Wednesday, July 14, 2010

astronomy approaches

At the Golden Gate Star Party, I had my telescope set up next to two people from Vancouver. The contrast between our nightly activities illustrated the enormous range of approaches to what we call the same hobby.

I have a dobsonian telescope, the simplest design by far. I find objects without any computer assistance or electronic slewing controls, just by looking at maps in books and atlases, finding a bright nearby target, and starhopping to the object from there. The only electronic devices I use are red flashlights, a red dot zero-magnification finder scope, and a little fan that keeps the primary mirror cool. It really doesn't get lower tech than that. My whole setup, including all the eyepieces, cost about $600. I also log diligently. Conditions, equipment, time, location, detailed description, and a sketch. Done by hand with pencil in a Meade quadrille notebook.

My Canadian neighbors, on the other hand, had two telescopes with full go-to capabilities, fancy equatorially-mounted refractors and I think a Schmidt-Cassegrain, electronic slewing controls and tracking, cameras, tracking error-correcting cameras, and all this gear attached to their laptops that ran custom-written software to control the telescopes and cameras. Altogether they certainly had around $10,000 in equipment. And all this was wired up to a massive battery complex in their van. I never saw either of them look through their scopes visually. They didn't know where constellations were, let alone how to find objects within them. They spent the nights pressing "go", waiting for their photograph to finish, and repeating. They thought I was nuts to sit at my scope for hours tediously drawing faint fuzzies. Why draw, and write down details by hand, when you can take a picture and keep track of details with your massive computer database? And I thought they were nuts to spend so much time sitting around waiting for cameras and not even get to see things with your own eyes. The internet already has all the pretty pictures you could want...

Neither approach is "better"; hobbies are just about obsessively honing something, whether its visual observing skills and a collection of recorded observations, or deep-space photography. Whatever floats your boat. I hope to get into photography eventually as well, for the technical challenge and learning experience, but right now that kind of things is outside my budget.

The important thing is that all of us were motivated by the same things. We love the sky, the vastness of the universe, the beauty of cosmological creation and destruction, the challenge of the pursuit, and yes the multitude of OCD-requiring tasks like polar alignment and cleaning eyepieces. It all goes together in one incredibly fun, rewarding pastime. How many professional astronomers can say that? Most of them can't remember more context than their current half a megapixel of data they had no personal hand in creating.

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