May 29, 2020

The Urban Astronomer

Living on the flight path – an aircraft approaches

the Full April Pink Moon. Photo by Author.

Quick: where’s your very own personal observatory?

In an ideal world, most amateur astronomers would simply live in an iconic dome observatory, perched on a windswept mountain under perpetually clear dark skies.

The reality for most of us, however, is a perpetual hunt to find time and space to observe when and where we can. Most of us become weekend astronomy warriors, driving out as far as we can from the suburbs on the perpetual quest for darker skies. Dark sky sites are to amateur astronomers what secret fishing holes are to fishermen, jealously guarded bits of information only passed on to those who’ve proven their dark sky mettle, and promise not to show up with floodlights ablaze.

Trouble is, astronomy doesn’t just happen on the weekend. And every hurdle thrown up – packing, planning, driving, scouting out a spot, and convincing family that investing precious time off in such a quest is a good idea – becomes a barrier between us and our goal: simply sitting at the eyepiece and observing and imaging.

We’ve written before about the challenges of observing while traveling, and the merits of a compact observing kit. This can be especially challenging when the goal of the trip isn’t astronomy, and the trek is long term… but who wants to miss out on southern sky sites during a business trip to Australia, or a backpacking trip to New Zealand?

We’ve recently met a new challenge: urban astronomy. Sure, we’ve done many a public star party from the bright downtown lights of Tucson or Tampa, places where the Moon, planets and bright double stars were the only viable targets. But we’ve found there’s a big difference between making the occasional journey into the city center to promote the cause of astronomy, and living there full time.

Astroguyz base camp is currently in a studio apartment in downtown Norfolk. We’ve got street lamps right outside our ground floor balcony, so there’s not much astronomy to be had there… but we’ve found that you can still explore the Universe, even from an over-lit U.S. east coast metropolis. Heck, modern sensitive imagers even allow for deep sky astrophotography from urban areas these days; we’ve seen great captures of the Pleiades or the Orion Nebula from such an unlikely astrophotography site as a fire escape outside of a Manhattan apartment.

There are few approaches to this dilemma. Our first choice was a small school yard track near our apartment. It’s unlit at night, a small dark patch in the light pollution jungle. Also, solar astronomy is just as easy to do downtown as uptown… just be ready to answer well-meaning queries from passersby as to just what you’re looking at. Too bad we’re at a profound solar minimum right now, and I frequently have to let folks down with a “you can look, sure… but the Sun’s not very active right now…”

The urban landscape offers lots of moonrise/moonset opportunities with foreground landmarks, something I’m still scouting out.

The happiest day, though, is when I found out I could easily access our apartment’s rooftop. We have a five story parking garage that’s open on the top, and it’s mostly for overflow parking and only rarely used… and one elevator goes directly to the top.

But how to get easily there and set up? Our first test was a trial and error affair of having to relay the telescope case and gear from one door to the next, though the elevator and up to the roof…

Our solution? A collapsible wagon, the kind most folks use to haul coolers and gear from their car to the beach. This easily carries my 8-inch SCT telescope, tripod, extra gear and a small chair from our tiny apartment to our rooftop “site” with minimal effort, and easily stows away when it’s not in use. Heck, it also does double duty getting groceries in from the car as well in one haul.

Sure, there’s still rooftop lights to contend with, but we’ve found one dark-ish corner from which to contemplate the sky.

Love and passion for the sky will always find a way.

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