Archive for January 1st, 2010

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Astronomical Resolutions for 2010

January 1, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Alas, 2009–the International Year of Astronomy–is over. Naturally, a lot of people hope that the activities and institutions of IYA2009 will continue to have a positive impact in the future, but the calendar year is over and the official closing ceremony is fast approaching.

For me, 2009 was a banner year in astronomy. I rediscovered the joys of binocular astronomytwice. I finally, finally got up into the mountains here to take advantage of the darker skies. I got to spend an evening with the 60-inch telescope on Mt. Wilson, which is probably the biggest telescope open to visual use by amateurs. At last I got a decent tripod and mount for my little Mak, which led me to use it a lot more. I used the little scope for 16 sessions of sidewalk astronomy in downtown Claremont, and showed the moon and planets to 916 people. I posted my first article on Cloudy Nights, and started this blog.

So what will 2010 bring? Inspired by good ole Uncle Rod, I have two resolutions for the new year. Like IYA2009, they will hopefully take my observing to the next level during the coming year, and also have longer-lasting effects. One resolution is philosophical, the other practical.

SkyWatcher's 12" Truss-Tube Dob. WANT!

Resolution #1: I resolve to spend less time mooning over the stuff I want, and more time using the stuff I have.

My love of astronomy has always been bound up with a love of telescopes themselves. I like what telescopes represent. I like the fact that a chunk of metal and glass the size of a milk carton can open up the universe. And I just love, love, love scopes as things in themselves. I like looking at them, tinkering with them, and just thinking about them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an optical telescope, anywhere, ever, without thinking, “I sure would like to play with that.”

The problem is that in the last year–in all of the recent years, in fact–there have been too many evenings when the sky was clear but I was parked on the sofa reading telescope reviews and dreaming about saving up for a light bucket. Just going by time spent, one might get the impression that I like reading about telescopes more than I like using them. Which isn’t true. What got me into this, and what keeps me excited about it, is the almost indescribable feeling of wonder and connectedness that I get when I observe. The moments when I have to get up and walk around just to get hold of myself, when I want to run to the nearest house and pound the door down and drag people to the eyepiece by force, all come when I’m out at night using a scope, not reading about one on the net.

Since I started this blog I’ve been preaching that astronomy is not about hardware and expensive doodads, it’s about getting outside and getting your mind blown. Sure, there are things that I want. But I have everything that I need. So for 2010 to I resolve to get my butt off the couch and observe more.

Now, what to observe?

Globular cluster M2, something I've never seen for myself.

Resolution #2: I resolve to complete the Astronomical League’s Galileo Club, Lunar II Club, and Messier Club.

All too often my observing consists of getting the grab-n-go setup for a quick peek at half a dozen of the best and brightest things. Not that there’s anything wrong with casual observing like that. But I’m getting tired of being a casual observer. I know my way around the sky a lot better than I did a year ago, and I’m better at finding things and getting them in the eyepiece. I’m ready to start challenging myself.

Also, finishing the AL Lunar Club felt fantastic. I want to apply myself to another extended observing program. Doing so will motivate me to get organized, and to start pushing my equipment and my observing skills farther. If I have more of a vested interest in what’s up on any given night, I’ll pay more attention to the geometry and timing of the motion of the sky, and my understanding of the relationship between the Earth and the heavens will deepen.

Why am I choosing these three observing programs? I started the Galileo Club last year and I already laid out a rough schedule for finishing this year. I like the fact that the club requires low magnifications and can be completed with very modest equipment, and I really like the idea of retracing Galileo’s steps.

The Lunar II Club is a natural next step after finishing the Lunar Club. The requirements are quite a bit tougher–instead of just observing a bunch of features and checking them off a list, one must keep more detailed notes and make a written description or sketch of every feature. I’ve never even heard of most of the required targets, and I’m looking forward to hunting them down. Also, if I don’t have something to do on nights when I can’t hunt DSOs, I’ll go nuts.

I’m taking on the Messier Club because it’s just time. In a little over two years of observing I’ve managed to see about 40 of the 110 Messier objects, and I want to see what I’m missing out on with the other two thirds. The challenge of tracking down faint fuzzies ought to motivate me to get up the mountain more often. From here to my favorite observing spot is only about 15 miles, for cryin’ out loud.

With each synodic cycle of moon phases lasting 29.5 days, a calendar year offers 12 windows of opportunity to observe the waxing moon (more conveniently timed than the waning moon), and 12 windows for chasing Messier objects in the darker skies around new moon. The Lunar II and Messier Clubs include 100 and 110 targets, respectively, so I need to average nine or ten targets per monthly window. Each window is several nights long, but I will certainly lose some windows to bad weather, travel, and other demands of life. I think it will be a manageable amount of work, I just gotta get out and do it.

I’ll keep you posted. Happy New Year!