Why Now is the Best Time to be a Stargazer

M104-HST

“Always avoid the neighborhood of any bright light. Electric lights in particular are an abomination to stargazers.” So wrote the American astronomy popularizer Garrett Serviss, in 1890, in his excellent book Astronomy with an Opera Glass. 

Serviss would likely be appalled at the grey fog of light pollution over most cities, where most people now live. Under such conditions, the faint stars and others sights of the deep sky are much harder to see, and many city dwellers have never seen the faint band of the Milky Way.

Which is why many argue the best days for amateur astronomy are behind us. But take heart, fellow stargazer, because in this article, you discover why this is the best time in history to enjoy the night sky….

1. Low-cost, high quality telescopes. Dollar for dollar, this is the best time to buy a quality telescope at an affordable price. In 1985, for example, in the United States, a top-quality 4″ achromatic refractor on an equatorial mount cost $2,350. In today’s dollars, that’s a cool $5,240. But today, you can get a larger refractor, a 6″ achromat, on a computerized equatorial mount for just $1,300. And thanks to new optical design methods, optical materials, and manufacturing techniques, many of today’s telescopes are better than those available in past decades… at any price.

2. Wide-field eyepieces. Until about 30 years ago, amateur stargazers settled for simple and low-cost eyepiece designs such as Keller, Ramsden, or maybe an Erfle or a good Orthoscopic for planetary viewing. Looking through these eyepieces gave a narrow view of the sky, an experience akin to looking through a drinking straw. In the 1980s, the optical designer Al Nagler developed eyepieces with large fields of view that enabled higher magnifications without sacrificing viewing area. His Nagler and Panoptic eyepieces, and now his Ethos line, give views like you’re looking out the window of a spaceship. Even low-cost Plossl eyepieces, which come standard with many new scopes, are better than those available a generation ago.

3. Large-aperture Telescopes. Until the late 1970s, most amateur astronomers would rarely encounter a telescope with a mirror bigger than 10″ or 12″. But a former monk and stargazing evangelist named John Dobson learned to make large-aperture telescopes out of inexpensive materials. His “Dobsonian” telescope design is now a standard product offering of many telescope companies, and big telescopes for visual observation are commonplace. Some stargazers have scopes of 16″ or 20″ or larger. The views through these big scopes are unforgettable.

A big Dobsonian telescope (credit: Meade Corp.)

A big Dobsonian telescope (credit: Meade Corp.)

4. Free information. Most people now have nearly instant access to libraries full of astronomical information. The position of the planets, new discoveries, background science, videos and images of the best sights in the night sky, are all available at the click of a mouse. Information doesn’t mean wisdom, of course. That comes with thought and experience and the drive to get off the couch and look up at the night sky. But information– along with curiosity– are the starting points.

5. Travel and astro tourism. OK, so air travel isn’t as much fun as it used to be. But it’s now possible to travel to dark-sky destinations that cater to stargazers and astrophotographers. From the southwestern U.S. to northern Chile, and from Australia to Iceland and northern Canada, there are hundreds astronomy-related tours as well as small inns and B&B’s where skywatchers can see the heavens under some of the darkest and clearest skies in the world.

6. Computers for control and simulation. When used wisely, computers can save time, impart information, and take the drudgery out of hands-on stargazing. Many telescope mounts come with computers that can point the telescope to thousands of objects with the pressing a few buttons. Some new gadgets let you control a telescope with a tablet or smartphone. And planetarium apps like Stellarium (which is free) can help you learn and explore the sky in your spare time or on a cloudy night. Just don’t forget to look up from your screen at the real sky once in a while.

7. Sensitive Cameras. Like microprocessors, camera CCD and CMOS sensors have improved in performance and dropped in price according to a Moore’s Law-type relationship. Specialized CCD cameras for astronomy are still expensive and have a steep learning curve. But the same DSLR cameras you use to take snapshots at your daughter’s birthday party can now capture stunning images of colorful nebulae and wide-field nightscape vistas that were not possible just a few years ago. Even iPhones and other smartphones can take a decent image of the Moon and bright planets through a telescope.

8. Online telescopes. Take computers, the internet, and big telescopes, and you create amazing opportunities for remote astronomical observing where you can access and control telescopes in remote and dark locations thousands of miles away. Dozens of such telescope are available as an online service, including Slooh.com, iTelescope.net, and Telescope.org. It’s not as much fun as looking into the sky for yourself, but you can get access to some top-level hardware through these services.

Kepler_spacecraft

The Kepler Space Telescope

9. Amateur research opportunities.  Professional astronomers have the skies well covered with robotic observatories these days. So it’s more difficult– though not impossible– for lone amateurs to make discoveries of new comets or exploding stars in other galaxies, at least using their own backyard telescopes. But there are other opportunities for amateurs to make discoveries, especially when collaborating with professionals in the field of tracking asteroids and monitoring variable stars. Even without a telescope, amateurs can help classify galaxies, analyze data to look for extraterrestrial life, and search for planets around other stars.

10. Another “golden age” of discovery. With the construction of new and massive Earth-based telescopes and space-based telescopes that can see farther, clearer, and across the full spectrum of light, astronomers have entered an age of rapid discovery. We can now detect planets around other stars, get glimpses of the first stars and galaxies that formed in the universe, and see new solar systems as they form. These discoveries may not improve your view of the night sky with your own small telescope, but they do improve the experience of seeing the sky for yourself as you try to understand your own place in the cosmos.

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