Sunday, July 05, 2009


The Urban Astronomer

I know I’ll probably be accused of tootin’ my own horn over this subject, but it’s one that’s near and dear to my (just slightly withered) little heart and would be even if the Urban Astronomer story hadn’t culminated in the publication of my 2006 book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. There’s a lot more to it than just the book, you see; that’s the cherry on top. The real story is my long struggle to see something of the deep sky from the most light-polluted backyards and how I learned to do that. And how you can too. That’s something the urbanites and suburbanites among y’all might find of value, I reckon. Besides, what good’s having your own blog if you can’t toot your horn—or plug a dadgummed book—once in a while?

No, the Urban Astronomer story didn’t begin in 2006, but in 1967. That hallowed summer, the Summer of Love, was a big one down here in The Swamp. The excitement was in no way related to what was going down out in the Haight, however. The big talk here was that we was finally gonna get us a Mall. Our shopping scene had been unchanged since—well prob’ly since forever, or at least since the founding of our little burg in 1711. When your mama got a yen for a new dress, or daddy wanted a new fedora, you headed downtown (with Mama in hat and gloves and Daddy in coat and tie), to Dauphin Street, where you visited merchants whose venues (and probably their stock) hadn’t changed much since Dauphin Street was paved. But, hey, come on, this was THE SPACE AGE! Time to GET WITH IT, DADDY-O.

How we, sprouts and oldsters both, looked forward to our very own Mall. And how wonderful it was on opening day late that summer. Strolling in air conditioned comfort while gaping open mouthed at the modern marvels on display (I saw a Nehru jacket in the window of—omigod—was that place one o’ them HEAD SHOPS?). Hell, The Mall even had a big bookstore that, unlike The Haunted Bookshop downtown, was lighted well enough so as you could actually read the titles of the books (I begged the money outa Mama for Alan Nourse’s Trouble on Titan).

The time would come when we realized THE MALL had killed our vibrant downtown, and eventually some of us would pine for it and try to get it back. Today, The Haunted Bookshop at least is alive and well again as The Haunted Bookloft upstairs at Bienville Books. Turned out there were more unintended consequences to the mallification than just turning Dauphin Street into a depressed area, though.

I know you sprouts get sick of old timers telling y’all how good the skies was “back then” (whenever “back then” was). I ain’t gonna do that nor sugar-coat the way things really were for most of us. Even in 1965, my suburban backyard sky was not perfect. When it’s as humid as it usually is down here you can never, ever have perfect deep sky viewing year round. The 1960s sky was nice and black in winter (I still couldn’t see the Horsehead with my Palomar Junior), but in the summertime, despite a scarcity of mercury vapor lights, poor Scorpius’ tail was cut off when the stinger was anywhere near to the horizon. I could see the Milky Way as it approached zenith, but it was not always prominent. M27 showed off its apple core self in the Pal, M13 could be big (if unresolved), and the Lagoon, M8, was sometimes more than just a dim glow around a dim star cluster. The irony? This was to be as good as it ever got for me from home.

At first I thought it was just my imagination, but the spring following the Summer of Love the sky just didn’t seem as dark as it had been the three previous years of my amateur astronomy career. Leo still sprawled across the eastern horizon, heralding the return of the great forest of galaxies that stretches from northernmost Canes Venatici to southernmost Virgo, but he was a little subdued. His hindquarters were hard to make out early in the evening when that triangle of stars was low on the horizon. Those marvelous night birds, M65 and M66, were not looking any better in the homebrew 6-inch Newt I was now using than they had the previous spring in the Pal. Hmmm…

What lay to our east? A scant few miles that-a-way was the wonderful mall and its hundreds of mercury vapor lights, which were spawning hundreds and thousands more as that Mecca begat new Pizza Huts and Western Sizzlers aplenty and a huge clutch of older businesses decided it was high time for them to desert downtown too. Final coffin nail for the folks’ backyard? Power company trucks fanned out across the neighborhood in the fall of ‘68 and there was soon an accursed streetlight on every other power pole (well, seemed like). Heretofore, I’d had to deal with exactly one light three houses down on the corner. Now there was one in our front yard. Did I panic? Did I give up the deep sky? Did I persevere despite the “light-pollution” (I don’t think we’d coined that term just yet)? None of the above. Before either despair or resolve could set-in I was off to college and then the Air Force, and was eventually luxuriating in the spotless skies of northern Arkansas.

