A Stargazer is Born

Haven’t spent much time behind a telescope? The Central Arkansas Library System’s stargazing program wants to change that

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Since the dawn of man, humans have been fascinated by the night sky. From the constellations first recorded by the ancient Greeks to the images collected by the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve sought to better understand our place in the universe by observing the heavens. So in an era when most of us constantly have our eyes pointed down at our phones, the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society and the Central Arkansas Library System decided to join forces to turn our attention back to the stars.

And tonight, my attention is on the moon. Or at least I think it is?

I’m standing in the Hillcrest backyard of Bruce McMath, president of the astronomical society, who’s agreed to give me a little Telescope 101 on the last day of his 2016 term. (He’s also given me access to a telescope, because even though the library’s new lending program has 14 telescopes in its inventory, when I visited my local branch, all 14 were already on loan with a waiting list 62 patrons long. But I digress.) It’s a sub-freezing Friday night in December, and Bruce has set up a card table out back with the scope on top. Earlier, he’d given me a rundown of telescope protocol—sight the object with the finder scope, focus the image, increase the magnification and refocus—and now it’s my turn. I turn on the finder scope and sight the laser on the moon fairly easily. But when I look through the eyepiece, I don’t see anything. I try fiddling with the knobs, but nothing seems to help. Maybe I nudged the scope a little off course? I check the finder scope again, but the laser is still trained right where I left it on that big space rock. So I turn it over to Bruce.

It takes him half a second to recognize my error, and he pops off the lens cap. My amateur astronomy career is off to a great start.

burton_bobby-1828195-origInspired by the New Hampshire Astronomical Society, the central Arkansas chapter reached out to CALS last year as part of the society’s public outreach with plans to create a telescope lending program that would allow would-be astronomers like me to check out a stargazing instrument just as they would a book.

“Our mission is to bring the sky to the public,” Bruce told me when I asked him about the program back in the house, back where it was warm. “So far it’s been very popular,” he said, adding that this sort of success has been typical as similar programs have popped up around the country.

The telescopes on offer at the library—purchased with funds provided by the UALR Arkansas Space Grant Consortium—aren’t the rinky-dink little spyglasses on a tripod you typically think of pointing out the window of a child’s bedroom. They are 4.5-inch Orion StarBlast telescopes with F/4 Newtonian design that gather about 250 times more light than the naked eye. They’ve got modified zoom eyepieces with a magnification power of 56x and battery-powered laser finder scopes. If all that sounds a little like a foreign language, don’t worry. It’s less complicated than it sounds, I’m learning.

Now that the lens cap is no longer blocking my view, working the telescope is more or less a breeze. It’s very intuitive, and the longer I experiment with the instrument, the more at ease I feel. Once I use the magnifier to bring the moon close enough to fill the field of view, it’s just a matter of focusing the image enough to see a little detail. I feel as though I could almost reach out and touch it, maybe even write my name in the lunar soil. I grew up in an era when the idea of humanity landing an astronaut on the moon wasn’t a dream or a science-fiction story; it was an accepted fact. And for that reason, I think it’s easy for people born after 1969 to take that fact for granted. Looking at the moon this close up, it’s mind-boggling to realize the accomplishment of such a feat.

With that in mind, I’m a little surprised when Bruce seems disappointed in the clarity of the image in our scope. (He’ll later realize that we forgot to let the telescope acclimate to the cold temperature, so the scope’s mirror was likely fogged.) Another thing working against us tonight is that fact that we’re observing a fairly full moon. You might think a full moon would be great for some lunar observation, but the truth is when the moon is that illuminated, the details of the surface features tend to get a little washed out.

“What you really want is when the moon is partial,” Bruce says, “and then you want to look along the ‘terminator,’ the area where it’s light on one side and dark on other. That’s sunrise on the moon. … You get a real three-dimensional effect.”

We take turns looking through the eyepiece, using the lunar map the astronomical society stickered on the side of the scope to identify specific geographical features. We find a highland ridge, clearly defined by the shadow edge of the terminator. We observe the maria, the vast dark spots of volcanic material you might recognize as the man in the moon’s facial features. We do our best to identify the various craters we find by their respective names, but the amount of light we’re taking in from the near-full moon makes it a little difficult. However, one lunar feature that’s actually more visible because of the full moon are the rays of disturbed soil emitting from impact craters where debris has fallen back to the surface after a collision.

There’s so much geological history here, it’s astounding. Looking at the lunar map again, I realize you could spend a significant amount of time surveying the surface to identify all the features. And the moon’s not the only thing that can be examined with these scopes—a few of the larger planets like Saturn and Jupiter can be viewed with a fair amount of clarity. While other deep-sky objects might be on the fuzzier side, that those objects are often millions of miles away and “that light has traveled for that long to land on your retina, and that you’re witnessing it, is a fascinating thing,” Bruce tells me. The prospect of exploring the final frontier in this way has me feeling simultaneously excited and small, which I think is sort of the point. Our planet is a tiny speck, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Carl Sagan once famously put it, and gazing out into the cosmos from that mote of dust is an incredibly humbling experience.

As we finish up, I realize I’ve almost completely forgotten about the cold … almost. I feel like I could keep at this all night. But I take solace in the fact that I’m only 62 patrons away from checking out a telescope of my own.

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Seeing Stars

Thankfully, if you have even a waning interest in observing our celestial neighbors, there’s only thing you need to start patrolling the cosmos: a library card. Before you check out your first scope, be sure to check out Bruce’s tips for successful stargazing:

1Seek darkness.“Drive out of town to a secluded spot under a pitch-dark sky, ideally by yourself. We have become such scaredy cats, some find this intimidating, which is unfortunate. Whether out on a crisp, clear moonless night or a sultry summer’s eve, there are few experiences more calming and spiritually warming than standing alone contemplating nature’s grandest spectacle.”

2Plan ahead. “You have to be flexible to line up weather (read: clouds), moon and sky, and that requires planning ahead, which should include studying up on your target objects. Look, you don’t have the Hubble Space Telescope. Yes, there are objects that can be marveled over in some detail in a small scope but it’s easier if you know what you are looking at. In such instances, the more you know, the more you will see and appreciate.”

3Layer up. “It will be colder than you think in the winter and less hot than you think in the summer. Unless it’s really extreme, let neither deter you. In the winter, gloves without fingertips are great and a stocking cap to cover the ears is essential. In the summer, unless there is a breeze about to ground mosquitoes, you will want bug spray. If there is a breeze, cancel your plans on a moonless evening when meteors are streaking, the whip-poor-will is singing and the country dogs are communing across the distances.”

4. See red. A red-colored flashlight is essential for deep-sky observing. You can buy them or go to an auto-supply store (or some craft shops) to get red film to put over a white-light flashlight. It takes at least 20 minutes to fully dark-adapt your eyes. White light will zap it in a moment.”

5. Look to the side. “When hunting faint fuzzies, don’t look directly at the object. Look just to one side and view it with your peripheral vision where the receptors your eyes used for night vision predominate.”

6Set up properly. “A small folding table for your charts and eyepieces will keep you organized. An adjustable chair you can sit on when viewing is as good as the next bigger telescope and much cheaper.”

7Record your observations. “Writing down or even sketching what you see will make you a more observant observer, add discipline to your activity and memorialize your experiences under the sky—and, if you stick with it, can qualify you to be added in perpetuity to the names of others who have completed certain lists of observations established by the Astronomical League.”

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