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“The Wonders of the Night Sky”

Posted by Mark Mittlesteadt   07/06/2005 12:00AM

I’ve been observing the night sky since we first landed on the moon back in ’69. Back then I had no scope, just my eyes and a very cheap pair of unaligned binoculars. We lived at the edge of a small town and at night it was almost as good as being out in the country. One could lay out in the backyard and watch the sky all night long and see so much, even without any optical aid. In fact, I recall even being able to see the Milky Way!

Many years later I decided I deserved to own a telescope and I bought a cheap 6” reflector on an even cheaper equatorial mount. I no longer lived in that small town, but rather in an ever growing metro area where the biggest city and our little city were growing together much like a larger galaxy eats it’s inferior neighbor.

With that scope, for only the second time in 20 years, I saw the rings of Saturn with my own eyes. I saw clouds belts on Jupiter. I saw details on the moon I didn’t know existed. Of course, I saw (with the unaided eye) countless satellites, airplanes, contrails, and the warm glow of our community as well.

At that location, I had one neighbor that faced my back yard that decided it was safer to keep her porch light on all night. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind turning it off at night as there was very little crime in our area the way it was. But she felt safer with it on, and I felt like my vision would never become dark adapted. So, I moved my viewing out to my driveway on the other side of the house. Of course I lived on a corner and just about the time my vision was about it’s best, sure enough a car would come flying around the corner and ruin it. I got very good at averting my vision (closing and covering my eyes) until the offending headlights has passed. But, the streets were getting busier and I found myself spending most of my observing sessions with eyes closed. Regardless of your equipment, very little of the universe can be seen this way.

At the time, I had few opportunities to go to dark sky sites out in the country and so, of course, my scope sat covered in my garage. Though I did find some time to take the cover off and look at it once in a while.

After some monumental lifestyle decisions were made (read: divorce), I temporarily moved back to my parent’s home until I could figure out where to go. I was back in the little community of my youth, where it was still relatively dark at night. Since I no longer had to deal with my accountant (my ex-wife), I decided I would buy a decent scope for once. I bought an 8” SCT. When it arrived I could not wait to set it up. Funny how mother nature always knows when us amateur astronomers purchase new equipment. She provided me with rain for a week straight. So I did what I had always done with my scopes…I looked at it, instead of through it.

Once the skies did clear and I had my new scope out, the very first thing I did was locate my favorite targets, Jupiter and Saturn. I was so thrilled with the views of Saturn’s rings and the Cassini division, so thoroughly delineated. I turned to Jupiter and I got a perfect view of it’s Giant Red Spot. But something was wrong! I must have had a dew drop on my corrector plate. I could clearly see what appeared to me as a water drop. But nothing was on my corrector plate when I checked it. I looked through my scope again. There was that dang “drop” again! But upon closer inspection, I realized that there was also a tiny black spot there as well.

Then it hit me. I was seeing one of Jupiter’s moons transiting over it’s face. What I though was a water drop, was actually the moon and the black spot was it’s shadow! This was easily the most thrilling thing I had ever seen. It’s nothing to those who routinely see these things, but for me it was a moment of epiphany. I was actually witnessing a wonder of the universe with my own eyes. I watched Jupiter all night long…seeing it’s cloud bands, the GRS and watching it rotate.

But shortly after I moving to this temporary retreat, I found a nice place and I moved again. This time it was a big house on a hill on the outskirts of the metro area I had left after my divorce. I had a nice view of the sky, but there were a lot of trees to contend with. Fortunately most of the skyglow from this location was to the north, so the whole sky wasn’t aglow with the city’s idea of safety.

But alas, my time was still limited and what time I did have was usually accompanied by rain or snow. For once I had a nice scope, but little time to use it and when I did try to, mother nature intervened. Again, I looked at my scope a lot, instead of through it.

By the time I moved to a better location, I had a family and I was usually too tired by the time the sky offered up anything to look at. I started on a path of enlightenment towards my views about equipment. If I didn’t have the time to set something up I didn’t bother. So I went and bought myself a nice portable wide-field refractor. Something to pick up for quick looks now and again.

