Sunday, February 27, 2011


The Universe from Granny’s Porch

Do you ever get to feeling burned out, muchachos? Feeling that if you read one more thread on the Cloudy Nights insisting you simply must have the latest ten-thousand dollar GEM mount or you will never get anything accomplished as an amateur astronomer you will just scream? Are you sick of loading the vehicle for an hour, unloading for an hour at the dark site, and reversing the process thirty minutes later when the last sucker hole disappears?

Y’all know I love gear. I bow to no one in my lust for expensive and not-so-expensive astro junk. But there comes a time when even I reach my limit. I need a break. I need to focus on what’s Up There rather than what’s Down Here. When I get to feeling that-a-way, I first turn to my grab and go gear, a pair of humble but good Burgess 15 x 70 binoculars and a 4.5-inch Orion StarBlast reflector. I keep the binocs and the ‘Blast stationed by the door for a quick exit onto the front porch for a few minutes of uncomplicated observing.

Sometimes even the StarBlast and the binoculars seem too much. I don’t feel like hunting up a handful of eyepieces or even pulling the 15x70s from their case. But I still want to observe. And sometimes I fulfill that desire by walking out on the front porch and getting my original gear back in the game. My eyes, I mean.

Did you do any naked eye observing when you were a novice? Are you doing any now whether you are a novice or not? If the answer is “no,” you may be awful surprised at what there is to see with no more optical aid than your two peepers from the average suburban backyard.

The Rabbit in the Moon.
Like what? When was the last time you looked, I mean really looked, at the Moon without optical aid? Did you know you can go beyond just making out the Rabbit in the Moon (though he is a very good rabbit indeed), to identifying some of the major features? But mostly you can tour the constellations, basking in their patterns while relishing the myths that go with them and even spotting a few of their deep sky objects. You can glory in the change of the seasons and the march of time as the constellations, the planets, and the Sun stay their courses while producing ever-changing sky pictures.

Do enough naked eye observing and the stars and constellations become not just the homes of the deep sky objects you yearn for, but friends. How wonderful it is to walk out on the front porch and see good, old Leo pulling himself up over the eastern horizon again, bringing another lovely spring with him. I suppose that’s what draws me back to the simple astronomical life. It keeps alive my relationship with the sky sans all the gimmicks and gimcracks.

My road to learning the stars began one summer night when I was camping out in the backyard with my buddies and had the epiphany that the combination of the Science Service star wheel (planisphere) I’d had for a while and the red flashlight Mama had bought me at Kress’ five-and-dime that very morning would allow me to discover the names of stars and constellations that had fascinated the little Rodster in the abstract for quite a while.

Actually, most of my learning came not from my own backyard, but from the front porch of Granny’s house downtown. I spent many a Saturday there, and usually by sundown was about played-out with whatever toys Mama had let me to bring along on our all-day-and-into-the-night visits to her mother’s.

Mama, as I’ve told y’all before, was a strong woman in many ways, but she was quite literally afraid of the dark. Daddy, a broadcast engineer, often worked the late shift at the TV station on Saturday, till “sign-off” at midnight, and Mama had a hard time enduring those (for her) scary hours alone with a little kid. Before my brother came along, Mama and me spent Saturday nights at the movies, but after he arrived it became less practical to sit through a feature, or sometimes even a double-feature, twice.

Thus came the dreaded visits to Granny’s. Actually, I loved Granny, but I was always closer to Granpa. Unfortunately, that good man was taken from us way too early. And now that we were living out in suburbia, we had a wonderful backyard and plenty of kids for me to play with including Jitter and Wayne Lee. I loved Granny, yeah, but would much rather have spent every Saturday running like a little wild Indian through the backyards and vacant lots of our subdivision.

Sure as clockwork, though, Daddy would tell Mama, “Honey, I’ll have to work till sign-off at the Studio tonight,” and I knew my Saturday plans were shot. I’d start gathering up a bag of toys, enough to occupy me through the long morning and afternoon, but not enough to incur Mama’s displeasure, “I will NOT have you dragging all your JUNK over to your Grandmother’s, YOUNG MAN.” What the traffic would bear was usually a small bag of plastic spacemen and rockets from the old Multiple Plastics toy company.

