James Paulson's roll off roof observatory at the Sunridge Observatory site, taken in the summer of 1986, housing a 10 inch f/5 Cave Astrola Newtonian reflector telescope

Friday, October 16, 2009

Taking the Traditional Approach

One of the benefits of technology is that we can remove many trivial tasks involved in practicing our hobby. We might use an online service or planetarium package to point us directly to what is visible right now. Using an electronic telescope with GPS alignment, we place the scope outside, click a switch and it aligns itself automatically. No thought is given to directions, motions in the heavens, visibility conditions, etc. If we are doing astrophotography, we don't have to track exposure times, and autoguiders which remove the chore of manually correcting for errors which we used to track on our own. Those little things we did by hand taught us about a lot of things going on with our equipment. We didn't second guess the behaviour, we learned first hand.

For old timers like myself, many of these technological things are a great bonus because they have enhanced the things we do under the night sky. We have grown with them and they have merely become an extension of what we do. They didn't replace the old ways, they added to them.

But for newcomers to the hobby, they are the norm. They have been born into an era where they cannot imagine doing things without them. Even the owners of computerized Dobsonian's are becoming disadvantaged by all this technology. If you can read a bubble level and you know two stars, you no longer have to identify faint fuzzy objects using a computerized object locator. Image intensifier viewers can even provide one with artificial eyes to enhance viewing. What's next? Video displays of the finder scope? Remote access? Telescopes that can automatically locate alignment stars? No, these things are already here.

I offer a challenge. Put away all of your electronics and computers. Grab a star atlas. If you don't own one, print one online. Use a book and plan your evening based around the constellations that are visible. Figure that out by calculating the siderial time. Research the locations of the objects you are viewing. Develop star hopping techniques to a few objects. Record your observations with pencil and paper. Put away the sky quality meter and use the circumpolar stars to judge the sky conditions. If you don't know what a word means, look it up. Try shooting the sky with your old 35 mm camera and some film. Find your latitude using a map. Use it to calculate how low your southern sky is visible on an atlas. Do this by learning about the celestial sphere and Right Ascension and Declination. Develop your observing techniques based around your observations instead of someone else's.

If you do these things and practice them on a regular basis, you will develop techniques that will allow you to enjoy the night sky using any telescope of any aperture, including something like the old amateur standard, the equatorial mounted 6 inch f/8 Newtonian reflector telescope.

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