I was now finally getting some enjoyment out of this hobby. For the first time in my life I was actually going out and looking at objects through my telescope. I was delving into uncharted waters here. The sky from this location was the best I had seen since my childhood. But we were renting and we desperately wanted our own home.

So we found one in a quiet little neighborhood. Ideal in every way, except for my nocturnal hobby. I had the skyglow from the strip mall to the south, the city’s lights to the north, a large paper mill to the northeast and another city’s lights to the east. But I did have one nice little patch of the night sky to view somewhere in the west-southwest where there were only large hills and a river. At least I had my one little corner of the sky to see something. I now had four kids and two jobs and even less time than at any time in my life, but I was bound and determined to find some tranquility out there somewhere.

I purchased a little ETX105 with GoTo. The optics are sharp and the GoTo goes to where it’s supposed to and it allows me to get some viewing in, where otherwise I would have none. Or so I thought would be the case.

I’m not one to really like winter. My favorite constellation is the ever popular Orion, but viewing it when it is 35 below zero is not my idea of a good time. So most winter nights I briefly gaze at it as I put my snowblower away or as I come in, shivering from taking out the trash. But in the summer I have my one little corner of the sky to see something. It is nothing grand and it certainly is no dark sky site. I have no idea where the Milky Way went, but I assume that Andromeda ate it and that’s why I can no longer see it. It makes sense to me as it must be at least a few trillion years since I last saw it. I put in a permanent pier in a perfect spot in my backyard, right where the street light out front doesn’t wash out my view and there is nothing but a couple of trees to take away a slight bit of the horizon. No houses, no city lights. Nope, nothing at all to ruin the view. From this vantage point, I now can see the brightest stars of the major constellations that are in the west-southwest sky. Very satisfying to say the least. I now consider anything (that is even remotely close to Vega in magnitude) as a bonus. It isn’t all that bad. Some nights I even hold my Sky Atlas 2000 (with the black sky background) up in front of me so I can fill in the blank parts of my night sky with the stars that are supposedly there. It truly is a wondrous sight to see the four stars of the Big Dipper’s pot with my own eyes and having my Sky Atlas held out next to it, so I can see the handle.

Now, my next door neighbor John, loves to go camping. Except he doesn’t go camping. Instead he put in and now continually enjoys his fire pit. Almost every clear summer night you can find John out in his back yard sitting next to his fire pit, stoking it and lovingly adding wood to it so he can feel like he is camping. When John’s fire is going, it reminds me of my dad and I going camping when I was a child. And when the moon is out memories of the Apollo missions from my childhood come back too.

I sit there and look at the moon and wonder about those astronauts and what it must have been like to be on the moon. I look at the moon now with my eyes or binoculars. I don’t take my scope out to see it, or anything else, because despite my years of trying to find some part of the night sky to view, and finally finding “my” little piece of it, the smoke from John’s fires fills my back yard and blocks out the only piece of the night sky I could hope to find anything.

I envy my fellow astronomers who have $5000 apos, or 24 inch reflectors at dark sky sites where they host annual star parties. The closest I get to a star party is falling asleep to the Academy Awards on TV. I also envy those who talk of staying up all night and putting their scopes away at dawn. It seems the only free time I have these days is after we put the kids to bed. I sit down in my recliner and ponder going out for a look. I turn to my wife and ask her if she would like to join me. So, with all the energy we can muster, we get up…and go to bed. On the way, I pass by my scopes and wonder if I’ll ever see the night sky through them again.

I’ll move again someday. I’ll find that perfect place out in the country where I can build my own observatory. A place where it is remote, quiet, peaceful and mostly…dark! But it would be just my luck that some company will find the adjacent land suitable to put up a huge manufacturing facility complete with the requisite floodlights and smoke stacks and once again relegate me to brief looks up to the night sky as I take out the trash.