[2013] stargazers of the world, unite

(2013: the year of Getting Shit Done, and putting back into the world more than we take out of it.)

I love astronomy. I love it even though going outside to stand around a lot is a bit daunting in January, when nights are frosty clear but also, er, frosty. I’m absolutely no expert, but I’ve enjoyed becoming a bit of a backyard stargazer over the last couple of years.

Weapon no.1 in my arsenal: Google SkyMap for Android. I love this app. Auto mode can be iffy – sometimes it works beautifully, sometimes I’ve been left spinning in circles attempting to reset my recalcitrant phone. Manual mode is flawless, however – find a feature whose position you can tell for sure (Jupiter is a good one, often being the brightest object visible) and work from there. On auto you can also search for any night sky object and the app will guide you to it. The Time Travel feature is rather good, and the photo gallery has some spectacular images. The app is free. You have an Android smartphone? Download this. It’s helpful, but it’s also just quite nifty.

No.2: know what you’re looking for. Jodrell Bank Observatory does a rather good guide to astronomical events on a monthly basis. Sky and Telescope does a day-by-day guide from week to week, but their co-ordinates are given for North American viewers. Most things are mappable onto a UK/Ireland sky, though.

No.3: special events. Meteor showers, mostly: the Perseids are the best of the year, in August, and November’s Leonids are great if it’s a ‘storm’ year (this is irregular, however!). Spacedex lists all the showers visible this year and can tell you the peak times for watching out. This year’s major astronomical event will be Comet ISON, near the end of the year. I can’t let myself get too excited about this yet – it may not be as spectacular as we hope, but if it is – yeah, I’m pretty excited.

No.4: a flask of tea. What? It’s cold out there.

No.5: friends. I’m lucky in that my other half is actually a bigger physics nerd than I will ever be, so we have built-in skywatching company. We’ve spent several chilly evenings in the Phoenix Park with Astronomy Ireland, who run lectures and planet-/Moon-watches every month or so. It’s worth keeping an eye on their site to see what they have coming up, and you can also order DVD copies of their past lectures from the site.

No.6: kit. I’m usually just watching with the naked eye, and I’ve taken a few good photos of the Moon with my dSLR and 55-200mm lens. I’m hoping that the 70-300mm I have ordered will be better again. A good friend (and one of my favourite photographers) has recently started using a dSLR and a home telescope to take fabulous deep-sky images – there’s my challenge for the next while! My partner has a decent pair of binoculars, also – and you really don’t need a lot of equipment to start out. We both want to upgrade our kit, but for now what we have works for us. We’ve also been grateful to Astronomy Ireland’s generous members who share their great telescopes at the planetwatch evenings.

No.7: patience, and goodwill, and an ever-present sense of wonder at exactly how incredible the Universe is. This one’s the most important.

In the brilliant words of Lawrence Krauss:

How’s that for spellbinding?

The title of this post comes from my favourite song of 2012, Stargazers of the World, Unite! (A Lovesong for Astronomers) by Duke Special.

Quick edit: I meant to mention the Zooniverse projects, especially Planet4, which is mapping the surface of Mars! Get involved – the site will give you a tutorial, and then set you loose to inspect and classify images from our next-door neighbour.

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