June 6, 2020

May 2014: Life in the Astroblogosphere: Two Ways to Observe the Universe

Astro-gear, old and new.

It was one of the biggest blessings and curses as a teenager and astronomy enthusiast growing up in Northern Maine back in the pre-internet days of the 1980’s.

An interest in astronomy – or any academic pursuit, for that matter – was largely a solitary affair, conducted mainly in a vacuum. Once I had devoured the two outdated books on astronomy or any topic of interest at the local public library, it was up to me to simply approach and learn the night sky. The Bangor Daily News ran one monthly column on astronomy by science writer Clair Wood, and the Farmer’s Almanac gave local rising and setting times for my location.

That all changed when our local bookstore started to carry Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazine.

There it was, every month: a world and community full of astronomy. When other boys my age could rattle off every make and model of car that rolled by, I knew my telescopes, be they refractors or reflectors.

Still, a sort of despair sank in, as I looked at those ads for huge light buckets and photographs done using expensive imaging gas hypered rigs. The bar for entry into the hobby began to seem just too high, and the minimum buy in too expensive.

I sometimes wonder if we inadvertently amplify this sediment for beginning observers even today. Sure, I’m still into astronomy, and I have a digital subscription to both Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazine. I wouldn’t think of ever missing an issue.

And I also have every techie toy, camera and telescope that my limited funds allow me to have, which of course is never enough. And the Internet does allow astrophotographers the ability to share tricks and techniques, which of course is a great thing.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if we’re overly enamored with technology as a whole, often at the cost of pursuing astronomy for the sheer fun of observing.   There was a recent focal point article in Sky & Telescope that echoed this divide seen at many star parties today: there are the “observers” who challenge themselves to feats of visual athletics, versus the hardcore astrophotographers who fret over flats and dark fields and tracking minutiae. Is one approach better than another? Probably not.

Still, we now routinely delete images from our hard drives that, even a decade ago, would’ve been cover highlights. Sure, it’s great to see what the technology is capable of, given enough money, skill and patience. But a rush to “polish the cannonball” has left many unwilling to tout anything but perfection as captured using the latest newest gear. I believe it’s important for beginners to see those steps in between, and yes, even a few mistakes from time to time.

Astronomy needn’t be a pursuit of the wealthy, or bankrupt those in its quest. And yes, while we do have image-stabilized binocs, a Coronado PST solar telescope and a DSLR, they’re all over five years old. Perhaps we’ll always be a mere mortal dabbler when it comes to astrophotography, but we’ll never forget to step out on occasion under a dark clear sky – sans gear – and simply look up.

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