I saw lots of cool things in Razorback Country, but that is a story for another time. For now, let’s fast-forward to the mid 1980s when I found myself back in Possum Swamp as not just a civilian, but as a married civilian. For a while I was too busy setting up housekeeping and getting oriented in a new career to spend much time observing or even thinking much about it. ‘Course I kept my hand in, but in addition to the travails of learning the ropes as the new engineer on the block, I shortly realized I had a wife who was, as Harlan Ellison once spoke of one of his marital mis-matches, more alien than any of them green skinned women Jim Kirk used to court and not one half as tractable. After a year or two I sensed the marriage was spinning out of control and taking me down with it. Following some semi-serious attempts to pull out of that nose dive, which only resulted in the wings coming off, I spent a considerable length of time in that odd interlude that passes in quite a few failing marriages before the end.

This intermission manifested in me spending increasing time with my old and steady friends, the stars. A couple of hours under their calming influence, basking in the sure and steady knowledge that they’d continue in their courses no matter what, made my problems seem trivial. This despite the fact that so many of my friends were invisible from my midtown backyard. The light-pollution was frankly horrendous. No, maybe not as bad as Chaos Manor South’s environs today, but I didn’t have the option of a week in Fort Davis or a weekend in Chiefland or a night at the club dark site. Even the oblique hint that I intended to take off with the scope resulted in screaming fights. For a time, I would have to be satisfied with the stars as they were.

That seemed impossible. You know, look north and you see Polaris and the two brightest Little Dipper bowl stars and nothing else. To the east? Sodium Pink up to 40 degrees. West? Almost as bad. South? Marginally better if at all. Sure, I could have contented myself with Luna and the rest of the neighborhood gang, but… You can spend a lifetime observing the Moon and Mars and Jupiter and Saturn, but I was hungry. Hungry for the deep sky after years of deprivation.

One semi-dark and Moonless winter’s night enough finally became enough and I set up my Super C8 Plus in the bright backyard and had a look at Orion—at M42. “Well, well, well.” Not nearly as bad as I’d a-thought. No, I couldn’t make out M43’s comma shape, and the field of my Erfle wasn’t exactly full of nebulosity, but the Great Bird of the Galaxy spread his wings nevertheless. Good? It was wonderful. How about M78? Only one puff of nebulosity was apparent, but it was there. So was M79 down Lepus way, who even gave up a few stars to my Circle T Ortho. Soon I was cruising the Messier, missing nary a one with the C8 or even the Pal Junior. If I was patient and waited for just the right night, even the M101s and M74s fell before my wondering eyes.

Naturally, I was pumped and was soon making lists that contained not just Messiers, but NGCs too, and not just NGC open clusters, but galaxies dim enough to be, I feared, impossible in my compromised skies. Except many of ‘em weren’t. Most of the dimmer stuff was nothing more than cosmic dust bunnies in the eyepiece, but was there nonetheless. I began to wonder if there might be techniques or equipment that would allow me to see the surprising amount of things I could see better. A “literature survey” of my considerable store of astronomy books and Sky and Telescopes and a visit to the downtown library, which had a good if not overwhelming collection of amateur astronomy books, turned up—squat. The only mention I could find of deep sky observing from heavily light polluted urban and suburban locales was the admonition: “Don’t!” Of course, some observing tips are as good from bright skies as they are from dark skies, and when I thought about it, I realized I’d already started usin’ my own set of tools, which I sat down and formalized one stormy night:

Protect yourself from ambient light. This is the biggie. Ambient light, the light falling directly on your observing position from nearby sources—Miss Ellie’s back porch light, the sodium vapor light right out front, the glow from your own back window—is at least as damaging when it comes to seeing deep sky objects as is the general sky glow. If you could obtain at least a modicum of dark adaptation, you could see much more of the deep sky under the worst light-pollution than you can with your pupils constantly pinned. The good thing is you can do something about ambient light.