Honestly, it wasn’t so bad. Granny was the best southern cook there ever has been. Her fried chicken was to die for, exceeding even the legendary chicken to be found at Miss Monica’s restaurant in Pascagoula, Mississippi today. My Uncle Ezra, who lived at home with Granny, had a taste in movies that matched my own and there was always a horror or science fiction or jungle (Tarzan, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Jungle Jim) movie on in the early afternoon. Me and Uncle Ezra would commandeer the TV and spend an hour or two gazing in wonder at anything from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, to Attack of the 50-foot Woman, to Them.

I still remember Unk Ezra walking out onto the porch in the middle of that last movie. When I enquired, he said, “Well, Jackie Boy (what Mama’s side of the family called me), I thought I heard something, and wanted to make sure it wasn’t one of them dadgum ants.”

Other than those wonderful movies and granny’s friend chicken, what I remember most is my Saturday space voyages. Those humble plastic astronauts were imbued with a reality that’s strikingly clear to me even now. We’d start out on Granpa’s old chair, which morphed into a tiny, barren, and frigid asteroid. Maybe we’d been stranded by a recalcitrant rocket ship. Or maybe we were there to explore. Or to battle wily space pirates or crazy-strange aliens. Sometimes our explorations would take us Sunward to Venus, which was, of course, a jungle planet. It only masqueraded as Granny’s backyard.

Now that I think about it, those little plastic spacemen and their modest little rocket, which I got in Kress or Woolworth’s for two or four bits, were the best toys I ever owned. Oh, I had fancier stuff, even the Marx Atomic Missile Base, but nothing ever grew my imagination like those little bits of red and blue plastic. A Saturday morning episode of Men into Space would unfold on Granny’s TV, and after it ended me and my valiant companions would be off on a fantastic mission of our own.

In the golden days before Granpa was taken from us, when I was little, my adventures in space would continue till he walked out into the backyard to retrieve me with the news, “Jackie Boy, the Opry is about to come on.” I don’t know how much I really liked watching The Grand Ole Opry, but I do know I liked sitting on my Granpa’s lap while he enjoyed it. After he left us, I’d generally play till it got dark, and Granny hollered me in to supper.

After supper, I’d have preferred to sit inside and watch television, but Mama would have none of that, shooing me out onto the porch with Granny, Uncle Ezra, and whichever of our many relatives were visiting at the time. There I sat while they talked over family business, to include what was happening with the branch of the family that had set up in the far-flung hinterlands of Dallas, Texas, as related in long and excruciatingly dry (for me) letters.

What to do while the old folks sat and rocked? My brother was too young to be much company, and even when he was older it was not like we ever had much in common. I wasn’t allowed to stray far off the porch, but I could sidle down the steps and on to the walk where I could see the sky.

Granny lived more or less downtown, not far from where Chaos Manor South stands (maybe a slight bit of synchronicity). Today, you can see a little in the light pollution if you know how to do it. Actually, you can see a lot if you work at it. I’ve done the whole Messier from this area, but it ain’t easy. Back then it would have been considerably easier. The evil cobra-head mercury vapor lights were popping up by this time, the early sixties, but they were still few and far between and mostly confined to the suburbs. There were streetlights on Granny’s street, Dexter Avenue, but they were softly glowing and relatively ineffective incandescents. I could see plenty of stars.

For the longest time, I’d just gaze up at the starry sky for a few minutes and turn away, hunting for something else to distract me. That all changed after that night of backyard camping, when I made my discovery about planispheres and red lights. Suddenly the stars had begun to make sense and suddenly I was really looking at them.

After a couple of Saturdays at Granny’s, I was starting to make real headway with the season’s constellations, and my pair of .77 cent toy binoculars were now going into the brown grocery bag with the spacemen. By the time the heavens had wheeled around once, I was good. Probably I was better at and quicker at making out the constellations than I ever have been since.

Star pictures that had eluded me at first, like surprisingly subdued Hercules, were old hat and I was soon plucking out rarer game like Ophiuchus, and Serpens, and Libra. Stars? I knew a fair proportion of the named ones by heart, collecting them with all the enthusiasm of an obsessed little person. I made friends with them and they have remained my friends throughout my life, often providing immeasurable comfort. When life has been at low ebb, the sight of an old pal—Vega, Aldeberan, Rigel—shining true has always cheered me.

The stars can cheer you too, and if you are a novice you need to know them. What’s that? “But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, I got me one of them newfangled go-to scopes. What for do I need to know the stars and constellations?” Above and beyond the satisfaction of knowing them, even if you have a go-to scope you still need to know the brighter stars. Yes, Celestron does have SkyAlign; that should allow you to align the scope without knowing the names of the stars you are using, but by all accounts and my own experience, their Two-Star Align is actually easier—and more accurate—and it requires you to identify one of the two stars.

