Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Astronomy For Beginners

By Simon Woodhouse

I think it's fare to say that at one time or another, we've all looked up into the night sky and marveled at the stars. There's something very pure about the absolute darkness up there, and the tiny little lights that puncture it. Staring into the night sky is by no means a modern phenomenon, and most ancient civilizations did exactly the same as we do today. 4,500 years ago the people of Northern Babylonian might not have had telescopes, but they still kept astronomical records, and were able to predict the course of objects moving across the night sky. The Ancient Egyptians planned their agricultural economy around the River Nile and when it would flood, an event they predicted when Sirius (the brightest star in the sky) first appeared each year. Ever wondered where the seven day week comes from? Well it's nothing new, with many older civilizations using exactly the same system, and one they based on the phases of the moon.

My own real interest in the night sky started in 1997 with the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet. I was amazed at how close it looked, even though it was well over a million miles away. And I had always imagined comets to be really speedy things, something that would whiz by and be gone in a flash, but Hale-Bopp stayed in the night sky for ages.

After Hale-Bopp someone told me that with a bit of practice it was possible to spot Mir, the ageing Russian space station. You didn't need any equipment for this, just a relatively dark patch of sky and a bit of patience. I had both, and to my amazement saw Mir on the first night I tried. But had I not known what I was looking at, I would probably have thought it was the running lights from a plane.

I was still not sure whether staring up into the sky was just a passing phase, so rather than parting with some cash and buying a telescope, I got a pair of old binoculars and cellotaped then to a camera tripod. This set-up looked a bit daft, but it was dark so no one saw me anyway. To help me recognize what I was looking at I bought a beginners guide to Astronomy (there are numerous ones out there). But I found understanding the star charts rather tricky. What I needed was something even more basic and easy to use. Via the internet, I downloaded a trial version of some star gazing software, and then after a couple of weeks ordered the real thing. This was much better. All I had to do was tell the software whereabouts in the world I was, and it filled the computer screen with exactly what I was seeing overhead. Everything was labeled, easy to see, and the software itself was pretty idiot-proof to use.

It was then only a matter of time before I bought a telescope. I did a bit of reading up on what was best for a beginner, and in the end decided on a four and a half inch reflector. Telescopes come in two types, reflectors and refractors. Reflectors give you more bang for your buck, in so much as they let more light in and therefore produce a sharper image. But they're not very good for ground observing (peering into the bedroom window of the house across the way), because the image is flipped upside-down by the mirrors inside. Seeing as I wasn't interested in peering in the neighbor's windows, a reflector was fine for me. Another point to consider before buying a telescope is where you're going to put it when you're not using it. They're pretty heavy things, especially with the counter-weight attached, and they're an awkward size and shape to move as well.

I bought my first telescope in mid-winter, so once I got it home and set it up, I didn't have long to wait before I could try it out. This was a frustrating business to start with, as adjusting to the fact I was seeing everything upside-down, and fiddling with the motion controls at the same time, meant it took me ages before I could even line up on the moon. But when I did it was worth it. Even to the naked eye the moon is quite intriguing, through a telescope however, it's quite amazing. I think I spent most of that first night just staring at the craters and the pot marks.

Using the software I'd bought, it wasn't long before I discovered Jupiter and its red spot. Though the planet itself was impressive, I was amazed at just how easy it was to see some of its moons. Better still though was seeing Saturn and its rings. Even with a relatively cheap telescope like the one I'd bought, the rings stood out so clearly it almost took your breath away. Standing outside at night in mid-winter might not be the most comfortable way to spend an evening, but it was certainly worth it. After touring the planets for quite a few weeks, I started to try and spot some of the fainter objects, and this is where I hit a snag. Astronomy from within an urban environment suffers badly from being at the mercy of light pollution. Stare up into the night sky above any city or large town, and you'll see a sickly, orange glow. This is light pollution and it mostly comes from all the streetlights. Worse still are the spotlights that surround sports arenas and playing fields. If you live near either of these, astronomy is going to be a frustrating pastime. It's bearable when you're looking at something directly overhead, but when it comes to things near the horizon you might as well forget it. I don't have this problem quite so much where I live now, as I'm lucky enough to overlook the Pacific Ocean, and there aren't too many streetlights out there.

Besides the light pollution problem, and standing around in the cold and the dark, astronomy has plenty of things going for it. Once you've paid out for the telescope, staring up at the sky itself is free. As the night goes by and the earth rotates, new celestial bodies come into view. A similar thing happens as the seasons change, with different objects coming and going as the year passes by. So what might seem like a relatively static pastime is actually full of movement.

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