Archive for the ‘New Year's Resolutions’ Category

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The awesomely delayed New Year’s post

March 27, 2011

The year is almost exactly one fourth gone, so this is more than a bit late. But 2010 was a transformative year in my astronomical career, and I wanted to explain why and how, and to assess how I did on my astronomical New Year’s resolutions.

My first resolution was, “I resolve to spend less time mooning over the stuff I want, and more time using the stuff I have.

I’m calling this one a mixed success. On one hand,  I did a LOT more observing in 2010 than in any previous year. Not in terms of sessions–I did 95 in 2010, versus 110 in 2009–but in terms of time spent and objects observed. In 2009 I probably observed a few dozen things; in 2010 I saw more than 200, the great majority of which were new to me.

I got off to a strong start, taking advantage of the good sky transparency after winter and spring rains to do a lot of observing from my driveway, especially with binoculars. I completed the Binocular Messier Club by mid-February, and did most of the observations for the Messier Club and Deep Sky Binocular Club between January and March.

Crucially, I finally started getting out to dark sites on  a regular basis. I first started observing in October, 2007, but I had only been on one dark-sky observing trip before last year. Two factors played a role here.

The first was getting up to Mount Baldy with a friend from the PVAA in the fall of 2009 to try to catch the impact of the LCROSS mission on the moon. We didn’t see the impact fireball–no one on Earth did, not directly, although the LCROSS probe sent back good pictures and data showing that yes, water ice is indeed present in the craters at the lunar poles. What turned out to be more important for me was the revelation of how much more I could see under those darker skies, and the shedload of deep-sky objects I was able to observe that night, mostly with 15×70 binoculars. That night was also a big step forward for me because it was the first time I had taken out my Pocket Sky Atlas and used it to really cruise the skies, rapidly finding my way to new objects that I’d never seen before. So come the beginning of 2010, I knew that quite dark skies were available close by, I had the motivation to get out to them, and I was learning the skills I’d need to take advantage of them.

The other big factor is that my son, London, was 5, so he was both more adventurous than he had been, and also required quite a bit less minding. It was time to go camping. My trips to the Salton Sea in January, February, and March of 2010 were solo efforts, although I met up with at least one other PVAA member each time. But almost all of my later dark-sky outings were camping trips. We went to Owl Canyon in June and September (London stayed with Vicki in a hotel room on the latter trip), Joshua Tree Lake and Afton Canyon in October, and the All-Arizona Star Party in November. And we’ve already been out once this year, to the Salton Sea again (the Salton Sea is more southerly and lower in elevation than the high-desert observing spots I’ve been to, so it’s warmer overnight during the winter months). The impact of these dark-sky trips is hard to describe. I have had experiences out under those dark skies that would simply have been impossible anywhere else. I don’t think it’s going to far to say that they have not only changed me as an astronomer but as a human being.

I mentioned that my resolution observe more and obsess about gear less was only a mixed success. I did spend less time mooning over telescope  catalogs and telescope vendors’ websites, and more time at the eyepiece, so that part was okay. But I also turned over almost my entire telescope collection, selling off old stuff and trying out new stuff in the quest for the perfect lineup. I think every single telescope I own right now was purchased in 2010, except for the Astroscan, which is really London’s. I learned some valuable things along the way. I know now that a 10″ dob is as much big iron as I need for at least the near future. I found my ultimate no-excuses travel telescope. And I got a couple of nice mid-sized telescopes, both of which turn in good images without breaking either my back or my bank account. I’m not done buying telescopes–I would like to get a 5″-6″ SCT or Mak to have something more portable than my current mid-sized scopes but equally capable–but I think I’m  converging on the ideal scope collection for my observing interests. It wouldn’t hurt me to concentrate on getting some non-telescopic gear, like a light-pollution filter and some better eyepieces.

Galileo's sketch of the changing positions of Jupiter's moons--an observation one must repeat for the AL Galileo Club.

My other resolution for 2010 was, “I resolve to complete the Astronomical League’s Galileo Club, Lunar II Club, and Messier Club.” This one was also a mixed success. As I’ve reported (more than once, and if you’re tired of hearing about it, I don’t blame you), I did complete the requirements for several of the Astronomical League’s observing clubs, just not all of the ones I resolved to finish. This was mainly caused by the big shift in my observing habits mentioned above. Prior to 2010, essentially all of my observing was done from home, under light pollution, and so I naturally gravitated to projects that were easy to complete under those conditions. Hence the interest in the Lunar II and Galileo clubs (although I was also interested in the latter simply because Galileo was The Man). Last year my interest shifted to the deep sky (i.e., objects beyond the solar system: nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies) in a big way, and all of the clubs I completed in 2010 are deep-sky programs.

So what about observing programs for this year? I’m only 9 objects away from completing the Urban Club, although I let a few of them slip too near the sun so I won’t be able to put that one to bed until a few months from now, when they’ve escaped (or, more accurately, when our orbit around the sun has moved the sun’s apparent position against the background stars). I should do more on the Double Star Club–like the moon and planets, double stars are little affected by light pollution, so those will give me something to chase on the nights when there’s too much humidity, smog, or dust to go after faint fuzzies.

NGC 4038 and 4039, a pair of colliding galaxies popularly known as the Antennae. Part of the Herschel 400.

But those are really incidental. My big observing push for the foreseeable future is the Herschel 400, a list of 400 of the best out of the more than 2500 deep-sky objects cataloged by William Herschel. It’s deliberately intended as a follow-on to the Messier Club, to help observers further develop their skills and see more of what’s out there. I started on it last fall, not in earnest but as a way to pad out my sessions as I finished up the Messier and Caldwell lists. Quite a few of the objects for the other deep-sky clubs are drawn from the Herschel 400, so between having completed a few of those and having started on the Herschels last fall, I’ve got almost a quarter of them–95 out of 400–logged already. Sounds like quite a bit of progress, but most of those 95 were chosen for other clubs because they’re among the best and brightest, so I’m afraid many of the gems are already logged and the remaining 305 are going to be mostly true faint fuzzies. Still, one never knows until one looks, and even my limited exploration of the rest of the Herschels has turned up some surprisingly beautiful objects.

So, I’m going to work on the Herschel 400, but I’m not going to commit to finishing it this year. I had a lot of fun last year but almost suffered from observing program burnout. This year I’m going to take a more relaxed pace. If I finish a few things along the way, great, but I’m not going to push myself to do it.

Still, I am not without goals, and even though three months have passed I’m going to make some astronomical resolutions for 2011 (only having 9 months to work on them ought to add spice).

Resolution #1: I resolve to not give up on observing from home.

All the dark sky trips in 2010 were great, but after a strong first quarter I did a lot less observing from home after March. There is a danger here, of developing the attitude that it’s not worth going out unless I can be under inky-black skies. The truth is that there is a lot of great observing to be had in town, especially if one chooses the right targets and the right times to observe. As I ought to know, since I got so much deep-sky work done from my driveway last year, mostly with very modest instruments. So I am going to try to get in at least one or two serious observing sessions from home every month, light pollution be damned.

Resolution #2: I resolve to spend more time on every object that I observe.

This one is also a reaction to my experiences last year. Some people dismiss observing programs as a list-checking exercise that corrodes the relaxed, contemplative side of observing. I don’t think that’s universally true–I always take at least a couple of minutes on each object to jot down my observations and impressions–but I would be lying if I denied that that danger exists. So one of my goals for 2011 is to improve the quality of my observations, and not to worry about their quantity.

And…that’s it. That’s all I really want for this year. I certainly grew as an amateur astronomer in 2010. In 2011, I want to mature as an observer.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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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!