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Painless Astronomy by Martin Male

Here are some ways to make an observing session more enjoyable.

Practice with new kit before hand; trying to put an unfamiliar telescope together outside in the dark for the first time is asking for trouble. Getting familiar with in the daylight and running through the setup a few times before using it at night will make for a much more rewarding evening. I know this sounds daft, but do read the manual first. Most issues are usually resolved this way!

If you are still not sure how something should go together, contact the supplier or manufacturer as they will be very happy to help (usually!). There are websites dedicated to particular makes and models of telescopes where you can also get information. An online search might turn up a YouTube video dealing with your issue. Don’t forget there is a lot of expertise within FAS to be had too!

Many telescopes today use batteries as a power source. Batteries loose their power quite quickly in cold weather. Something that worked OK indoors might not work out in the cold. Check this before you ship it back to the shop or wherever.

Collimation is usually required for reflecting telescopes to ensure the various reflecting surfaces are at their optimum for performance. This is not a difficult task and no special tools are normally needed. Just make sure you follow the instructions in the manual.

Are you sitting comfortably? Sadly many telescope designs seem to have been designed with contortionists in mind, not the average citizen in that the eyepiece is often low to the ground or requires the observer to stand on tip toe. If at all possible, sit down when you observe. An awful lot of brainpower goes into maintaining our balance; you will be amazed how much more you can see sitting down!

Wrap up well – My wife & I host observing evenings at our observatory on Romney Marsh. We issue a standard request for anyone coming down to wrap up well. Most folks do this OK, but we do get some who think a just the nice scarf they had for Christmas will suffice. They end up with teeth chattering and an inability to think about anything other than being warm again. Don’t underestimate how cold you can get, even in the summer at night. Plenty of layers, gloves, hat, thick socks and good footwear are the key.

Stay out of the draft! Even at a few mph, the chilling effect of the wind can be very noticeable, so try to observe somewhere out of the wind. It will also reduce the “wind shake” of the telescope.

Avoid alcohol; this will lower your temperature and reduce your visual acuity. Save the tipple until you have finished observing for the night!

Dark adaption: our eyes are amazing things – they can handle a higher range of differences in light intensity better than any man made device, a factor of about a million I’ve read somewhere.  We can see very well in low levels of light provided we avoid bright light for a minimum of ten minutes. A lot of folks use planetarium programmes on smart phones etc, but these can ruin your dark adaptation. Many astronomers use red-light torches to check star charts “in the field” to maintain their dark adaptation.

The sky clarity and amount of turbulence in the air makes a tremendous difference to how much you can see. High, thin cloud can mask fainter objects, but can mean a steady atmosphere. A clear night when the stars are twinkling will not yield steady images.  Some of the best nights for observing are to be had in the summer during periods of high pressure. Going out and looking is the best way to find out about this.

Try to look at objects when they are at their highest (due south) so that you are looking through the minimum amount of air. At the horizon there is 40x more air to look through than directly overhead.

Have realistic expectations about what your telescope can reveal; a lot of newcomers to astronomy are disappointed by the performance of their instruments. We are used these days to seeing amazing images of celestial objects, but bear in mind these are often taken with large professional grade instruments and processed by experts. A 3” refractor is not going to outperform the Hubble Space Telescope.

The planets viewed through a small telescope can reveal a surprising amount of detail. The “trick” is to actually look carefully at things, not just have a “quick butchers”! There is a world (ouch!) of difference between looking and a quick peek; an experienced observer will look through the eyepiece for ages, waiting for the moments of steady air to occur and reveal otherwise hidden detail.

Galaxies and faint nebula need to be viewed from a dark site with your eyes dark adapted to see them at their best, but there is of course satisfaction to be had from seeing some of the brighter ones from a suburban garden where light pollution is an issue; light pollution filters can help here. But just remember that those photons of light striking the back of your retina have travelled for perhaps millions of years until they reached their final destination.