Making the effort

This is something to which any amateur astronomer can relate. Often times just getting out there and doing it, even if the odds of success are low, is the key to a meaningful reward. Allegory for life much?

This short article has actually helped me make some decisions about my equipment that I was having a hard time making.

Clouds? What-evs.

Making the Effort
Bill Pellerin
Houston Astronomical Society
GuideStar Editor

The weather looks uncertain today. It was nice yesterday, but other obligations kept me from getting out under the stars. So, the dilemma – go to my observing site and hope the sky is clear tonight, or continue to work on this article for the Astronomical League web site?

Now that it’s daylight saving time (the bane of astronomers) it’ll be a few hours before sunset, and another hour before it gets really dark. We’ve all been in this position, right? Having to decide whether to make the effort to observe today or wait for a more certain set of circumstances. There’s the risk that you’ll miss a good observing opportunity and there’s the risk that you’ll prepare for an observing night that doesn’t happen.

I consider amateur astronomy an effortful endeavor. That is, to be successful you have to be willing to make an effort to get out and observe even if the probability of success is uncertain. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. What drives that willingness to make the effort to get out and observe? I believe that it is our passion for the subject – our desire to know more about the sky and the universe and how it works. I see this passion in my amateur astronomer friends and in the professional astronomers that I’ve had the opportunity to meet.

Since our club’s observing site is about 80 miles from home, getting the car loaded and driving that distance can easily be a two-hour proposition. When you get there, you still have to unload and set up for your observing session.

Is it possible to balance the effort and the reward? Yes, I believe that it is. On a beautiful clear day with no forecast for clouds (and a dark blue Clear Sky Chart), the risk that your session will be ruined by clouds and haze is low, and the reward (especially on a near new moon night) is very high. On a day where there is a good chance of clouds and the moon is in the sky the probability of a pristine observing session is lower and the potential reward from your effort is lower.

What can you do to improve your chances of success? Having a plan B, or even a plan C can help balance the reward to effort ratio. You want this to be a high number. A great night, with no clouds, is a high reward, so keeping the reward to effort ratio high is easy. Even if you expend a lot of effort you’d probably consider the reward to effort ratio to be 1 or higher.

Suppose that there is another site, your back yard, a nearby park, where you can go and do some observing with a simple to carry and simple to set up telescope. What kind of observing could you do from here? Bright stars, double stars, carbon stars, brighter variable stars, the Moon, planets, satellites and more. The Houston Astronomical Society, my home club, has set up ‘Urban Observing’ nights at a park not very far from my home. One purpose of these events is to provide observing opportunities for novice observers with more experienced observers attending to help the novices. Everybody gets to observe on a night, perhaps during the week, when you might not otherwise get out. Good reward for modest effort also provides a greater-than-one reward to effort ratio.

Other observing opportunities exist. How about a public outreach event? Last weekend, for example, a group of us set up telescopes at the Houston Arboretum (perhaps 5 miles from downtown) for an Arboretum fund raiser. The visitors were amazed by the views of the 2 day old moon, the moons of Jupiter, and Mars. They were delighted by Sirius (“the brightest star in the sky”), Betelgeuse, and Rigel. Even the Orion nebula was visible.

Plan C may involve doing some work with binoculars. Think you can’t see anything in a large city with binoculars? Wrong. I live three miles from downtown, and the skies in town are pretty bad, but I have observed comets from my driveway and plenty of double stars, planets, asteroids, lunar eclipses, and other things.

Getting out with a nice pair of binoculars is very satisfying (a good book is Binocular Highlights by Gary Seronik, available from Sky Publishing). I also suggest that you go out and identify bright stars in the sky. How many of the alignment stars that your computerized telescope uses can you easily identify in the night sky? The reward is sufficient for a low-effort endeavor so, again, your effort is in line with your result.

Can you pick out the star Zosma from the spring sky? Me neither; I have to look on my star map to identify it, but it’s one of my telescope mount’s alignment stars. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if I knew these stars without looking them up? (Zosma, it turns out, is in Leo and it is the northernmost star in the triangle of stars that define the tail of the lion.) Identifying these stars can be an unaided eye exercise. New knowledge of the sky for a limited effort.

So, in the end, it’s all about making an effort (small or large) to get out and do something. Not every outing under the stars needs to be a major all-day or all-night event. Even a half hour observing some bright objects can be fun. If you are at a loss for what to do, check out the Observing Clubs list on the Astronomical League web site. Many of these clubs are designed for bright sky observing.


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