Sunday, June 2, 2019


I have just gotten back from a scheduled HAL Star Party at Alpha Ridge Park. The company alone was worth the drive out there, although the conditions were marginal at best. I kept waiting for Jupiter to make its appearance, until I realized that what I thought was just unusually bad light pollution to the east was actually an impenetrable cloud bank. No Jupiter. High, thin clouds over the rest of the sky drowned out all but the brightest stars no matter where you looked. Frustrated in looking in other directions, I finally settled in on the Big Dipper, which was in the darkest part of the sky this night.

I slowly scanned the sky from star to star making up this most famous of asterisms, until I came upon Mizar and Alcor. Ahh.. finally, the gods were smiling upon me. I must have observed this beautiful stellar pair for a good 20 minutes or so. With enough aperture Mizar is, of course, amongst the easiest of double stars to split, and although due to the conditions I had only bothered to set up my 60mm Stellarvue refractor (my smallest scope), I enjoyed to the utmost what was still possible to do. Using my 24mm Televue Panoptic eyepiece, Mizar could just barely be split, but it was easier than easy with my 9mm Nagler.

There was Mizar, clearly two separate stars. Alcor remained one. However, going to the googles, I learn that this system is far more complex than meets the eye. Mizar, although we amateurs can see only two stars, is actually four, whilst its (apparently) solitary companion Alcor is itself a double star. Six stars instead of one! What really fascinated me, however, were their colors. They seemed to change from moment to moment. Mizar's four components appeared in my eyepiece as two stars, one big and bright, and the other considerably dimmer and nestled right up against the brighter one. At first, the brighter looked white and the dimmer somewhat orange. But examining them again after a few minutes, I thought they looked blue and yellow respectively, not unlike Alberio. But after a bit, they appeared to swap colors - and then back again!

Now I know perfectly well that all these mutations are quite subjective - occuring in my eye, and not in the stars themselves. But to me, that just intensifies my interest in how we stargazers perceive color through our eyepieces, and reminds me that we should not be dogmatic about what colors are "out there".

FOOTNOTE: It's been almost 24 hours since I wrote the above, and now I'm wondering whether the shifting colors were a result of chromatic aberration. The seeing was frankly awful and I was using a particularly small aperture last night. Perhaps the "action" was going on, not in my eye, but in the eyepiece. I wonder. Would the colors have appeared steady had I been observing with my 102mm refractor, instead of my 60mm?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Stargazing and Peace

"Saguaro Twilight"
Watercolor by myself
Based on a photograph taken by Fr. Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski, a blogger for the Vatican Observatory Foundation, recently posted a reflection on stargazing as a useful corrective for persons prone to being workaholics. The measured pace of our hobby, combined with the seeming eternity of the objects we observe, can make for a rare opportunity to slow the often all too frenetic pace by which we live.

You can read his posting here:

What I found interesting about his reflections was his recognition that we can all to easily drag our workaholic tendencies into what ought to be a restful hobby. Now everyone knows that I am not an astrophotographer, so I'm not tempted by the Byzantine complexities of astrogear that might take hours to set up, and can be the occasion for spending most of what ought to be a relaxing evening under the stars in cursing some recalcitrant piece of equipment that refuses to operate properly.  But even we purely visual stargazers can get caught up in a race (of our own making) against the clock, trying to cram the maximum number of DSOs into the minimum amount of time. I now look back with mixed emotions at my pride at observing 19 DSOs, 4 planets, plus a number of Perseids and the ISS in a single night at last year's Stellafane. Just what was I trying to accomplish? And who was I competing against? True, I knew that it would likely be the one and only clear night I would spend in all of 2018 under a really dark sky, so maybe I had some excuse for wanting to see as much as I could.

But I must confess that I can fall into the same trap right here at home in suburban Maryland, under our battleship gray light polluted skies. I find myself at times needing to take a deep breath, and just look...

One "spiritual exercise" I've found most effective is to randomly point my telescope at some spot in the sky, slap in a widefield eyepiece, and DON'T MOVE ANYTHING for a half hour or so. Don't look for things to observe - let them come to you. With my 90mm Stellarvue  refractor and my 30mm Pentax eyepiece, it takes about 2 minutes for a star to traverse the entire field of view at its widest point. This is of course, assuming I've pointed my scope due south. The further north one looks, the slower objects will move across the FOV (and if you're pointed at Polaris, it will never move at all). So every 2 minutes, the view is completely different.

And really LOOK at what's in your eyepiece. Once again, don't sweat it; that's not the point here. The object is to synchronize your mind and body to the motions of the universe, to move at its pace. And it can be amazing what you chance across in this exercise. I've "discovered" globular clusters that aren't in the Messier catalog, but go by lowly NGC designations. I've seen brilliant double or multiple star systems that I would never have otherwise looked for. On rare occasions, the faintest of all imaginable smudges will traverse my FOV, and I'm left wondering whether I've caught sight of a distant galaxy or a gas cloud within our own. But mostly, I see stars, stars, stars. Swirls and knots, streams and spatters of them, intriguing asterisms and possible open clusters.

It takes a good 10 minutes or so to "get in the groove", for your mind to settle down and abandon the urge to look at something else. After another 10 minutes, you find you don't want to stop. When you finally do come back down to Earth after 30, 40, 50 minutes, or even an entire hour, it feels like you've been there, leaping from star to star, cruising the Milky Way, tossed about by the stellar winds of distant suns.

