Seeing in the Dark: Tales of an Amateur Astronomer

Mike Murray

Recently, I had the opportunity to give a presentation on this very subject at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.  It’s a fine museum with splendid displays on paleontology, geology, astronomy, pioneer history, Native American ethnology, photography and more.  I had the privilege of working there in its Taylor Planetarium for 10 years before coming to Clark Planetarium.  That talk spurred many memories of my own path through the world of amateur astronomy, but it also inspired so many excellent questions from the audience, that I thought it would be good to share some of those here.

Amateur astronomy has been one of the fastest growing hobbies in the country for the last 20 years.  Why is that?  What gets people so “hooked” on astronomy and the night sky?

Observing in Yellowstone

Observing in Yellowstone

There could be many reasons.  For some, it’s just a naturally fascinating subject.  Look at how many non-science major college students enroll in introductory astronomy courses to satisfy their general science requirement.  Or maybe it was a camping experience where someone saw the Milky Way or a “shooting star” for the first time.  Or something that happened in the space program, like a space shuttle launch, photos from Mars, or a Hubble Space Telescope image.

The reasons may be different, but the inspiration to explore the sky has one common thread – a curiosity to discover more of nature’s secrets and feel a personal connection to the universe.

For me personally, the events that stirred my curiosity were many.  My father took me to a planetarium show when I was seven years old (hooked).   I often camped in the Colorado Rockies and saw the Milky Way, meteors, even a comet (hooked even deeper).  During that same time I watched the Apollo astronauts land on the Moon (hooked to the MAX).

So is it any wonder that at the age of 12, I got my first telescope?  But here’s where my first experience with a telescope became like many others.  At that time I lived under the light polluted skies of Denver, and I had no observing guides.  I found Mars, the Pleiades Star Cluster, and a few bright stars which would reveal their colors.  Then the scope went into the closet.  Sound familiar to anyone?

Features Along the Lunar Terminator

Features Along the Lunar Terminator

This is in fact a very common hurdle in the pursuit of amateur observing.  So what “reeled” me back?  For me it was a $6 atlas of the Moon. Suddenly the lunar surface became a place full of fascinating features.  I could see the Lunar Apennine Mountains where Apollo 15 landed, craters like Copernicus with massive central peaks rising ¾ of a mile high, ancient lava flows and deep canyons running for hundreds of miles.

But to locate and actually see detail in the deep sky objects (star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies) took more time.  A star chart was really only the beginning.  Finding your way around sky more easily took “star hopping” techniques.

Then a real surprise hit me – binoculars!  They became the perfect precursor to telescopes because they have a wide field of view, it’s easy to pinpoint what you’re looking at, and they show the object right-side-up (unlike most telescopes, which invert the image).  Binoculars also show a lot of objects that I used to think required a telescope – star clusters, gas clouds (the nebulae) and many of the aforementioned features of the Moon.

From naked eye observing to getting your first telescope, there’s something for every age and any skill level when it comes to star gazing.  So how can you develop your skills and get “turned on” to new deep sky wonders?  You don’t have to do it alone with only a book or website as your guide.  Probably the best thing about the hobby is that it’s a shared experience!  Many astronomy clubs, planetariums and science centers sponsor workshops and star parties so you can learn from others.  Most amateur astronomers love to share their hobby, and encourage you to come and look through their instruments.  In fact, this is the best way to get experience with observing techniques and “trying out” many different types of telescopes to see which kind you might want for yourself.

Remote Site Star Party

Remote Site Star Party

But remember, the end goal need not be having a “gi-normous” telescope in your house.  The best telescope is the one that gets used.  If binocular observing is as far as you want to go, that’s cool!  There are some amazing binoculars made especially for star gazing (check out the Clark Planetarium Planet Fun Store  to see the different varieties available).

To help the novice and even seasoned stargazer, there will be a new series called “The Telescope and Observing Primer” presented in the Hansen Dome Theatre on the first Saturday of every month at 6:45 pm, beginning June 5.  The prime deep sky objects will change with each month’s presentation, and since it is presented live, there will be plenty of opportunities for Q&A.  Stay tuned to Clark Planetarium’s website for more details!

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2 thoughts on “Seeing in the Dark: Tales of an Amateur Astronomer

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