Archive for the ‘Binocular Highlights’ Category

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Binocular Highlights: what I’m rolling with

July 23, 2016

I just turned in my sixth Binocular Highlight column for Sky & Telescope. While I had everything out for the write-up, I thought people might be interested to know what sources I make use of.

Here’s the stuff I use pretty much every time:

  • S&T’s Pocket Sky Atlas and Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas. I usually take a full-size clipboard and Interstellarum out with me to observe, so the Jumbo version is no added hassle. Consequently – and perhaps counterintuitively – I tend to use the Jumbo version for nearby excursions, and the classic for desk reference and travel. This is usually my first stop.
  • interstellarum Deep Sky Atlas: Desk Edition. Despite the name, my primary ‘deep’ field atlas. Goes out with me practically every time, unless space is really at a premium. Also sees heavy use indoors for planning sessions and following up on things.
  • Chandler Night Sky planisphere. Hands down, my most-used tool – it goes out with me every session no matter what, and I frequently refer to it indoors as well.
  • Chandler Sky Atlas for Small Telescopes and Binoculars – particularly useful for the Milky-Way-centric chart that shows the galaxy as a flat band with the celestial coordinate grid deformed around it. Useful for thinking about where things are with respect to the disk of the galaxy, for quick looks, and for the object list.
  • SkySafari 5 Pro app on my iPhone. Astounding amount of information. Usually my first source for looking up distances, separations, etc., although I always confirm with some other source.

Sources I turn to often, but not always:

  • Glenn LeDrew’s atlas of the Milky Way in The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, 3rd Edition. I already had the 2nd edition – it was one of the first books I picked up when I first got into amateur astronomy back in 2007. I got the 3rd edition primarily for the Milky Way atlas, and I was not disappointed. The identification of OB associations is particularly useful.
  • The Cambridge Double Star Atlas. Super helpful for checking on double stars, and a handsome and useful atlas all around. Also, kind of an insane steal at $22 on Amazon.
  • Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. Not my first stop for astrophysical data, but it’s nice to get some historical perspective and Burnham excels at this.
  • O’Meara Deep-Sky Companions series. Useful for astrophysical info, historical persepctive, and visual impressions from one of the world’s foremost observers. Crucially, O’Meara usually describes how objects look at varying magnifications, including naked eye and binocular appearances, so although the books are grounded in telescopic observations they are still quite useful for binocular observers.
  • Uranometria, All Sky Edition. Always nice to have the big gun in reserve, although I find Interstellarum more useful for most practical applications.

To get the latest astrophysical data I turn to the web. Particularly helpful sources are the SEDS Messier database, non-Messier NGC/IC/etc page, and Interactive NGC Catalog, the NGC/IC ProjectSIMBAD, the NASA Extragalactic Database, and if all else fails, Google Scholar and ArXiv.

For inspiration I’m quite omnivorous. Gary Seronik hit the Messiers pretty hard for the last few years, so I’m avoiding them for the time being, both to avoid duplication and to force myself to go find new stuff. The Astronomical League’s Deep Sky Binocular observing list (free), the Irish Federation of Astronomical Societies Binocular Certificate Handbook (free), James Mullaney’s Celestial Harvest, Phil Harrington’s Touring the Universe through Binoculars, and my own notes compiled over the past 8.5 years all serve as jumping-off points. Tom Price-Nicholson’s Binocular Stargazing Catalog (free) looks like a useful source as well, although I haven’t had a chance to explore it thoroughly yet. More often than not, I go out to find a particular object or to survey a set of objects (open clusters in Cygnus, for example) and end up discovering new things. So far I’ve been generating many more possible topics to write about than I actually can, so it seems unlikely that I’ll run out of subject matter anytime soon. We’ll see!

If you know of something I should be using that’s not on the list, please let me know – the comment field is open.

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A new gig

March 28, 2016

I’ve kept mum about this, but now the official announcement has come out in the May issue of Sky & Telescope so I can blab. Gary Seronik is leaving S&T to go assume the chief editorship at SkyNews, the leading Canadian astronomy magazine. S&T needed people to take over Gary’s ‘Telescope Workshop’ and ‘Binocular Highlights’ columns. For ‘Telescope Workshop’ – now to be recast as ‘Astronomer’s Workbench’ and include other DIY astro tools alongside telescopes – they got Jerry Oltion, whose creative ATM projects have been featured in the column many times.

