The Fearless Observer

Naked Eye Observing – the Known Universe from Castro Valley

The Known Universe - click image for full-size sketch.Here we peel back the sordid, squalid, seamy underside of practical amateur astronomy. In a world of GPS GO-TO computerized alt-az mounts, 16″ dobsonians, and stacked CCD image processing, some us – by choice or by force of circumstance – have adapted to naked-eye, visible-sky observing.

Disclaimer: Oh, I know, some of what follows may not be appropriate for family-oriented publications. This article speaks only for our own household, and may not represent everyone’s views of acceptability. We’ve found that we LIKE naked-eye observing. Harrumph, what’s more, we feel shamelessly and unabashedly good about ourselves.

In an imperfect world, amateur astronomers have varying success coping with annoying impediments like health issues, 9PM bedtimes, and the fact that it’s just plain cold outside. In Phoenix, we have an 8″ Meade LX-90, ideal for the dilettante observer. We acquired a 10″ Atlas newtonian that has never yet seen first light. Up north, for our tiny California apartment, we bagged a beautiful 127mm Mak in an extraordinarily light-polluted small town. The Mak mostly sees regular service as, well, a coat rack.

We have an inexhaustible inventory of good reasons. In truth, we have to ask ourselves, where is all this rationalizing headed?

We do like to sit out on the apartment balcony. Out here, in defiance of all reason, I have again taken up the pleasures of my old tobacco pipes. I like to contemplate the future of the universe, and, indeed, more importantly, what kind of future all this work is going to bring to us personally. And, I like to gaze at the night sky after dark.

Castro Valley, California: Our little balcony enjoys a northeastern view of the hills, from the floodlight-lit hospital tower in the north north-west, to the red traffic light clusters across town in the new residential development, approximately east southeast.

Major night sky landmarks include the pretty red neon Walgreen’s sign, just about due East. We boast a commanding view of the sodium vapor stadium floodlights at two outdoor parks in different parts of town. Our apartment complex bathes in the raw light of a powerful unshielded mercury vapor light on the roof of a nuisance salsa disco, a couple of blocks away. Then there is the tasteful three-panel white fluorescent banks at the Chevron station halfway across town. These cast the warm glow of a beacon right down our hall at night, eliminating the need for a night light for those headed to the kitchen for that 3AM drink of water.

Overhead, at about 45 degrees elevation, is the underside of third-story apartment’s balcony. Our window on the universe is about 45 by 45 degrees square.

You can use the arm of your coat jacket to shield most of the surface light pollution, and, in time, your eyes will adapt and you can actually see some stars. I can always find Polaris.

This time of year, November-December, there is a bright star we call our “Getting Well” star. It rises in the Northeast shortly after sunset. This is Capella, a red giant. To the right of that, to the east and slightly lower, we can identify Aldebaran, another (but dimmer) red giant.

And, most of the time, dear reader, that’s all we can identify. In the best of times, we need star charts to help orient ourselves. In the worst of times, there are too few stars visible to distinguish recognizable patterns. In out 45 by 45 degree window, I can count a totality of seven (7) visible stars. How bad is that?

Our night sky atlas program, Starry Night Pro, has pollution filters: “No light pollution”, “Small city light pollution”, and “Large City light pollution”. 12-10-2004: added companion images from Starry Night Pro, showing local night sky for December 4 (Western US), relative to the three light pollution levels. Picture links below. Our local view is worse that “large city”: Aldebaran is actually part of big V-shaped Taurus, but this can’t be recognized without binoculars.

Large City light pollution: in the constellations Auriga and Taurus, we should be able to see Elnath, Epsilon Persei, Hassaleh, and Menkar, to name a few.

Small City light pollution: What a vista awaits the denizen of the Starry Night Pro “small city”! We should be able to flesh in the stick figures of the constellations: the pentagon of Auriga; Taurus the Bull.

No Light Pollution: this is the aboriginal proto-sky, before man’s camp-fires and savannah grass fires, his feeblest first attempts to tame a hostile and dangerous environment. There are so many stars you need the sky chart to thread through the major night sky objects without being confused by a paisley dot-matix peppering of deep-sky panoramas.

We do own binoculars, and I brought these out the other night. Yes, above our seven (7) stars, a new object revealed itself.

Seven (7) new stars, arranged into a sort of tiny Big Dipper, or perhaps a miniature Pleiades. Did I mention I have been a big Pleiades enthusiast since college? I would recognize it anywhere. I called out to Bob that I had found that “other tiny constellation” that looks like a small Pleiades. And, without the binocs, by shielding my eyes from the lights of the city, I found that I could almost, just barely make this out with the naked eye. How tiny and fragile!

Here in Phoenix this weekend, I step out into the dark back yard. My favorite Cavendish pipe tobacco sweetens the cold night air. It is remarkably clear! I find Capella and Aldebaran right away. To the south of that region is our old friend Orion the Hunter. I did not remember that it was visible so early at this time of year! I am really jazzed. Visibility (for this area) is great tonight! And there, back above Aldebaran, is my old friend the little 7-star object that “looks like a little Pleiades”!

Except that, checking Starry Night Pro that night, that IS the Pleiades. I should be shamed, to be so fooled by a cheap magician’s trick. We are used to viewing this beauty with a 26mm eyepiece, so that it completely fills the field of view in the 8″ Meade scope. How shabby that I would not remember how tiny my Pleiades is with the naked eye!

Saturn rises at bedtime (9PM). Then, Sirius the dog-star in Canis Major. Then, at midnight, Regulus in Leo and the whole night world we never see except when on vacation or, perhaps, when and if we ever get to retire. My goal is to recognize them by eyesight so that, in time, we will not need the sky charts.

Oh, the 10″ newtonian will still see first light. I swear it. The last piece we needed, an extra 11-lb. counter-weight, arrived several weeks ago. All we have to do is make the time to set it up in the back yard. Honest. We are really going to do it, as soon as we shake these darn colds and get an extra day off. No use flying back to work with a sleep deficit.

But most of all, I’m still jazzed about naked eye observing. Having worked a lifetime to afford the means of making the secrets of the heavens really accessible, it seems such a shame to have so little time left over to enjoy exploring it. I make no apologies. I harbor no excuses.

Any time we step out of doors after dark is the “right time” to enjoy naked-eye astronomy. What a circuitous path to re-discovering the delights in those basics that I knew in the first place!

Alex Forbes © December 4, 2004

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