The Heartache of Amateur Astronomy

Is it really worth the pain?Not unlike the grandfather comparing the pampered lifestyle of kids these days with the hardships of his own youth—his 150-mile walks to school every day, in the rain, with no clothes on—I remember a time when amateur astronomy meant suffering through endless hours of frigid darkness, searching for the elusive deep-space object that was so rarely where I thought it should have been. It may be unthinkable now, but back then the operation relied on printed star charts and a rudimentary grasp of the coordinate system required to align the current position of an object in space with the tube I'd set up in my backyard. Back then, telescopes didn't come with preprogrammed databases of celestial objects, and it took more than pushing a few buttons on the handheld remote to locate those objects. Even with the telescope's drive unit perfectly aligned with our celestial pole, locating the object of my desire involved work and dedication. In 1985, amateur astronomy meant suffering, and that's why I ended up selling all that stuff a few years after I bought it. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, and I regret it to this day.

Really, I hadn't planned to buy a telescope at all, but a coworker's positive experiences with the hobby led me astray. He was always bringing photos to work, and they were impressive photos of colorful, glowing gases in distant nebulae, amazing shots of star clusters, or bright images of the planets in our own solar system. Sometimes his astrophotography even included comets, their gaseous tails in perpetual opposition to our sun. One night I drove out to the small observatory dome where he kept his decidedly serious amateur telescope. There, with my camera riding piggyback on his 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, I steered the arrangement by keeping the glowing crosshairs in the eyepiece centered on a galaxy whose grandeur would be captured on an 8 x 10 glossy. This, I think, was the event that pushed me over the edge, and not long thereafter I forked over way too much dough for a telescope of my own.

Not that I went completely nuts over a 14-inch scope, but even a 10-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain takes up quite a bit of space in its carrying case—or more accurately, its carrying trunk—and then there's that monster tripod to contend with. It isn't like you can just throw the whole mess in the back seat and head for the hills. And there's the electric drive that counteracts our planet's rotation, and keeps whatever you're squinting at from zipping out of view. But that drive unit requires power, which means you're either tripping over an extension cord in the dark, or running on a battery of some kind. Of course, you can't do the astrophotography thing without a camera adapter, and an off-axis guider, and whatever else the telescope manufacturer decides is optional-extra.

Once everything is set up and plugged in—and assuming you've figured out where you are, and also how to locate the desired space object—there's nothing left but to sit down and stare into that eyepiece. If it's a warm night, you might be comfortable for a little while, but if it isn't, you can expect numbness and shaking before you begin to feel the drowsy warmth that occurs immediately before death. Although I don't recall ever quite reaching that point, I do remember an overwhelming feeling of sadness and disappointment. Unlike photographic film, the human eye isn't sensitive to the wavelengths that show up in colorful ways in photos of nebulosity and such. Hydrogen gas, through the telescope's eyepiece, is invisible. And the planets that make up our solar system may be next door on a cosmic scale, but they're also significantly smaller than those deep-space phenomena—light years smaller, in effect—so you need a lot of magnification for the planets. Unfortunately, this translates to less brightness and sharpness, more shaking, and the overall sensation of ickiness, especially where photography is involved.

I'm sure not everyone has such disappointing, negative experiences with amateur astronomy; no doubt there are people who enjoy sitting in the bitter darkness for hours on end, shaking and crying. As they say, your mileage may vary. Then too, I haven't really kept up with the latest developments, so it's possible modern-day amateur astronomy requires nothing more than a motorized, weatherproof CCD arrangement on the roof, a video panel in the living room, and maybe a joystick in case the computer is unable to discern the difference between Gliese 581 and your neighbors' bedside lamp.


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