You may not be able to convince Ol’ Miss E. to turn off her porch light for even an hour, but you can rig up light shields to keep your scope and you in shadow. These can be anything, but stage-flat-like shields can be made easily and work particularly well since they can be moved around the yard as you move the scope to avoid trees and other obstacles. Don’t want to go to that much trouble? A dark cloth draped over your head when you are observing, and an eye patch to protect your dominant eye when you are not, will do as well, even if you might cause the neighbors to doubt your sanity if they notice you prowlin’ the backyard with your pirate eye patch and cannon.

Get a great big finder, a set of digital setting circles, or just go go-to. This is almost as important as the previous “rule.” Lots of deep sky stuff looks cool even from the worst skies, and much of it is easy to see with a 6 or 8-inch telescope. The problem is finding it. If you habitually locate objects by starhopping, you’ll be stymied by a lack of stars in the urban sky. A Telrad, for example, might not show any stars between Virgo’s arms (between Epsilon and Beta Virginis, I mean). That whole area is just popping with island universes, but good luck locating ‘em when there are no guide stars visible.

So? You forget the Telrad or use it in concert with an optical finder, which will show many stars invisible to the naked eye. A 50-mm is OK, an 80-mm is better. Much superior in my opinion, though, is a set of digital settin’ circles or a go-to scope. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool star hopper who’s secretly been curious about computerized finding, urban observing is a good excuse to get your feet wet in 21st century amateur astronomy.

Pump up the power. I know you love your 35-mm Panoptic. I love mine too. But not in the city. In areas of significant light-pollution, the background sky-glow in a low power eyepiece is bright enough to extinguish your prey. In the city, my usual “low” power is about 100 – 125x. Yeah, I know that goes against the grain. You are supposed to use low power for deep sky observing, right? Well, no. Even under dark skies, many amateurs use way too little power on the deep sky. Higher power will frame many objects better (there are way more medium-small galaxies and planetary nebulae and globs than there are giant open clusters and emission nebulae) and will make it easier to see minute details. More importantly for the urban astronomer, higher power spreads out background sky-glow enough to make the quarry pop out.

Naturally, you’ll need to experiment to find a magnification for use in your skies that enhances the contrast between sky background and objects without making targets too dim, but a few fun nights playing around with your eyepiece collection will reveal the sweet spot. My fave? In the days before the 13-mm Ethos it was the 12-mm Nagler 2. Enough power in my 12.5-inch f/5 to enhance DSOs, but enough field to allow me to “eyepiece hop” in crowded areas like Virgo.

Wait for it…wait for it… Objects that are invisible one night may be visible the next if the humidity drops. Or if you wait till after midnight when some city lights go out and the skies get a little better. Or if you wait till the object culminates (crosses the local meridian) and is as high in the sky as it ever gets. Or you cool your heels until M101 or M74 or M97 gets over toward the good side of the sky away from the light dome. In other words, don’t declare anything “impossible” from a bright backyard until you’ve tried for it on multiple occasions under multiple sky conditions.

Other tips? I could keep going, but if you find these useful and want more, I (ahem) commend The Urban Astronomer’s Guide to you. The first half of the book is devoted to urban observing techniques and equipment choices (the second half is a collection of deep sky “tours” for every season of the year). But I’ll betcha some of y’all are still scratching your heads. Why would anybody try to see anything of the deep sky from city lights? Even if you’re like me (these days) and have a wonderful and understanding Significant Other who not only encourages you to get to deep and dark sites, but often accompanies you on these expeditions, you may nevertheless still want to hit the sodium pink backyard regularly.

Unless you are blessed with dark skies at home or are retired or independently wealthy, it’s likely your career(s) make dark site observing a once or twice monthly thing. The weather often changes that to “every few months.” After a stretch of clouds, I often find myself wasting time when I finally get back to good skies. Where the heck is Piscis Austrinus? Which eyepiece was the one that worked so good with NGC 2024? Whar’s that confounded red flashlight? That greatest of all amateur astronomers, Sir William Herschel, once compared observing with a telescope to playing a musical instrument, and I think that is right apt. How good would you be on the steel guitar if you only practiced every few months? Even if your backyard ain’t exactly a showpiece, you get out there and you practice. That will, if nothin’ else, pay dividends the next time you get out to the Prude Ranch or jus’ the Mount Pilot Astronomical Society dark site.

