Jag Venugopal's Blog

April 7, 2011

Skywatching — our latest hobby

Filed under: India — Jag @ 11:18 pm
Tags: ,

With the advent of spring, my daughter and I have taken up skywatching as a hobby. It is fascinating to see stars and constellations, some of which are millions of light years away, right from one’s own backyard. The best part is that skywatching can be easy, inexpensive, and very educational for young and old alike.

Most people assume that skywatching requires a telescope and rush out to buy a bottom-dollar shiny doodad for $100 or so, from either their nearest Wal-Mart, or Amazon. Having assembled their outfit, they are dismayed to find that they can’t find much, what they see is all upside down, and the image is both dim, and shakes very badly. These are all blunders I committed five years ago when I first set out to watch the stars.

A better approach is to buy little to no equipment. My daughter and I learned most of what we know from the book Night Watch, by Terence Dickinson. This book ought to be considered essential reading for any starting skywatcher. The author teaches a system for identifying stars and constellations starting from two very well known celestial landmarks — the Big Dipper and the belt of Orion. The sky maps provided in the book are just the right level of detail for a newbie — covering the major tourist spots in the night sky, without drowning the reader in detail.

Equipment-wise, all one needs is a good pair of binoculars. After researching on Amazon and elsewhere, I bought the Celestron Sky Master 15 x 70. This is inxpensive, yet well regarded. And my experience bears it out. In the month or so since I’ve had it, we’ve seen craters on the moon, Saturn with a hint of rings (to see the rings clearly, you need a small telescope or better), and various double-star systems and nebulae. Note that a stable tripod is essential to mount the binoculars for shake-free viewing. Good-quality photo tripods will do fine. I enjoy the binoculars far more than either my el-cheapo telescope, or even the oft-recommended Galileoscope.

About the only other thing one needs is a red flashlight, to read star charts in the dark. This will do just fine. Regular flashlights cause the pupils to constrict — thereby reducing the amount of light reaching the eyes, and getting in the way of skywatching.

The book, binoculars, and flashlight above can all be had for less than a hundred dollars total, about the cost of a dinner and a movie for the family. If you decide skywatching is not for you, the binoculars can be resold, or retained for other activities (e.g. birdwatching). If, on the other hand you’re hooked, you have plenty of time to save up and buy a really good telescope (our family is not there yet, and probably won’t be this year).

 One last recommendation — when you start identifying stars, look them up on Wikipedia, to learn a little more about them. And for those from India, you can look up “birth stars” for your family in the sky. When I talk to my dad next, I will tell him that his birth star, Rohini, is the easily identifiable Aldebaran, a red giant visible from our backyard, that has run out of hydrogen, and will eventually retire as a white dwarf. Punarvasu, the birth star of the mythological god Ram, correspond to Castor and Pollux, a short trip away from the Big Dipper in the night sky. And my own, Makha, is the star Regulus in the constellation Leo. You don’t have to believe in all the astrology mumbo-jumbo to have a good time correlating all the nakshatras to various shiny spots in the sky, and marvel at the imagination of ancient Indians in spinning their astrological yarn.


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