Here are some tips to help amateur astronomers get the most out of their observing. In general, try to be comfortable and relaxed when you observe.
- Sit instead of standing if you can.
You'll need an adjustable and portable chair. Commercial chairs may cost over $100. You can also
build your own observing chair. Google: "Denver observing chair" for some ideas.
- Relax your eyes. An
eye patch over the eye you're not using lets you keep it open and relaxed but removes
the distraction of a second image to your brain. You can also participate in ...
And you'll be eligible to use Google's Pirate Search.
Aye, matey! Turn thee good eye upon the stars!
- Disposable chemical heat pack
foot warmers, the kind you shake to activate, are indispensable for keeping
toes warm, which are often the first things to go on a cold night.
- Make your own rubber
eye guards, custom fitted for your eyepieces and your eye, from rubber toilet flapper or ball valves
with an X-acto knife.
- Use a red LED flashlight to read
charts and find stuff in the dark.
- Go for overkill when it comes to charts.
Most printed charts aren't detailed enough. For a 10-inch telescope, it's nice to have stars to 15th magnitude if you're
"going deep." Software charting programs are best (
Cartes du Ciel is free). I use a laptop mounted on a
platform attached to my telescope.
- If you use a laptop in the field, you can
use red rubylith or red acrylic to make a light shield for the screen, otherwise the screen is annoyingly bright
(for you and others), no matter how you configure the colors. Cut tiny pieces of stick on Velcro (the fuzzy side) and
stick them on shortcut keys that you use frequently for your particular astronomy software so you can find the keys by
feel. I also have pieces on "F" and "J" for typing orientation. Use red auto lens repair tape to cover any offensive
laptop LEDs. They look dim in daylight, but can be very annoying at night.
- Go-To or not to Go-To: it's your
choice. I like starhopping to objects, so I don't have Go-To. I end up knowing the sky a lot better and see lots of
things I never thought to look for. I also really like the hunting part. However, I think Go-To is great for beginners
and for scopes that are too large or cumbersome to maneuver easily by hand. Tracking is different. It keeps your scope
pointing at the same object despite the rotation of the Earth. Tracking is good if you've got it. Without tracking, the
objects in your eyepiece will appear to drift through the field of view and you need to continually nudge the scope back
to the object as it drifts out. Basic dobsonian telescopes like mine have no tracking. You can add expensive tracking
mechanisms or platforms, but why bother? Buy a different type of scope if you really need tracking (for example if you're
planning on doing imaging).
- If you have a dobsonian telescope without
a mirror fan to help cooldown and improve sharpness of images, you can install a telescope fan
cheaply and easily. It really does help.
- Paint stuff white! The stupidest thing
I've seen is the trend to make all astronomy gear black. Drop it and it's hard to find in the grass. Walk around and
you'll trip over it or kick it. You'll find white things are a lot easier to see even when it's dark because it's never
completely dark once your eyes are adapted. If you can't or won't paint it, put some white tape on it. Natural wood grain
is still a lot easier to see than black, so if you want stuff to look purty in the daytime, too, try that. You'll notice
my observing chair is coated with spar varnish only. I think the only place black is appropriate is inside the scope and
the eyepiece where it makes sense.
- Take notes. I use a digital
voice recorder and transcribe the notes into a log on my computer. It's work, but you'll treasure the observing notes
and memories in later years, believe me. (Express
Scribe is a good free transcription program and you can set up hot keys in it to control playback without moving
your hands out of typing position.) Sketch objects if you enjoy that. I gave that up after losing too many pencils
(and my patience) in the dark.
- Never believe what they tell you
about something being too faint to see in your scope. You'll miss some good stuff for not trying.
- If you use a finderscope, check
the alignment against the main eyepiece view at the beginning of every session.
- Check collimation of the mirrors
every couple of times out. Know how to collimate the telescope in the field and have the required equipment
(including the right kind of screwdriver if necessary) with you.
- Use averted vision (looking a
little bit away from a faint object to see it better).
- Get to the darkest sky you can
whenever possible. A darker sky will make more difference than just about anything else for seeing objects better.
- Put patches of sticky-backed
craft felt on places on your telescope that you touch while observing. This will keep your fingers from getting colder,
especially on metal parts.
- Gaffer's tape is great for use on
various telescope parts where tape is required. It's a strong cloth-type tape that beats duct tape and plastic
electrical tape hands down in terms of staying in place, not losing adhesion, and not drying out. It's expensive
but worth it.
- If you live in a place where there is a lot of dew, get serious and either make your own dew heating elements
out of resistor rings or buy some. The "Dew-Not" line gets a lot of good reviews. I use homemade heaters, but
I'm trying a Dew-Not strip for the eyepiece. The homemade resistor ring flexed too much from taking the eyepiece
in and out of its case and broke.
- If you observe alone, bring some
music or something to keep from getting spooked by all the things creeping around you.
- If wind is often a problem,
build a windscreen out of PVC pipe and fabric.
You can break it down and stow it easily. It also makes a good lightscreen if you've got a pesky light nearby.
Here's a detailed description if you want to make one.
- Do a mental equipment check
before you leave your home. I've seen a lot of people turn around and go home after arriving at the observing site
because they forgot a critical piece of equipment. That's a real bummer.
- There is a lot of advice on the
Internet on what equipment to buy. See the Cloudy Nights forum for
- Think three-dimensionally when
you observe. Visualize the stars being closer and the galaxies much farther in the distance. Don't think of the sky
as a dome- think of it as a giant window looking outward.
- Educate people around you to install sensible,
energy efficient lighting. But first, check your own outdoor lighting and make sure you're not sending wasted
photons into the sky.
- Develop a second hobby for those
frequent cloudy nights. Or create your own astronomy web site!