Astronomer's Spring Fever

“In spring a young astronomer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of…”

It’s spring where I live, a very short-lived season in southern Canada; remnants of snow in the woods, yet I've already swatted my first mosquito. The spring sky is also short-lived because of the Sun’s rapid travel northwards at this time of year. It seems as if winter’s brilliant constellations are replaced by the summer ones in a few short weeks.

The constellation Leo as seen from mid-northern latitudes on May 10 at 9:00 p.m.

Leo galaxies as seen from mid-northern latitudes on May 10 at 9:30 p.m.

It’s now warm enough at night to be able to spend a couple of hours in relative comfort with the stars. This is a good time of year to begin new observing projects. If you’re a newcomer to astronomy, you might enjoy the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s “Explore the Universe”program. You don’t have to be a member to participate; just download the program brochure and get started. It will introduce you to the wide variety of objects in the night sky, and won’t take you forever to complete. All you need for most of it is your naked eye, a small pair of binoculars, and a reasonably dark sky.

If you’re more advanced in astronomy, you might take on a more challenging project, such as observing all of the 110 objects in Charles Messier’s catalog of deep sky objects. These include the brightest and best objects in the northern sky, and is considered “basic training” for deep sky observers. All the objects are plotted in Starry Night and SkySafari.

Spring is also the time for spring cleaning. It’s a good time to make sure your astronomical equipment is tuned up and ready to perform at its best. Please note that this usually doesn’t involve cleaning your telescope’s main lens or mirror. Unless you follow very careful procedures, you’re more likely to do damage to your optics than to improve the view. A bit of dust won’t do any harm. What is required is an optical tune-up, called collimation, to make sure your telescope’s optics are properly aligned. This is primarily required by Newtonian reflectors and Schmidt-Cassegrains; refractors and Maksutovs are factory aligned and best left alone unless you really know what you’re doing. Collimation is a painless procedure once you’ve done it a few times; your telescope’s operating manual should contain all the information you need. For Newtonians, a simple collimating eyepiece is a handy aid.

Spring is also a time when many amateur astronomers start leafing through the ads and catalogs of the various manufacturers looking for new hardware to enhance their viewing experience. Every telescope is a compromise of some kind, so many astronomers end up owning more than one telescope. If you already own the large Dobsonian reflector which most of us recommend for beginners, you might consider a small “grab-and-go” refractor which will give you wide field views.

I’m always surprised at how many amateur astronomers own a telescope but not a pair of binoculars. I personally find binoculars to be an indispensable part of my observing “kit.” Not only are they a wonderful observing tool in their own right, giving wide rich fields of view without the hassles of mounts and finders, but they are also an essential part of finding objects by starhopping. A pair of binoculars with the same field of view as your telescope’s finder allows you to practice a starhop comfortably before attempting it with finder and telescope. I own several different sizes of binoculars, but find that I use my 10x50s more than any other size: light in weight, easy to hand hold, and very wide field.

If you become really addicted to binocular views, you might want to invest in a pair of giant binoculars. Because of their weight and magnification, these usually need to be mounted on a tripod.

Most scopes come with one or two basic eyepieces, usually 25 mm and 10 mm Plössl types. These are fine to get you started, but they only hint at the versatility of which an astronomical telescope is capable. After you’re comfortable using these basic eyepieces, you may want to increase your range with a low power wide field eyepiece.

At the other end of the scale, you may want to get up close and personal with the Moon and planets with a specialized planetary eyepiece.

You may choose this spring to embark on a totally new area of astronomy. Many astronomers concentrate on the stars visible at night, but forget the star closest to us, the Sun. A solar filter on the front of your telescope will let you watch sunspots as they rotate across the face of the Sun. You may also want to explore the solar flares and prominences visible with a dedicated Hydrogen Alpha telescope like this:

Another area to explore is astrophotography. Most telescopes can easily be coupled with today’s digital cameras to photograph the Sun, Moon, and bright planets. If your scope has a motorized equatorial mount, you can easily make “piggyback” images by mounting your camera on the piggyback bolt included on the tube rings of many mounts.

However you choose to celebrate spring fever, get out there and enjoy these pleasant spring evenings!

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