When I was a kid, I was interested in all things to do with space. In particular, I loved looking up at the night sky and seeing the stars. I would get books out of my local library to find out what these things were. A large part of what i read I couldn’t understand but by persevering and reading everything, I taught myself about astronomy and the universe. I ran out of books at the library, so I started getting the same ones out again and again.
My dad bought me a pair of binoculars for a birthday present – we had read that as a beginner, binoculars were better than a telescope for general viewing, and they were much cheaper than telescopes at the time (it was the late 70’s). I would spend ages gazing at the night sky, looking at the nebula in Orion’s belt and the Pleiades cluster, the double star Mizar and the moon. I even used them to project images of the sun onto card to look at sunspots.
Then, Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos was broadcast, I think in the early 80’s, and I was hooked. He made it all more accessible. Around the same time, a neighbour allowed me to use his telescope to look at Venus. I remember seeing this tiny disc resembling the moon, in that it showed a phase, move across the field of view. I had to keep adjusting the telescope to keep it visible for more than a minute. It was fascinating.
Things moved on, I got into photography and while I often looked up into the sky and wondered about the sheer scale of it all, I never really did more than look. I took photos of the moon in various phases and the occasional long exposure of the night sky to show star trails. While I was in college, I spent evenings after the pub staring at the sky looking for meteors and satellites with friends. But no serious astronomy.
Two years ago, I was in a position to buy a decent telescope. I’d been thinking about it for a while and I took my hard earned cash to a local telescope dealer (no, realer, there was one) and ended up the proud owner of a shiny new 5” reflector. Of course, as is the way, the skies were cloudy for the first few nights but suddenly, on the first clear night, I was able to set it up and look again at the sights I’d seen as a child.
Orion’s belt showed a faint but discernable glow (hence the term nebula) as opposed to the blob of light my binoculars revealed. I could now see that Mizar was a double double – that is a double star system revolving around another double star system.
There were far more stars in the Pleiades than I’d ever seen and I started to see more things that my binoculars couldn’t show. The Beehive Cluster – an open grouping of stars held together by mutual gravity.
Faint and fuzzy smudges that are actually galaxies thousands of light years away.
Mars, the red planet and out closest neighbour, was prominent in the sky when I started observing. My first view was stunning – a red disc with faint shading on it. With recently purchased eyepiece of higher magnification, I could make out a large desert feature and the faint hint of a polar icecap.
Venus was visible in the evening sky and showed its disc and phases just as I remembered it. I caught Mercury one evening, too, just as the sun had set.
Detail on the surface of the moon was fantastically clear. At certain times of the month, the some of the mountains near the terminator (the shadow line) form a bright ‘X’ which was clearly visible when I knew where to look. With the aid of a moon map, I was able to spot all of the Apollo moon landing sites. I could spend ages exploring the surface from my back garden.
But the most magnificent sight of all was Saturn. When it appeared in the night sky I trained the telescope on it and my first glimpse was breathtaking. There was this planet, more than a billion kilometres away, easily recognisable with its rings and satellite moons. I was so surprised at how clear and crisp the image was that I couldn’t keep away from the telescope. The state of the atmosphere determined how much magnification I could use to view it and on nights when the seeing was good, I could make out the gap between the rings and Saturn and the faint bands of cloud on the surface of the planet. More often than not I could see at least two moons and up to five were clearly visible on the best nights. When I showed friends the telescope, I would go through a few things and leave Saturn until last. There was always a ‘wow’ when they first saw the rings.
I still get a thrill from looking up at the night sky. I still have the binoculars my dad gave me and despite having the telescope, I still use them. The sense of scale of space – looking at galaxies that are so far away that it’s impossible to really understand the distance – and the sense of wonder – what really is out there – have never left me. More often than not, when stargazing, I feel like a kid again.