University Lowbrow Astronomers

Observing Tips

by Mark Deprest
Printed in Reflections:  February, 1999.

Well, since I find myself with a little extra time on my hands lately (I’m currently unemployed).  I decided to put together an article or two for the newsletter.  This one is a list of things that I have learned over the years that help to make every observing session both pleasurable and productive.  I need to acknowledge some of the people whom I consider to be my MENTORS and TEACHERS.  They are the ones who really wrote this list: Mark Cray, Bernard Friberg, Kurt Hillig, Chris Sarnecki and Doug Scobel.  When I was starting out, a few years back, these were the people who took me under their wings and showed me their “Secrets of Success.”

  1. Buy equipment you will use!  Mark Cray helped me understand the importance of this.  Buying or building that huge “light bucket” may sound like the perfect scope, until you get to the loading, unloading, setup and adjusting that beast of a scope every time you go to your favorite dark site.  Make your equipment is convenient and it will get used.  Thank you, Mark.
  2. Buy some good binoculars!  I have a pair of 11 x 50’s that I use every time I go out observing.  Bernard Friberg turned me onto the best way to scan the sky with binoculars and just enjoy the grandeur of the night sky 3 to 5 degrees at a time.  Just scanning the Milky Way for fun, looking at that fuzzy patch, or trying to find a neat star cluster, they are invaluable.  Thank you, Bernard.
  3. Get a zero power finder!  This is something I learned on my own.  As most of you know I can’t find a thing with a powered finder scope, but give me a “Telrad” and a good chart and I’ll show you the Universe (well, that maybe a bit of an exaggeration).  There are a number of different zero power finders on the market.  I prefer the 3 reticule circles of the “Telrad” for making sure that the star you think you are starting to hop from is really the one in your eyepiece.
  4. Make a list and check it twice!  Here is a tip that I learned from both Chris Sarnecki and Doug Scobel.  Although their personal passions may lead them to different objects, with Chris leaning toward double stars and small “colorful” clusters, and Doug to the “faint fuzzy” with a particular fondness for planetary nebulae.  Both come prepared with a well-made list of objects for that night’s session.  I usually show up with a small group of charts showing the location of 3 to 5 objects that I have never seen before as well as a few I’d like to examine again.  Thank you both, Chris and Doug.
  5. Dress warmly!  I don’t know a single amateur astronomer that hasn’t learned this.  I find that the “multiple layer” method works best, you can always take something off if it gets too warm, but you can’t put on what you don’t have.  Also, remember that nothing will kill an evening of fine observing faster than cold feet, so get some warm socks and good insulated boots.
  6. Don’t forget it!  Doug Scobel and I were carpooling to a Messier Marathon at Lake Hudson a few years back.  I watched Doug load his equipment into his van, and in this process I noticed him going over a mental list of all the things he’d need for that all night observing session.  This inspired me to make an actual written list of the equipment that I take out when I go observing.  I check that list every time I go out, because nothing can ruin a good night faster than not have that ___________.  Thank you, Doug.
  7. Take a break!  Watch Kurt Hillig when he comes out to an Open House or an observing session, he always has a comfortable lawn chair or two.  Just for kicking back and taking a break from the eyepiece.  I find that after a couple of hours at the scope my eyes need a little rest and a chance to get off my feet is always appreciated.  I like to take that time to catch up with my friends and fellow astronomers.  Thank you, Kurt for showing me how to relax.

Well, there are probably many other things one could add to this list, but I’ve gone on long enough.  I would like to say again, “Thank you, to all of you who share you knowledge, experience and expertise with not only me, but the countless others and in turn help make astronomy an enjoyable way to pass the nighttime.”


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