Even with telescope aligned and computer cooking, you’ll want to know the constellations. Otherwise you’ll be lost in space, not knowing where to go. One glance at the western horizon and the hard-won knowledge of boyhood tells me Andromeda is going down in a hurry, and that I need to send the go-to on a go-to over there if I am to catch her wonders before it is too late.

So what do you need to make friends with the stars and constellations? A few simple items, foremost of which is a planisphere. Which is a what? A planisphere is an analog computer, a little device that lets you see how the heavens will look at any chosen date or time. The sky with its stars and constellations is printed on a circular plastic or paper wheel that has dates around its periphery. This fits into and rotates in an envelope that has times printed around an oval cut-out that forms the sky. Line up the wheel’s dates with the envelope’s times and the planisphere will show just how the real sky looks.

Which planisphere should you buy? Two of my favorites, which I mentioned last week, are David Chandler’s Night Sky Planisphere and David Levy’s Guide to the Stars planisphere. Chandler’s star wheel has the advantage of having very well-drawn non-distorted constellations and is available in versions for different latitude ranges. David L’s planisphere is, most of all, large, 16-inches in diameter and easy to read. It is commonly stocked in bookstores. You could hop down to Barnes and Noble now and be learning the stars tonight.

Nota Bene: The other night I was out observing with my university astronomy students, novices all. When I began pointing out the constellations, several of them whipped out their smart phones and began tracking the sky with apps like SkySafari and Distant Suns (which use the cell phones’ built in compasses and accelerometers). These kids were able to pick out stars and constellations quicker than their classmates could with their old-fashioned Edmund Star and Planet Locator planispheres. I therefore conclude cell phones are at least on the verge of becoming the 21st century’s planispheres.

How about a book? You could get one, but you really don’t need one at first. In fact, I suggest you avoid one famous book about learning the stars, The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H.A. Rey (the author of the Curious George books). It is a wonderful book in some ways but, in my opinion, is not a big help for learning the stars. Rey was obsessed with making the constellation stick figures look like the mythological characters they are supposed to represent. His Gemini looks a lot like a set of twins, his Great Bear has a very ursine appearance, etc.

Unfortunately, Rey’s stick figures are overly complicated. It’s best to stick with the more abstract ones on your planisphere and the monthly star charts in the astronomy magazines. Those versions of the constellations don’t look much like archers or maidens (with a few exceptions), but they are easier to see and remember than Rey’s figures. Actually, you can envisage the constellation figures any way you want. The boundaries of the constellations, their areas of the sky, are set by the International Astronomical Union, but the connect-the-dots stick figures are and always have been informal.

What else will you need outside? A red flashlight, as I outlined last time, will preserve your night vision, but allow you to read the planisphere. You can get fancy red LED lights, but at first a standard flashlight with some kind of red filter over its lens will do. I always save the red cellophane that wraps the candy Miss Dorothy so sweetly gives me every February 14th to hand out to newbies to make astronomer’s flashlights, but even a layer of brown paper bag paper will be good enough at first.

Out into the yard you go. Pick an area with a clear view of at least one of the horizons. Try to find a spot that’s relatively free of ambient light, the light from nearby sources, so you can see as many stars as possible. Observing location found, set your planisphere. Rotate the wheel until today’s date lines-up with the current time—IF STANDARD TIME IS IN EFFECT. The sky doesn’t know pea turkey about daylight savings time. If you are on DST, set your planisphere for the current standard time. If, for example, your watch says “9pm,” set the planisphere to “8pm.”

One other thing: you don’t use a planisphere like a terrestrial map, looking down at it. You hold it over your head and look up at it. Hold the planisphere up with its north horizon lined up with the real northern horizon (most planispheres will have the word “north” and an arrow printed on them). Then, if you hold the planisphere steady in that position and face east, the planisphere’s eastern horizon and the real horizon will line up. Turn yourself (but not the planisphere) west, and you will see its west superimposed on the real west—and so on.

Time to start learning. Where to begin depends on the time of the year, but pick a prominent constellation just far enough from the horizon to be above obstacles and out of the worst light pollution. In the winter, old Orion is an excellent starting place. In the summer, little Lyra is it. In the spring, now, Leo the magnificent lion and Ursa Major the Great Bear (with her dipper/plough) are perfect. Face east about 8pm at this time of the year, look about 30 degrees above the horizon, and you should see the backwards question mark followed by a triangle that forms Leo.