Now I certainly do not recommend a steady diet of such stargazing, but once in a while it's good to just let go and allow the turning Earth do all the work for you.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Learning to See

I've been sketching what I see through the eyepiece practically since the day I got my first telescope, back in 2010. I still have the very first astrosketches I ever made. Here is my first planetary sketch, of Mars, from the night of 14 April of that year.

Pretty crude, I'd say. But I wasn't that experienced yet as to planetary observing, and I was only using a 120mm refractor. So perhaps I ought not be that critical. There's Syrtis Major, plain to see, and a (doubtlessly oversized) polar icecap. (To see the sketches/paintings at full resolution, just click on the image)

2 months earlier, I had finished this drawing of my first sighting of the Asteroid Vesta.

I'm fairly sure that this is my first ever astrosketch, since I have nothing older than it (and I don't throw anything out). I began it on 14 April, but didn't finish it until 2 nights later. On the 14th, I wasn't sure which of the 2 "dots" at the lower left was the asteroid. It wasn't until my second look on the 16th that I could see which one had moved.

Well, time rolls on, and my observing skills gradually improved, as did my practice at recording what I saw. For evidence of such, just look at this 2014 sketch I made of pretty much the same face of Mars that I had drawn 4 years earlier.

The scope used here was actually smaller than I one I was looking through 4 years earlier (only 90mm), but my eye was far better trained... and it showed!

The high point (so far) in my sketching career was when, on a whim, I sent in one of my lunar sketches to Sky and Telescope magazine, and by golly if they didn't publish it! (June 2016 issue, page 73) Here it is:

Hundreds of sketches later, I am still a passionate advocate of the practice. Sketching an object compels you to PAY ATTENTION to what you're looking at, to notice little nuances. Is that crater wall brighter than the one right next to it? Is it more jagged, more broken up? Which mare is darker - the Sea of Tranquility or the Sea of Serenity? And why do you think they're different?

When sketching Saturn, I find myself noticing detail that I might miss when just looking at it, such as the planet's shadow on the rings, or subtle variations in color on the surface (much harder to detect than with Jupiter).

Now most HAL members know I have a fondness for tracking down anonymous uber-faint stars. Sketching the field of view after successfully spotting them makes going back to them all the easier, because you've fixed the environment in your mind. Many years ago, I used to teach Russian at Howard Community College. I discovered that the more parts of the body a student used in learning the language, the faster (and more permanently) he expanded his vocabulary. Just reading a new word was practically useless, as far as memorization was concerned. Saying it aloud was much better. But best of all was writing it down. (Actually, better than "best" was to do all 3 at once.)

The same goes for stargazing. It's a full body sport. Just looking at NGC whatever is good, as far as that goes. There's no way to "say it aloud", so let's just skip over that step. But sketching the danged thing? Aaaah, now that's the ticket! I guarantee that you'll remember the difference between M13 and M92 after you've sketched them both, and you'll appreciate their differences.

Now lately I've expanded my repertoire a bit, and have taken up watercolor painting. (A lot harder than I anticipated before getting into it!) What with the execrable weather of late, plus another round of health scares, I haven't had much opportunity of late to "paint the sky", but I have been practicing on some more mundane objects - like trees. Here are a few examples of recent work:

Now once again, painting trees has forced me to really look at them for the first time. I never before noticed just how radically sunlight alters the perceived color of leaves, how much variation there is in light and shadow, how many varieties of shape can be seen in even 2 examples of the same species.

I hope to be able to turn my attention skyward in the next few weeks, and make use of this new (to me) medium. I'd like to get similar benefits from painting the Messier catalog. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 4, 2019

Seeing Orion Through the Clouds

Last night I went outside to put the week's recyclables out on the curb, and happened to look up (I usually do). Nothing but clouds, clouds, clouds everywhere, right down to the horizon. But wait! Straight ahead of me I could see a dim red beacon visible despite the gray ceiling - Mars. That cheered me up a bit, and I started looking around to see if anything else had managed to batter its way through the cloud cover.

Ahh.. There was one bright star in the east, and at first I thought I was seeing Sirius. But then golden Betelgeuse popped out to its left, and I realized I had been looking at Rigel. Once I had my celestial geography (that can't possibly be the right term) nailed down, I managed to make out Orion's belt halfway between that constellation's two brightest stars.

Further afield, I could see Capella drifting in and out of denser cloud patches. A kind of "Now you see it, now you don't" sort of thing. But other than that, nothing. Unrelieved gray wherever I looked. It hit me that, in the ages before light pollution, all that gray would have been the blackest black imaginable, and what few stars I could make out would have stood out all the more due to the greater contrast.

I wasn't ready to go straight back indoors, so I amused myself by trying to figure out what was where above all those clouds. Let's see now, Gemini ought to be right there, and the Pleiades somewhere over there. Maybe I could see Aldebaran? Nah, no such luck.

After 10 minutes or so of the most pathetic one-man impromptu star party ever, I decided to declare victory and head back indoors. But even so, I did see the stars... six of them. (And thousands of them in my mind's eye.) And one planet.

Better than nothing, I guess.