How did I go from doing the Messier from a bright backyard with a Pal Junior to writing a cotton pickin’ book about the art of urban observin’? It didn’t happen overnight. The first step on the road was when I decided to see if I could do all the Ms with the 4-inch Edmund. I thought it would be fun to keep a logbook of my efforts and draw each of the objects I was able to corral. In a couple of years I’d done ‘em all by means of patience (and maybe a little averted imagination). I enjoyed the hunt and was proud of my resulting logbook. Which led me to wonder what I could do with my writings and drawings now that I was done. Coincidentally, the Editor of Skywatch back then (no, believe it or not, I wasn’t always that person) was desperate for something/anything to put in the next issue. I said I wouldn’t mind writing-up a piece, maybe even a few columns, about my urban observing experiences, and I soon got to work hacking out a short spiel on M94 on my IBM with the aid of Wordstar.

The “few columns” eventually stretched over five years. The format was almost always the same: I’d pick a constellation or two and an object or three and describe how to find ‘em and what they looked like in the city. Along the way, I’d throw in a few tips not unlike those above: “If your skies are as bad as mine, NGC 5195 is going to look like a small, dim blob. Use medium power and expect to have to use averted vision on bad nights.”

When I started the series, which I called “From City Lights to Deep Space,” I did it to help my buddy. Soon I found I was doing it to please myself; I enjoyed spreading the word about urban observing and writing about the deep sky. Eventually, after I took over Skywatch and started posting it on the web, I began doing it to please the fans the column had garnered. When did I know “City Lights” was destined for bigger and better? When my readers began writing and emailing requesting copies of all the “City Lights” columns. I prob’ly printed, stapled together, and mailed upwards of 500 copies of the resulting “book,” most often gratis. So, when Springer and I got to talking about my Next Book, I mentioned this crazy idea I’d had cooking for years…

I expected to be told my idea was ridiculous, that nobody would be interested in a book on urban deep sky observing. Instead, Springer was supportive, even enthusiastic. Their only stipulation was that I change my proposed title. “From City Lights to Deep Space,” they thought, wasn’t scientific sounding enough. I suggested a number of possible titles, with my Editor and his bosses settling on The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, which I didn’t like that much, but was, I admitted, OK. It would be easy to say the book wrote itself, and in some ways that is true. I was passionate about the subject, and the words flowed. But that don’t mean it wasn’t a hell of a lot of work. Any book is, with the most onerous part of the process being the constant need to Apply Seat of Pants to Seat of Chair and write for a couple of hours. Every day. Day after day.

It sure was worth it. I am satisfied with my other books, but Urban Astronomer (I almost typed “City Lights”) is and will remain closest to my heart. If you should feel inclined to buy a copy, you’ll soon realize it ain’t perfect. I was frankly still learning the craft of book writing even at that late date, and in this age when competent copy editors are becoming an extinct species, it’s no surprise there are a more than a couple of mistakes to be found.

What did you all think? Ain’t nobody gonna start callin’ me “Stephen King,” and I ain’t gonna quit my day job, but the book sold OK and continues to sell OK in a smallish amateur astronomy book sorta way. When all is said and done, I’m happy with the result, and that is a lot for any author to say. I’m still passionate about the subject, too, maybe even moreso than I am regarding my never-ending quest to get the pore ol’ Schmidt Cassegrain the respect it so richly deserves. “Urban Astronomer,” you see, ain’t just some book the world will little note nor long remember; it is a state of mind. A state of mind that proclaims I WILL SEE. No matter what the obstacles I WILL SEE—every clear night.

I think it's a great idea for a book. And it manages expectations for newcomers. Encouraging city folks to take the jump from solar system objects to deep sky is probably the best bridge to build for long term amateurs.
I love your book Rodster. I frequently observe from suburban Los Angeles now, with occasional forays to Malibu and to Mount Pinos in season and your book is like a bible. I am still amazed what I can see (and image!) from my light drenched site. M1, M 97 are visible. Have not tried for the dimmer fare yet but raring to go......
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