The glitter of a clear night sky has always entranced us. Even in these days of extraordinary knowledge about the affairs of the cosmos, it is still easy to look up and lose yourself in its illimitable mystery and wonder.
Many of us have a fascination and thirst for knowledge about the planets, the stars, the galaxies. This great intrigue is easily inflamed by the lore to be found in books and it is exciting to get involved in practical, hands on astronomy as well. In an adventure into this more direct experience, my wife and I paid a visit one starry evening to the Toothill Observatory near Southampton in England, run by the Solent Amateur Astronomers.
The group was welcoming and keen to share their knowledge of and passion for Space. They had a large telescope permanently installed and, looking through this, we were able to view Jupiter, the largest of the Sun’s planets, accompanied by four of its largest moons, those being Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Books on astronomy are often replete with breathtaking photographs of celestial beauty, including of course the planets and moons of our solar system. Yet to see the disc of Jupiter with your own telescopically aided eye, that lovely marble colouring and the banding of the clouds, took the experience off the page and gave it a sudden, absorbing immediacy. Here was the king of the planets, and I was looking at it right now (or at least as it was rather more than thirty minutes ago, given the time that light takes to travel from Jupiter to Earth).
The four largest moons of Jupiter are collectively called the Galileans, and they sparkled and glinted as they lay in a perfect line, three on the right and one on the left of Jupiter at the time of our visit. When they were first discovered in the early seventeenth century, they helped prove that telescopes were of the greatest assistance to scientists, as they could show objects that were too far away or too small to be seen with just the eye. These moons had never been observed prior to the invention of the telescope.
Other telescopes were accessible at the observatory as well and we were able to gaze into the depths of the Pleidaes star cluster. Our visit to Toothill Observatory had been unexpectedly exciting and I was delighted when, later, a friend very kindly gave me a telescope he no longer had a use for. With this I could have my own adventures with astronomy.
The specific model was a Bushnell 78-9003, which appears to be quite representative of the type of telescope that can be purchased relatively inexpensively for use at home. Examining it, my first impression was of how beautiful this instrument was, the shining chrome and circular lenses arranged in a mathematical perfection. I’m not naturally a practical person by inclination, so carrying out the assembly work that was required was an enjoyable challenge.
Once completed, the telescope was put in the back garden. The next step was to aligning the Finderscope, the small tube sitting on top of the main cylinder, with the telescope. I was a little self-conscious of swinging the telescope about in the back garden, wondering if my alarmed neighbours might think I was spying on them. In the end I settled on using the top of a clothes’ line stood in a neighbour’s garden, some three houses down the road, as a target for this purpose.
It looked large enough in the Finderscope, but when I used the low power 20mm lens in the main telescope to view it, I had a shock. The top of the post had a rubber stopper on it. In the eyepiece of the main telescope, this was so close I could see every wrinkle and crease in the stopper’s orange surface. This magnifying power was impressive! I could easily imagine how astonished the telescope’s original inventors might have been.
I was keen to get star-gazing (or at least moon-watching) and it took forever on that long summer evening for it to be sufficiently dark. Eventually I was able to step out into the dark and swivel the telescope round roughly in the direction of the full moon that shone that night.
At first there was a little light cloud near the horizon when the Moon first appeared, which rolled and whisked across the lunar circle rather dramatically. This made getting a good look rather difficult. After waiting a little longer, this cleared and the Moon climbed higher in the sky, making a viewing much easier.
One thing I noticed immediately was that a telescope such as mine is very sensitive to the slightest touch or wobble. Whenever possible, I tried to lock it into position as much as I could to prevent this, but this proved somewhat tricky. The act of tightening the telescope’s adjustment screws could move the main eyepiece off target. Looking through the eyepiece had to be done delicately as pressing too hard could easily move the telescope the tiniest fraction, thus taking the view off the Moon.
A certain degree of patience paid off as the skills needed to keep the telescope on target whilst focussing developed. My admiration for the experienced astronomers at the observatory grew. With a little persistence, I was able to train the main telescope onto the disc of the Moon’s surface and beheld it in all its magnificent desolation (to use Buzz Aldrin’s celebrated description). The long stretches of the intense whiteness of the highlands were a skeleton around the darker, almost cyan shaded seas and with the lightest of touches I could gaze over the different quarters of our lovely sister world, the Earth’s quiet and constant companion.
The stark glow of Luna and all the intricate detail arrayed for us in its circle in the sky is a gift to the novice astronomer. I spent a lot of time pouring over the Moon and only later thought to try the higher power 4 mm lens that I had been given as well. Impatiently fitting this, I sought once more for the lunar surface but, sadly, had no luck at all. I am not sure how it was what that I could miss the Moon, given that it would be so much larger in this higher magnification. It must have been down to my inexperience.
After a frustrating twenty minutes spent in this way I yawned and suddenly noted how late it had become and how cold I was, stood in my garden at 1.30am with just shorts and a t-shirt on from the earlier balmy summer evening. Turning in for the night, I promised myself that I would continue my adventure into astronomy. In particular I am excited about learning how to find and look upon the planets and their moons. My hope is that this account of my first steps in astronomy may encourage others as well.