“Now hold on, Unk, what in the h-e double hockey sticks is 30-degrees in the sky?” Easy. Or easy to figure out. Mother Nature has provided us all with a built-in measuring device for angular distances in the sky, a closed fist. Hold your fist at arm’s length and the distance between the thumb side and pinky side covers 10-degrees. “But Unk, I’ve got small hands.” That’s OK…people with smaller hands generally have shorter arms and vice-versa.

Back to the sky. Don’t get flummoxed if you can’t make out the Lion at first. Two things that confusticated me as a novice were that the constellations were much larger in the sky than I’d expected them to be from my planisphere. On average, the stars seemed dimmer than I thought they’d be as well. Keep looking, going back and forth between sky and planisphere, and soon you will see.

Still having trouble making out backwards questions marks and triangles of stars much less Lions? You should note a strikingly bright blue-white star in the area. This is magnitude 1.35 Regulus, Leo’s brightest star. Once you see him, the rest is duck soup. The star is the period of the backwards question mark that is tilted to the north (left). Referring to your planisphere, trace from there, connecting the star dots till you form the Sickle/question mark. Then, move east and you will encounter the three stars that form the triangle of Leo’s hindquarters.

All-bloody-right! You have learned your first constellation and your first star. After that milestone, learning the sky is just continuing the process. Pick another prominent star figure on display at your time of year: Leo, Orion, Taurus, Pegasus, etc.—and find its pattern in the sky with the aid of your planisphere. Identify the constellation’s bright star (if it has one), and put a name to it. Spend plenty of time admiring your catches, the star and the constellation figure, till you are sure you will be able to identify them on the next evening, when they will be in nearly the same place at the same time.

When you have looked long enough to be sure you will recognize Leo (for example) in the future, move on to the constellations around him. Little Leo Minor isn’t much to look at, just three stars, but unless your skies are very light polluted, he should be easy to pick out just to the northwest of the Sickle. Coma Berenices should be rising by now. Like many spring constellations, Berenice’s Hair isn’t much to look at, just three stars. But she holds marvelous things.

Like the huge star cluster Mellotte 111, which is 5-degrees across and appears as a big splash of beautiful stars on the western side (opposite the eastern horizon) of Coma. Can’t make it out and having a hard time with Coma herself? If you’ve got a pair of binoculars, run get them. If not, think about getting some. Maybe even just a cheap pair from Walmart; they can be a real help learning in light polluted conditions. You’ll find some tips here.

Once you have the eastern horizon area down, move on to another chunk of sky. In the spring maybe the north, and check out the Bear who will be standing on her tail, the “handle” of the dipper/plough. As before, make friends with the brightest stars and fill in the nearby constellations. Take your time. Just being able to pick out a constellation once won’t help. You want to be able to identify it and at least one of its stars without a chart. To that end, test yourself. Go outside without your planisphere the next evening and try to identify the stick figures and stars without aid, checking yourself with the planisphere when you are done.

By the time four seasons have passed, if you continue this program regularly, you will have an excellent working knowledge of the sky, more than sufficient for aligning and using a go-to scope. More than that, you’ll find learning the constellations an enjoyable end in itself. As a little kid, I not only relished knowing the star patterns, but knowing their myths. It was almost as if those ancient stories represented a creed not so outworn after all. Pegasus and Perseus and Andromeda and Cassiopeia and Cepheus and the rest paraded before me and seemed just as real as real could ever be.

If you enjoy learning the stars, may I make one request? Pass it on. I am not one who thinks amateur astronomy will go to hell in a hand basket if everybody doesn’t know their constellations. Amateur radio almost died because for too many years you were not (and could not be) a ham if you didn’t know the Morse code. Thankfully, amateur astronomy is different. Anyone who loves the stars is an amateur astronomer. Still, I think knowing the stars and constellations by heart is a wonderful thing. I also think you will enjoy teaching the stars almost as much as you enjoyed learning them.

Next Time: Depends on how the weather was this past weekend, but maybe, just maybe, poor little Charity Hope Valentine is up from her sickbed.

nicely written as usual Rod..!
here`s my fanciful impression of Berenice`s Hair from about 9-10 years ago..
Sir, you do a fantastic job.. Somewhere you put up a photo of a plastic 4 stage Saturn V.....I had that and played with it for lord knows how long.......What a great memory...Thank you.
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