And for ‘Binocular Highlights’ they got me. I’ll try not to muck it up.

Actually it’s a very welcome thing, for several reasons. I’ve always been a pretty feckless observer – without an observing program to keep my focused, I just go where the wind takes me, and sometimes that means “nowhere”. The necessity of turning in a short but polished* piece on a different object each month will hopefully spur me to be more systematic about my observing. One or two close friends have wondered whether the monthly deadline will prove oppressive, but so far it’s been good, for reasons described below.

* Or at least polishable – I owe my editor, S.N. Johnson-Roehr, a big thanks for her thoughtful improvements to my pieces, and an even bigger thanks for the opportunity to write ‘Binocular Highlights’ for a while.

Also, doing more binocular observing lines up nicely with where my interests have been taking me in the last two to three years. After several years of semi-committedly chasing faint fuzzies with my dob, I’ve been getting more into low-stress, low-power, widefield observing, primarily with refractors. Last October’s observing runs up at Big Bear exemplify this trend. And if you keep going down the path of low power and wide fields, eventually you wind up with binoculars.

Finally – and somewhat to my surprise – I’ve really been enjoying getting out to observe by myself. Traditionally I’ve been a social stargazer, sometimes to the extent of not observing unless there’s someone else around to observe with. And I still love doing that. But when I first got started in amateur astronomy back in 2007 and 2008, almost all of my observing was solo, and there was something very peaceful about being all alone out under the stars. I have sometimes lost sight of that as my life has gotten busier in recent years.

But, hey, now I have an obligation to get out and observe – it’s my job! And with articles due to the magazine about four months before they’ll see print, the objects that will be well-placed in the evening sky when a given issue comes out are up just before dawn when that month’s article is due. So if I want to have one more look – to confirm previous observations and double-check that I haven’t missed anything – I have to go on dawn patrol, which is strictly a solo pursuit (given that my friends aren’t masochists).

I assume that writing the column will affect my blogging here, but I don’t know how much or in what ways. There are a couple of threats: first, that I’ll pour all of my creative energy into my writing for S&T and have nothing left over for the blog, and second, that I’ll use up all of my good material for S&T and let the blogging fall off to avoid duplications. My crystal ball is notoriously cloudy (remember the much-discussed, never-attempted Suburban Messier Project?), but I’m not too worried about either one. As far as exhausting my creative energy goes, writing the column simply isn’t that demanding. It takes a couple of days of thought and effort, but most months I’m either blogging here more often than that, or not at all, as time, mood, and opportunity allow.

And as far as using up all the good material for S&T and having no “spare observations” left over for the blog – forget about it. I was worried about this until my latest dawn patrol session. I was cruising in and around Cygnus and I spent a little over an hour making notes on a dozen or so objects. And I realized that if I only hit Cygnus once or twice a year for the column, that one observing run gave me enough material for 6 to 12 years. Things may change in the future, but for now the sequence is:

  1. Realize I need to find something good for the next Binocular Highlights.
  2. Go observe systematically in an area I’ve only hit opportunistically before.
  3. Find enough cool things that it would take a decade of columns to cover them.
  4. Get excited about all of those ‘extra’ things and feel compelled to blog about them.

Okay, so the fourth thing hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully it will in the next post, and in many posts to come.

One final note – I am acutely aware that Gary Seronik will be a tough act to follow. When JR wrote to ask me if I was interested in taking over BH, I wrote, “Assuming I don’t die of anxiety of influence, I’d love to do this.” It wasn’t hollow talk. Gary’s Binocular Highlights book was one of the booster rockets that got my observing career off the pad back when, and I still recommend it regularly. The legacy of work he’s already produced in other books, magazines, and at his website is already immense, and it will only grow with his chief editorship at SkyNews and his future projects.

Those are some mighty big shoes. I am not going to be able to fill them, so I’m not going to try. I wrote to Gary earlier this spring to thank him for the good work he’s done and ask his advice, and among the other helpful things he said, he basically told me to go have fun and develop my own voice. The first of those is fait accompli, and the second is, and will remain, a work in progress. I hope you’ll come along, and let me know how I’m doing and what I can do better. Clear skies!