My Beginnings In Astronomy
Sunday, July 29, 2007
By John Crilly
When I was five years old my Dad brought my sister and I out to the back porch one night. After a brief wait he pointed out a pinpoint of light moving across the sky. Afterwards, he explained that it was a satellite (Sputnik) and told us something of what a satellite was. He had expressed no interest in such matters before, so I presume that the local newspaper had published an article pointing out that it would be visible and describing when and where to look. As the first manmade object ever placed in orbit it was surely newsworthy.
Urban Observatory external view
Urban Observatory internal view
Telescopes ready for an evening’s imaging Click images for larger version Credits: John Cril
I was an early reader and a frequent visitor to the local library, so I sought out more Information about such things. I found nothing factual in the books available to me, but I did find a rich trove of science fiction by Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and others and I devoured all that I could find. My Dad made sure that I saw subsequent newspaper articles regarding later Soviet and US launches so I was very aware of Telstar, Leika, Yuri Gagarin, and (at last) Alan Shepard.
I borrowed a set of binoculars from my father and set out to become a stargazer but ran into problems. There was no Internet at that time, and I never found the correct books to get me started in the right way. Apparently, kids my age were supposed to be reading about ponies and clowns rather than about science or astronomy. I spent quite a few nights looking about the sky in an undirected way but after a while I realized that all the stars looked pretty much alike. I had no idea that there were other kinds of objects available to a casual stargazer. After a time I lost interest.
Much later, as a teenager, I dug out the binoculars a few more times but was still too ignorant to discover the literature that would at that point have been available to me. I did learn to recognize the major constellations but learned nothing about the celestial wonders framed within. With no friends or family interested in astronomy I simply had no immediate information sources to take me farther and my interest lapsed again.
Then came the distractions of high school, college, marriage, parenthood, single parenthood, and work. For the next few decades I was always working at least one fulltime job and nearly always attending school at night. While in high school I became involved in amateur radio as a hobby (Extra Class license W8TD) and barely had time to pursue that so astronomy was forgotten. During this period it became obvious that I was attracted to technical topics; during the day I troubleshot complex electronics gear (power line carrier, microwave radio, VHF radio, analog and digital multiplexers, and fiber optics) and at night I fiddled with satellite communications, transmitting video signals, teletype, packet radio, and such things.
Eventually there came a time when both of my children were away at college and time became a little more available. When I finally completed graduate school I realized that nothing would ever make me take classes again. Suddenly, I had only one job to occupy my time. I considered reactivating my amateur radio gear but I had already done pretty much everything in that area that sounded interesting. I was not going to be working in a technical field any more either so I decided to simply move away from electronics and telecommunications for good. At that time it struck me that I had what seemed like all the time in the world to finally investigate the possibilities offered by amateur astronomy.
I began to accumulate and read books and magazines on the subject. The Internet was another great resource. I realized that were all kinds of objects out there to see and at which to wonder. I found an advertisement placed by a fellow in the next town, offering to sell a modest telescope at what, according to my research, was a reasonable price. I went to see it and came home a proud telescope owner. It was an 8” Newtonian reflector on a simple Dobsonian mount.
I had a ball with that thing! My inner-city location is quite poor as an astronomical observing location, but since I had never seen any of the objects before I felt no disappointment – I was stargazing. Still, it didn’t take long for me to discover that as much as I enjoyed observational astronomy, what truly fascinated me was the optics and hardware and how it all worked.
My next acquisition was another Newtonian reflector – smaller, but equipped with a computerized, equatorial mount. This meant that it could, on its own (and after being properly aligned) slew itself to astronomical targets selected from a huge list in its memory – and then keep them in view as the earth rotated beneath them all by itself. What a great toy. I was hooked on technology all over again.
I began what turned out to be a very long series of equipment acquisitions and dispositions. I wanted to own one of everything, at least for a while, so I would be familiar with all the equipment in common use. I began to buy new gear as soon as it came out, test it, write a review, and resell it. This was fun and the reviews (published online by the premier amateur astronomy website) earned me some minor recognition. It was, however, expensive as each piece of equipment was purchased new and resold as used.
After a time I became sufficiently well-known as an equipment reviewer that vendors began to send me new products to review and return. This was the best of both worlds. I had the opportunity to see and use the new gear as it came out but I didn’t lose any money doing it. Being familiar with such a broad range of equipment permits me to offer technical support to users of the equipment and I spend a lot of time on the astronomy websites doing just that. It’s very rewarding.
Meanwhile, I was becoming frustrated by the poor observing conditions at my home. I discovered a local astronomy club with a site slightly better than mine so I began to take portable equipment out to their site on weekends. I also discovered star parties. These are get-togethers at really dark sites where stargazers gather with their telescopes to get the terrific views that are possible from such places. My current star party telescope is yet another Newtonian reflector – but this one has an aperture of 20”. It has to be broken down for transport and reassembled at the observing site. It’s well worth it for two nights of observing but not for only one so it gets used only at weekend star parties.
The gadget-lover in me wanted to explore the possibilities of digitally imaging astronomical objects. Of course, I also wanted to experience the various astronomical imaging systems available. This was very frustrating at first because of the time and effort involved in setting up and tearing down all the equipment required. I decided to add a dormer with a roll-off roof section to my pole barn to use as an observatory. This would permit me to leave everything set up and ready to go; slide the roof open to do my observing or imaging and simply slide it shut again when finished. I hired a local carpenter and the project began. He got most of the interior work done but then had serious health problems and had to abandon the project.
While wondering what I was going to do about this half-completed project I continued my practice of changing equipment regularly, buying and selling various bits of gear. I advertised a couple of telescope eyepieces and a local fellow responded with interest. He mentioned that he had built a roll-off roof observatory shed for himself so I went on over to see his to get some ideas. He bought the eyepieces – and in the end he agreed to complete my observatory project for me! It turned out that he had built a few for other local folks and was considering switching to observatory construction as his primary business.
The results were wonderful. I have my dream observatory (Urban Observatory, completed in 2002 and in continuous use from that time) and he is now the leading vendor of observatories for amateur astronomers. The observatory permitted me to finally take imaging seriously and to my delight I find that despite the horrific light pollution at my location I can take images that please me greatly. I still travel to star parties when I can for the visual experience offered but when at home I’m an imager. In the observatory I have a permanently mounted equatorially aligned telescope mount on which I can place a variety of optical tubes and imaging devices. Each has its preferred use; the apparent size and apparent brightness of astronomical objects varies to an extreme degree so the equipment of choice for a given night depends on the target objects chosen. The cameras and the mount are connected to a computer in the observatory. I control that computer remotely from the one in my home office via my wireless network so that once everything is set up I can complete a series of exposures on an object, slew the telescope to the next, and begin another imaging sequence without the need to go back out.
It’s been quite a long road but I’ve derived tremendous satisfaction and enjoyment from my participation in the hobby. I can recommend it highly to anyone interested in the sciences.
Anyone wishing to learn more of amateur astronomy will quickly find a variety of internet websites loaded with useful information. I can recommend www.cloudynights.com and www.sflorg.com for general interest. More information about my observatory, equipment, and images can be found at www.urbanobservatory.com .
Source / Image credit: John Crilly