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Misadventures in Amateur Astronomy

When you think of astronomy, or at least when I think of astronomy, my mind immediate leaps to the kind of glittering photographs of distant galaxies that one might find on the cover of Cosmology Today. Until quite recently, however, I had never before actually taken a peek through a telescope, which struck me as a modestly worthy and accessible life goal.

After spending an enjoyable evening reading up on the various types of affordable telescopes I settled on a second hand Meade ETX-70, which came packed with a clever piece of software that tells the telescopes where to find intriguing celestial objects, rather like leading a bewildered relative to the buffet table On a good, moderately sober night I’m pretty sure I can find the moon without too much trouble, and with some additional laboured squinting might be able to pick Mars and the Big Dipper out of a line-up of twinkling dots, but that’s about it. So the thought of simply tapping my preferred object of fancy into a hand controller and sitting back while the telescope does all the work was definitely a selling point, even though I had to spend a couple of hours repairing it after the initial set-up saw the telescope start strongly and then fade into a flaccid sort of despair, the internal motors running and yet no vertical presence whatsoever.

Incidentally, the first thing that appears on the LCD screen when you boot it up is an all-caps warning in bright red not to look directly into the sun. Reading this I instantly pictured a certain Donald J Trump running into the house in a squeal of tears, a sweaty ham-like paw clamped over an already blistering socket. Cretin.

With some unseasonably delightful weather breaking our way I spent the past several nights in garden with my Meade whirring away about an hour after sunset, realising with every passing minute that even with the addition of this remarkable innovation I was comically lacking in the kind of rudimentary astronomical know-how required to get it to work. Setting-up requires you to help the telescope find two bright stars which it then uses to orientate itself. It does a pretty good job of finding roughly the right portion of sky, but issues arise when you understand that there are several equally bright stars in the same pocket of darkness. As I aimlessly wafted my Meade through the ethereal darkness I was again reminded how, as a modern and largely sedentary human specimen, I am hopelessly lacking in the kind of basic survival skills that our ancestors thought of as essential learning. I had to use my phone to find compass north, which seems like something so fundamental that evolution should have rendered an instinct by now, but there you go. Ever ready with another stinging remark the handset asked me to “orientate to Arcturus” and then gave me the option of Capella and Canopus, clearly assuming some surface level comprehension on my part. Vega? Wasn’t he the dude with the Edward Scissor Hands paraphernalia in Street Fighter?

Even with the aid of modern technology the initial set-up still took me about an hour despite a daylight practice run a few hours earlier. I had read that if you’re about to spend the night stargazing you have to give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness otherwise you’ll miss the all-important details, a perfectly sensible suggestion, and I had dutifully sat out in the darkness for a good forty minutes to ensure that I had the kind of ocular precision known only to snipers and watchmakers. All of this was instantly obliterated, however, by my elderly neighbour’s bank of security flood lights, which I learned she has programmed to explode into life with the power of a million candles about the time I was getting ready to greet the heavens. Not that it mattered, since my lack of astronomical knowledge meant I had to keep opening apps on my phone to check that what I was looking at was actually a cluster of stars and not, say, a large conglomeration of confused moths drawn to my neighbour’s now brilliantly illuminated patio, the lights toggling off and on each time her geriatric little dog went out to try do his business, which as it turns out is a lot, despite her encouraging calls from the door to “hurry up and go!”

In spite of these minor ordeals I did finally manage to get everything zeroed and prepared myself for what I fully expected to be quite the show.

Maybe this much is obvious to everyone else, but even when viewed through well reviewed starter telescope, the tiny pinpricks of light we call stars remain just that, just slightly bigger, rounder, but no less mystifying. Goodness knows what I was expecting to see, but stooping over the eyepiece, my back now aching from the painstaking preliminaries, moths gathering around my beacon-like iPhone, I must confess my first impression was a disappointing one.

My first thought was that I must be out of focus and spent another twenty minutes painstakingly trying to fine-tune everything only to realise that I had been twiddling a redundant rivet, and besides it wasn’t out of focus, it was just that what I was looking at was really far away and only a fool would expect anything different. Another thought was how anyone could have looked at these things fuzzy nothings back at the dawn of science and reached the kind of remarkable conclusions they did. All I could say with any authority was that stars are round and kind of twinkly, but other than that the entire experience so far had been a brutal repudiation of my high school education.

I decided instead to range forth in search of more accessible viewing. Referring to my pocket star chart (another impulse buy) I learned that at this time of year most of the good stuff you can see with a backyard telescope, which is to say the planets, lurk unhelpfully low on the horizon or otherwise reach their zenith during the day when they’re of absolutely no use to anyone. Still, I persevered and programmed the tele to slew (that’s the technical term) to one of the billowing nebulae I remembered seeing in my Ladybird Book of the Universe. Maybe that would produce the awed inward breath I had been hoping for.

Even as I readied myself to be mesmerised by one of these towering giants of deep space, I had to admit that my previous and somewhat underwhelming encounter with some of our nearest and brightest stars had dampened my spirits considerably. As the tele locked on and began to slowly track I peered once again into the eyepiece and predictably enough found very little of anything at all. Maybe it was there, I told myself, just overwhelmed by all the light pollution and localised moth activity.

Unfazed, I switched to the less-than-enticingly titled “globular clusters” stored in the AutoStar memory. This time I found something, and that something was the feintest of feint smudges that my new stargazing app confirmed was indeed a cluster of the globular kind – a mass of tumbling stars yet to properly organise themselves, rather like the last hour of pub crawl that started way too early in the afternoon. How can anyone get excited about this, I kept asking myself, immediately wishing I had a full size observatory adjoined to the house instead of my woefully inadequate Tube of Humiliation. But then I remembered something from my Ladybird Book research, that these clusters are unimaginably vast, sometimes hundreds if not thousands of light years across and so incredibly, absurdly distant that looking at them is like looking at something under a microscope that is also travelling back through time. Now that, I thought, is pretty cool.

Other than confirming my ignorance of the subject my first lesson in astronomy has been that a significant part of the wow factor is appreciating the scale of the thing. It’s also rather fun learning the names of the stars and constellations, along with the different mythologies that have helped to cement them in everyone’s consciousness except for mine. Standing with my back to the patio doors I now know that compass north sits just over the cockerel weathervane sprouting from a neighbour’s gazebo, and that if you can find them, the spoon portion of the Big Dipper contains many swirling galaxies worthy of a gander. Moreover, I’ve learned or rather confirmed that no amount of cosmologically inspired adrenaline can keep me awake much past midnight, and that an unexpected seagull screech in the depths of night can make a grown man whinny like a frightened pony. This is not to say that my astronomy adventure ends here. It feels like a special sort of privilege to look up in this way and think about the many layers of human history and storytelling woven into the unreachable limits of space. Also, constellations look nothing like the mythical heroes they are meant to represent but it’s still wild to play Eye-Spy at that kind of scale. Occasionally a satellite slides across the dome, and when the planets start to rise again I’ll be back out there again I’m sure.



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