Since I got back on the road this spring, I have a new addition to my gear, a telescope. I wasn’t looking for one, it just happened. My brother had bought it years ago, but, like most of those prisoners in sticks and bricks houses, he lives in the middle of a giant metropolitan area, so the telescope wasn’t getting much use. He had been all enthusiastic when he bought it, but after a few sessions, it went into the closet and stayed there until he remembered it as I was getting ready to head West for the summer, and offered it to me on loan.
The problem is light pollution. City dwelling amateur astronomers are like scuba divers in the desert – they’re in the wrong place to practice their hobby. I, on the other hand, spend most of my time in “dark sky” locations ideal for telescope use – high altitude, low humidity, and far from urban light pollution sources. The Big Bend area is famous for its dark skies, since there’s nothing down there. Most places out West far enough from the cities are adequate, and New Mexico often incorporates astronomy into its park programs for visitors, especially City of Rocks State Park. Any place out in the desert and high enough to get you above the low altitude air pollution will offer excellent observing conditions.
So, my advice is, buy a serviceable amateur telescope, or even better, adopt/rescue one that’s sitting around in some closet. You can usually get a decent one for $250-$400, and the new ones are nifty – they’re automated. Set it up, turn it on, put in your date, time, and location, align it with a couple of easy to find stars like Sirius and Aldeberan, and it will find anything you want to see in the night sky. The little motorized drive will whir and beep, and there your target will be in the visual field. I had been out of the amateur astronomy business for 50 years, so long that our main pastime back then was grinding and polishing our own lenses (in the snow, uphill), and technology has advanced to the point where there’s much more time spent doing observation now, and less focus on the equipment.
Of course, part of telescope rescue is getting all the stuff together. The manual and extra lenses to give you different magnification powers had gotten lost in the shuffle, but it’s easy to Google up a manual, and I’ll check into the lost lenses when I get back east, or order a set if they’re gone forever. Storage is also something you need to think about – mine disassembles into the tripod and the main tube. The tripod goes in the underneath storage along with other durable goods, but the fragile tube is wrapped up and in the back of one of the overhead cabinets while we are underway. Find the pieces, reassemble them, wait for a moonless night far from town, and you’ll be amazed.
Right now, I’ve got Venus and Mars as evening stars, a beautiful waxing crescent moon that you can see all the mountains and craters on, and Jupiter. Jupiter is great because of its moons – any low power optical device allows you to easily watch the four largest moons on their paths around the giant planet. Tell your kids the story of Galileo and his realization that the current cosmology was very, very wrong as he observed this rotation. There are also online resources to help you identify and track individual moons.
I had been using the Heavens Above website as a resource for the past few years for unaided eye astronomy, solar angle data to help me figure out what my insolation rate is, and to help me aim my satellite dishes – you can make an account and store all your locations (I have over a hundred) for when you go back to one of them. Sign in, pick the right location or store a new one by entering latitude and longitude, and up will pop a sky chart with all the data you could ask for.
The stars are aligned so that I can see all kinds of stuff right after dinner once the skies get dark enough. Saturn is also up from midnight until dawn now and I caught it one morning when I woke up early. Later on the full moon will wash everything out, but I can wait. I have time. It’s fun to sit out here in the desert, watching the celestial mechanics unfold in the clear night skies.