Friday, March 27, 2009

Amateur Astronomy

So I have been trying to get my feet wet with amateur astronomy for a while now. I finally have a good book with some star charts, and a nice set of binoculars suitable for star-gazing. Tonight I thought I was going to go to my first Eugene Astronomical Society meeting but the meeting was actually last night. So on a lark I decided to grab my gear and head up to someplace really dark - I settled on a place I'd seen mentioned on the EAS mail list, Eagle's Rest. My motivation for leaving the house had as much to do with wanting to get away from distractions as with needing more dark - we have really very good skies here at the house depending how many neighbors have porch lights on on any given night.

Before I left I checked various sources of detailed weather forecasting, and I had this notion that I might have dark, clear skies for a little while right after sunset. So I drove the 40 minutes out and up the hill on Eagle's Rest Road. The fragmentary directions I had suggested there was a clear site a mile and a half up, and there it was, a little ways past the end of the pavement, a little turn-off surrounded by muddy 4x4 ruts and thousands of spent rounds of ammunition. Sad, really, that people can't be bothered to pick up after themselves.

It was still fairly light, so I settled down to review my books and practice with my binoculars. Soon though a large cloud bank started to slide in over my location. In another half hour there was a tiny open patch of sky with a single solitary star visible in it. The binoculars turned this into a pepper-specked field of deep blue. I jumped from one hole to the next for a while, just practicing focusing. I tracked a couple of airplanes, and a couple of satellites.

There were hundreds or thousands of frogs nearby calling wildly. However any time I made a distinct noise, they would all stop very suddenly. It was really strange. They would also stop when a dog who had to be a mile away would bark. Once I heard a coyote.

Finally it was dark, and the southern quarter of the sky opened up. I was able to locate right away what I was sure was the Pleiades, and near it Taurus. My mom taught me a few constellations when I was 8 or 9 and those two were ones I felt pretty confident about. But I couldn't line it up on the chart and I feared I might be wrong. The clouds were darting around. I saw some interesting stuff, but I got discouraged and started to drive back down the hill.

As soon as I got to the bottom of the hill I looked south and now the sky was much more clear. I stood there trying to get my bearings. Suddenly the clouds pulled back and I recognized unmistakable Orion! I corroborated the position of Taurus and Pleiades, and tried to find some other constellations. I think I found Pegasus and Gemini. But I went back to Orion and saw what must have been the nebula. Then I saw a shooting star, and traced another, brighter satellite all the way across the sky.

I love looking at the stars! I can't wait to really get my bearings, so I can be prepared for deeper explorations!

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