An observing expedition out into the winter wilds of rural Ohio can be made or broken by the few things that you carry along with you. Herewith are my suggestions for the few necessary tools that will make your observing expedition a success.
If you don’t have a telescope, then a pair of binoculars, even small ones like opera glasses, can be useful for revealing the faint stars of the winter Milky Way or seeing a few of the brighter “deep sky” objects like clusters of stars, gaseous nebulae and even close galaxies, like the Great Galaxy in Andromeda. If you can afford them, 7x50 mm binoculars, available at any department store for about $50, are ideal for sweeping the sky.
A red flashlight is critical. I made my first one by rubber-banding a red bandanna around the front of a regular white flashlight, but you can buy a little key-ring version for a few dollars at the local Zmart.
Red light doesn’t ruin your night vision, which is so important for seeing fainter objects in the sky. If you turn on a white flashlight, you’ll soon go night-blind and won’t be able to see a danged thing, including the bush right in front of you that you’re about to trip over. If you use only a red light, and that sparingly, you’ll find that you can see remarkably well by the light of the stars alone.
For the sake of comfort, dress for about 10 degrees cooler than the forecast. Observing doesn’t involve a lot of moving around, and people often get chilled on even a fairly warm night. Dress in several thin layers and take along an extra sweater or jacket just in case.
Take along plenty of coffee or some other caffeinated beverage. I know, I know, it’s bad for you, but it’s hard to worry about your long-term health if your car is a flaming wreck on the freeway at 4 a.m.
Don’t drive home if you’re too tired to handle it. Long-time amateur astronomers have learned to recognize their personal danger signs of sleepiness. Mine is when I fall face forward into a bush. Heed those signs, and get some sleep before you drive. It’s better to get home late than not to get home at all.
And take along plenty of food. Calories, after all, are a measure of heat. Besides, you have to keep up your strength. Personally, I think that cheese doodles, or whatever you call them, are the perfect snack for astronomy. I don’t know what it is about them, but there’s something about staring at the starry sky with a cheese doodle in my hand that makes me feel at one with the cosmos. Try not to get yellow fingerprints on your eyepieces.
I always carry with me two kinds of star charts. The first is a month-by-month set of maps of the constellations like the ones that are published in Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines. They are invaluable for locating the planets and learning the constellations. You can’t find anything in the sky without knowing at least a few constellations.
I often consult my trusty $3 Edmund Scientific planisphere or my old copy of Star Maps for Beginners by I. M Levitt and Roy Marshall, for example, because I can’t for the life of me remember where Camelopardalis is. If you’re a beginner, don’t feel embarrassed about using such simple constellation maps. Everybody was a beginner once.
A set of more-detailed maps is necessary if you want to find anything but the brightest planets and deep-sky objects in your binoculars or telescope.
For my money the best set of finder charts for deep-sky objects are called AstroCards. They are 3 x 5-inch cards with a simple constellation map on the left side to give you a rough idea of where the object is and a more detailed map on the right to help you find it in your ‘scope or binos. They are available online in three sets of different astronomical objects. The introductory set maps the Messier objects, the 110 brightest galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters in the sky.
The most important “bringalong” is someone to share the experience with. As you learn the sky, show others what their universe looks like. It can be awe-inspiring (and a bit scary) to go out observing alone. To share with someone the experience of reaching out and touching the face of the cosmos will often create a friendship that will last the rest of your days.
Tom Burns is director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observator in Delaware. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.