Like many other people during the ongoing pandemic, I’ve returned to an old love: stargazing. And judging by the run on observation equipment, telescopes especially, it seems that this backyard hobby has become much more popular while we’re isolating and quarantining.
And that makes sense. Technically, stargazing doesn’t cost anything if you’re content with naked-eye views and have good dark-sky conditions. And there’s so much to be seen! Even a pair of binoculars will open up the heavens; 10x50s are generally regarded as the gold standard for casual observing, though you can still do a lot with 7x50s, and there are some much bigger options out there as well. And with the turning of the seasons, the view shifts every night, bringing both familiar and new discoveries overhead through the year.
Stargazing has been a tangible blessing during these long months of stress and uncertainty. Sitting outside in the quiet and the dark, with only the night sky and stirring wildlife for company, I find it easier to take a deep breath. I’ve found both relaxation and a much-needed shift in perspective: the stars and planets and nebulae and galaxies drifting above have been there for billions of years. The universe doesn’t care about the pandemic or the US presidential election or climate change or anything else happening on this little planet in a backwater of the Milky Way. There’s true comfort in knowing that, while it sometimes might feel like the end of the world while the sun is shining, the night offers the reminder that this, too, shall pass and that the universe will endure.
Also, it’s freaking cool! I’ve found real joy and rediscovered wonder in looking up into the sky at night. That’s truly priceless.
But if you’re like me, you have to be careful about getting too focused on the gear and/or putting too much emphasis on “bagging” this or that celestial object on your nightly sky safari. Over the past few months, I have acquired a few new tools, including a pair of Orion ultra wide-angle 2×54 binoculars (aka “star goggles”), a pair of 15×70 Levenhuk binoculars, and a Zhumell 76mm reflector telescope. I’ve also assembled a counterweighted tripod mount for the binoculars, allowing me to relax in a zero gravity chair and observe without putting as much stress and strain on my body. And I’ve regularly interrupted my sleep (and done a number on my health) to stay outside past my bedtime or to gear up in the hours before dawn, all to try to catch a glimpse of something special overhead.
Which brings me to last Thursday night. You might have heard that things turn rainy and wet in the Pacific Northwest around this time of year. This means that opportunities for stargazing become fewer and farther between. It’s a good idea to have your “grab and go” gear ready by the door to take advantage of the merest pocket of visibility when there’s a break in the clouds.
I was hesitant to head outside that night — not because I didn’t want to do any stargazing, but because I was calculating the cost (to my body, to my sleep, etc.). It was early-ish, but I know myself well enough to understand that once I get outside, even with minimal equipment, I tend to stay out longer than anticipated. I simply don’t want to go back inside. As a wise friend puts it, my brain knows better but my heart wants more.
I did go outside, probably around 8:30 or 8:45 p.m. I tucked my star goggles into my pocket and grabbed the 15×70 Levenhuks on the monopod, leaving the telescope inside. First order of business was a check-in with Delphinus through the star goggles. The Levenhuks on the monopod were still too shaky to get a good view, though I did point them at Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Those views would have been much better if stabilized.
Then I noticed how high Cassiopeia had already risen in the sky, and I debated with myself about pulling out the full rig — zero gravity chair and the tripod — and I decided to go for it. I probably confused a few nighttime dog-walkers with my patio furniture in the driveway after dark in the chilly air, but whatever. With the Levenhuks on the tripod boom, I had to add significantly more hockey pucks to the bag as a counterweight, and the Levenhuks’ center of gravity required more fiddling with the tripod mount and the 360-degree ball head to get everything comfortable, but I mostly figured it out. And then I went hunting for the Andromeda Galaxy.
I’d seen it before through my 10×50 Tasco binoculars as a fuzzy dot that looked mostly like a star but blurrier. I was sweeping the sky with the Levenhuks and consulting the Sky Safari app and wondering, “Is that it? Or is that it?” The star goggles weren’t much help in this endeavor, so it was Levenhuks all the way. This went on for a few minutes until I saw a big fuzzy spot in the sky. It was like a skipped record where everything stopped as I said aloud, “WHAT IS THAT?!” and then gasped audibly (likely startling the nocturnal wildlife) when I zeroed in on it and realized what I was looking at.
THAT was Andromeda, so much more than a blurry little dot. Yes, it was more visible when I looked slightly away rather than right at it. Yes, I’d like to see what it looks like through the 76mm telescope (and its succession of eyepieces). But I was gazing at an entire galaxy. I forgot about election forecasts, pandemic numbers, and wildfire acreage as I let that sink in. I was just a little nobody human basking in the wonders of the universe just as others have done, stretching back eons. I wondered if anyone on a little planet in a minor solar system in Andromeda was at that moment taking a gander at the Milky Way. (And, boy, I sure hope so.) I lay there in the zero gravity chair for probably a good 20 minutes just gazing up at the Andromeda Galaxy, and that was enough.
I thought about swinging the chair + tripod around to look at Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and I know that would have been amazing, but I had a hard enough time getting myself to pack up as it was. It was after 9:30 p.m. as I brought my gear back into the house.
Which brings me to Jen’s Philosophy of Stargazing:
Let the skies come to me.
Because I was sorely tempted to drag out the chair + tripod again early the next morning when I spotted Orion in the sky, but I also knew that would cost me. I don’t need to be in any hurry. As the year grows long, Orion will appear earlier and earlier, eventually shining in the sky at an evening hour when it isn’t quite so taxing on my body to turn the Levenhuks and the Zhumell 76 in the direction of the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades. This is not a competition or a timed quest. This pursuit is for my enjoyment, for my amazement, and “small moves” and easy progress are the comfortable and health-conscious way for me to make that happen.
Of course, I still want to see everything at once, but a slower pace gives me time to savor what I’m seeing and to appreciate the experience more. I’m in this for the longer haul, versus a “flash in the pan” hobby. That’s the idea, anyway. I don’t have to stay out very late or set alarms to get up hours before sunrise to see what I want to see; I simply need patience and perspective.
(Yes, planets are a bit trickier and you kind of have to make plans based on their schedules instead.)
Cloudier conditions descended pretty much immediately after that, but I still feel good about my decision to focus on Andromeda that night and leave the rest for another time.