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OBSERVATIONAL ASTRONOMY, WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?

The Milky Way

Imagine yourself in the middle of a field late at night, far from the intrusive light domes that shroud every city and town. There is no Moon in the sky and the myriad of stars overhead astonishes you, with the graceful swath of the Milky Way crossing overhead. Peering through the finderscope, you zero in on the area where your quarry is. Once there, you turn your gaze towards the eyepiece on the main telescope tube. Revealled in all its splendour is that elusive object. It's hard to believe that something that magnificent is just sitting up there, suspended in space far beyond the range of unaided vision. What's even more mind boggling is the fact that no matter how many huge telescopes we build on Earth or in space, we will only see an infinitesmal amount of what is actually out there. Perhaps the most amazing thing, and one that few people realize, is that what we are seeing in the telescope is light, and in some cases these objects are at such an incredible distance that the light we are seeing now actually took years, decades, centuries, or even more to reach us. Some of those objects could have been obliterated hundreds of years ago but we would have no idea, as we are seeing them as they appeared when the light first left them.

It's hard to describe the experience of being under the stars on a dark night far from any large cities to someone who's never been in that environment. It's difficult to locate the handful of stars you can see from the city, as there are so many more visible they get lost in the sea of stars that often overwhelms people who have never actually been exposed to a truly dark sky before. Through the use of telescopes, exploring the mysteries of space is an exhilarating experience. Try to imagine being in the middle of a dark field far from any town, with a clear view of the horizon in every direction. Just being in such an environment away from any noise,stress, and work is so relaxing. You know where the object you are seeking is located from the use of a star chart or map, and all you have to do is find it. With your telescope focussed and set on its lowest magnification and widest visual field of view, you locate the object. The next step is to try different magnifications to find the best view of it, depending on its size, brightness (visual magnitude), and the capabilities of your equipment.

What can you see? Even a 10 x 50 set of binoculars on a stand will show the planet Jupiter as a distinct disc, and depending on their positioning, up to 4 of it's larger moons will show up as tiny star-like dots. Open star clusters such as the Pleiades are transformed from a hazy patch to a glittering bunch of stars, randomly scattered against a black void. Farther and dimmer objects, such as the Andromeda Galaxy, the globular star cluster M13, or the Orion Nebula appear as oval, round, and irregularly shaped smudges. As far as the moon goes, you can see some of the larger craters and bumpy areas, but it is so bright through binoculars that it can be painful and hard to look at, especially during times when the moon is close to being fully illuminated.

With a medium sized telescope, a wide range of celestial wonders are at your fingertips. The globular star cluster M13 is transformed into what looks like a bucket full of stars of various sizes and colours, suspended in a ball shaped pack in the void of space. Cloud bands rapidly circling the planet Jupiter are visible as stripes in varying shades of brown and red, and if you are lucky it is possible to see the shadow of one of Jupiter's moons travel across the planet's surface, while the moon itself shines beside the planet. The planet Saturn is so unique in appearance that it almost looks fake. The cream coloured disc of the planet is surrounded by a delicate ring, gently suspended in space surrounding the entire globe. Under good seeing conditions, gaps in the ring are revealed, showing that in reality there is more than just one ring. Galaxies and nebulae appear as cosmic clouds of smoke and dust of varying shapes and sizes. The familiar face of the moon is turned into a barren wasteland, with jagged mountains towering above flat, featureless plains. Deep, dark holes formed by giant rocks slamming into the surface are surrounded by spokelike lines and a raised rim of lunar dirt and rock, pushed up around the impacting rock as it burrowed into the moon.

A large telescope in a dark sky free from any moonlight or artificial glare from man- made sources is to me a fantastic experience waiting to happen. The delicate structure of galaxies and nebulae is revealed, and globular star clusters take on a whole new appearance. Just looking at what appears to be a black patch in the sky will usually reveal many faint stars, and occasionally a surprize or two. I have accidentally located numerous Messier and NGC objects by just scanning different areas of the sky.

It is well worth the time, patience, and small financial investment involved if this sounds appealing to you. With a one time investment for some minimal but decent equipment, you open the door to years of visual delight, stimulating education, and above all enjoyment and leisure combined in one. That's what it's all about.