This column was provided by San Benito County resident and amateur astronomer David Baumgartner as part of a local series on astronomy.
The start of another year is always interesting, for if you are into astronomy, as many of us are, it opens the chance to look over the year coming up and see what exciting astronomical events are on their way to your brain via your backyard and into your telescope. Lucky for us we have astronomers who have the knowhow and experience to map out all the events that are about to greet us through the year so we don’t have to figure it out for ourselves. About the only thing I could predict properly would be the rising of the sun every morning. I’ve got that event down pretty well.
So here it is, the first week of the year and you already have your favorite events scheduled on your calendar on the wall or in your cell phone. Whichever, you are totally prepared for each event to come. Or are you? You say you have a telescope and your backyard; so, what else could you possibly need? Well, here are a few things that will help you get by this year, astronomically speaking that is.
The most forgotten setup procedure is finding out that after you setup that you can’t even see the event because of your neighbor’s house or some large tree blocking your view. The cure for that common error is to go out the night before and see if there is anything blocking your view from seeing the event. If so, then you could always move your setup to a better location in your backyard or to a completely different location all together. At that time, you may want to drive around the area and find a location that has as little light pollution as possible. Excessive light can really make a difference in the quality of your viewing. I have a friend down in the south county who lets our small group setup at her place. Absolutely no light pollution whatsoever, perfect viewing. If you are fortunate enough to find a place such as that, make sure you leave the spot the way you found it, if you want to be asked to come back again.
Okay, you have the night and your location picked out. So how is that night sky looking? Is it cloudy? Is the Moon looking back at you blocking out much of your view? Maybe you will have to set up another night when the skies are more favorable. And don’t forget to dress warmly. Even if it seems nice out at first, temperatures can change drastically and you’ll be out in the cold for the rest of the night. Not fun at all, I know from experience. You can never have enough wraps on hand.
If you are going to take a book or any maps along with you, you will want to bring along a flashlight too. Make sure it is not a white light. A white light will destroy your night vision, and it can take up to 45 minutes to regain it again. What you need is a red light or clear red cellophane paper covering a regular flashlight. If you want to see an astronomer all set up enjoying the night sky, get all bent out of shape, then see what happens when someone walks up shining his pretty little white light right into the eyes of our then irritated astronomer. Even a cell phone can produce the same effect. I’ve seen an upset astronomer grab the unprotected flashlight and toss it on the ground. (Well in my defense; he shined it right in my eyes)
Now that you’ve found your location, you are ready to get busy searching the skies or waiting for your scheduled event to come up. Sometimes you don’t need a telescope; a pair of binoculars is a great tool, or even just sitting in a chair or lying on your back using your eyes. It is amazing what you can see with no tools at all. Just relax and gaze at the sky for a long time. No need to think of anything in particular just enjoy the sight. If you would like, you can pick out some of the planet roaming around in the sky. This month you can pick out with your unadded eyes Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This will be one of the best months to go planet hunting in.
As you’re in your fixed position looking straight up, facing south, you might notice in time that the stars all seem to move together from left to right. The stars are not moving at all. Well they are moving but at such a slow pace that it takes years for us to notice their movement here on Earth. The star movement we notice is caused by the rotating of the Earth on its axis. It is like the hands of a clock: you can’t see them move, because they move too slowly. The Earth also revolves around the Sun causing our changing of the seasons. In 24 hours, a star will move all the way around. So, the next night, you will see it again at almost the same position.
Another thing people often forget is that everyone and I mean everyone, gets the munchies star gazing for some four to ten hours and you can also get thirsty. I can always tell from the people setting up near us which ones didn’t bring anything to eat, for they will come over to our setup pretending to check out our equipment. But what they really want is to check out our food. You must be careful up there in those hills. I mentioned in the past that I am the only one in our group that doesn’t drink coffee. I know, weird huh? So, I bring my own chocolate. But everyone does share their treats and whatnot. And this is good. I’m also a Dodger fan. Not a fan of either the Giants or coffee. Kind of a rare breed around these parts. Go figure.
Now for the hard part in our adventure: the equipment. I might say “the expensive equipment”. It is no different than purchasing any other expensive hobby equipment; for a couple more dollars you can get a better one and on and on it goes. Unless you are going to be working with photography and such, there is no need to have to be spending that kind of cash. From two to four hundred dollars, you can get yourself a nice four-inch guiding reflector telescope that will give you and your family many hours of fun under the night sky. After several months of exploring with your 4” scope you might find yourself bit by the night sky bug. If that is the case, then open your wallet and have at it. If you find you are coming up short funding your new expensive hobby, there is always the ability of taking out a second mortgage on your home. If that turns out to be a problem, then there is always the Parents ready to help. I know I’ve fallen into that trap a few times myself, being on the parent end of the transaction that is.
Before you know it you have met up with other self-proclaimed astronomers that have second mortgages on their own home as well. And of course, you find that after a while you are competing to see who can come up with the best and biggest equipment of all. Many astronomers, but not all, are not aware that there is a term called; “a third mortgage” that can be combined with the help of the parents. That is if they haven’t left the state by now.
I suppose the last thing I should pass on to you, is don’t let your eyes get bigger than your biceps, for some of these telescopes can get pretty big and quite heavy. As you age this can become a problem. Therefore I try to enlist new-comers to our group, young and strong new-comers. It is amazing how much they are willing to lift for an old man like me. With that in mind, I’m thinking about a bigger mount and scope soon, that may have to involve a third mortgage to make this happen.
I hope everyone had a great Christmas/New Years, I’m sure you did if it included a new telescope under your tree.
No “Constellation of the month” this round. But look for my February special article on Constellations and who came up with all those named figures and the stories behind them. Should be interesting.
Here’s to a better and more prosperous 2023. Clear Skies…
What’s up this month:
Jan 1 Moon passes 0.7° north of Uranus
Jan 3 Moon passes 0.5° south of Mars
Jan 3 Quadrantid meteor shower peaks
Jan 4 Earth is at perihelion (91.4 million miles from the Sun)
Jan 6 Full Moon
Jan 8 Moon is s apogee (252,562 miles from Earth)
Jan 14 Last Quarter Moon
Jan 20 Moon passes 7° south of Mercury
Jan 20 Jupiter is a Perihelion (460 million miles from the Sun)
Jan 21 New Moon
Jan 21 Moon is at perigee (221,562 miles from the Earth)
Jan 22 Venus passes 0.4° south of Saturn
Jan 23 Moon passes 4° south of Saturn
Jan 23 Moon passes 3° south of Venus
Jan 25 Moon passes 3° south of Neptune
Jan 25 Moon passs 1.8° south of Jupiter
Jan 28 First Quarter Moon
Jan 28 Moon passes 0.9° north of Uranus
Jan 30 Moon passes 0.1° south of Mars