of each, you’ve seen them all.  Nonetheless, I was really excited for him to see Andromeda and the Ring Nebula, but even I was sorely disappointed, because I didn’t realize just how bad the sky was for observing that night.

Unprepared, a casual observer might see this Andromeda Galaxy (quite similar to what we saw last week):

Image courtesy of washedoutastronomy.com

And not realize they’re seeing this Andromeda Galaxy:

Andromeda Galaxy through a rockin’ telescope, complete with fancy-pants filters and stuff! Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/astroporn/

Similarly, said observer might see this Ring Nebula (this is actually a decent picture – I have seen it looking about like this, but last week’s observation night gave a much, much worse view):

Image courtesy of rocketroberts.com

And not realize they’re seeing this Ring Nebula:

Hubble image courtesy of Hubblesite.org

So, if you’re going to a star party or a public observing night or whatever you want to call it, precautions should be taken by all parties involved, to prevent disappointment.

To make sure that everyone is correctly prepared, I now would like to do something a little different and divide you up, dear readers.  If you are a member of the public who is likely to attend a public observation event, please click here.  If you are an astronomer who might, at some point, host such an event, please click here.

Here’s a pretty picture:

Pretty picture courtesy of NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day

Hello, dear member of the public!

So, if you’re going to go to a star party, here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  1. All of those pretty pictures you see of nebulae and galaxies and such were taken over a looooong period of time, to collect as much light as possible.  Unfortunately, our eyes don’t work the same way as the cameras in those telescopes, so they won’t look the same when you see them with your own eyeball.  Sorry, that’s just the way it is.
  2. But!  See my very first post, about gazing at the night sky, because those photons are still going into your eye, which is the thing I find coolest about looking through a telescope.
  3. Be smart when choosing which star party you will attend.  If you attend one which takes place in the middle of town, you’re not going to see the really-super-hella-mega-cool stuff, due to the light pollution!  With a good telescope, a clear sky, and little to no moonlight, you should be able to get pretty decent views of the Messier objects, though, so it won’t be a total loss.  If you go at the right time, you can even get some great views of Jupiter and its 4 Jovian moons, or Saturn and its beautiful rings.  Each is a seriously impressive sight, even just through a dinky little scope.
  4. Try to keep track of the objects you see so that when you get home, you can search for them online, to really see what you saw that night.
  5. If you have a smart phone, get a sky app like Google Sky Map so that you can follow along with whomever is showing you around.  Google Sky Map even has a night mode, which shows the objects of interest in red, on a black background, so as not to ruin your night vision.
  6. But, how to find a local star party, you ask?  Find the nearest Department of Physics and/or Astronomy to you, which could be a local community college or a major research university.  Some high schools even have astronomy classes or clubs, and be sure to check with local science museums as well.  Basically, anyone who teaches astronomy at pretty much any level should be able to guide you in the right direction.

Ok, astronomers, your turn!  If you’re going to host a star party, try to put yourself in the shoes of a casual observer, to make sure they can get as much out of the event as possible.  Here are a few guidelines I’ve come up with, based on my own experiences:

  1. If it’s a cold night, serving hot apple cider or hot cocoa is a really nice touch.
  2. If you can, show your attendees a slideshow of some really great images of the objects they saw through a telescope.
  3. Again, resource-permitting, try to have your star party in a location that minimizes light pollution.  Not everyone has access to dark skies, but maybe a park on the edge of town (you’ll probably have to get permission to be there after dark, but be nice and maybe they’ll let you) would be a good alternative to a roof in the middle of town.  However, a roof in the middle of town is better than ground-level in the middle of town.
  4. Be organized!  No one likes to come to an event and not know what’s going on or when things are starting or who is in charge.
  5. A little star talk, maybe pointing out some major constellations and the North Star, goes a long way.
  6. If you have regular events, it might be a good idea to take some time to plan out what you’ll be able to see at upcoming events, and let your attendees know, much like they do at Sacramento City College in California.
  7. A nice website for your group or organization, listing upcoming events, also goes a very long way.

Alright, that’s all from me for now, folks.  This post will be part of the second Carnival of Cosmology, so go check out the other posts, and don’t forget to keep looking up! 🙂


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