Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Lessons from an Owl - Part II

 As noted in the prior blog, I recently spent an enjoyable evening from my driveway tracking down the Owl nebula. It was a challenge to discern it amid Towson's ample light pollution with my modest 80mm refractor, but that made the accomplishment all the sweeter. It also made me revisit a wonderful book, Visual Astronomy of the Deep Sky by Roger N. Clark to refresh my understanding of the science behind the successful observation.

You don't have to be an amateur astronomer to grasp the concept of dark adaptation - we've all experienced how over several minutes you can begin to pick out dimly lit objects in the bedroom once the lights are doused. While the widening of the iris to take in more light helps, it is the gradual accumulation of "visual purple" that is the principle actor, amplifying the sensitivity thousands of times. It takes about 30 minutes to build up a full compliment of the chemical in the eye's rods & cones, and it can be undone by a brief encounter with a strong light source (even a bright star as viewed through the eyepiece). So lesson one for the suburban astronomer when stalking the Owl is to be as diligent as possible shielding your eyes once you have some night vision. A shroud of some sort to drape over your head to block out the neighbors' lights is an inexpensive but useful tactic.

Another interesting finding reported by Clark is that the eye actually does have an integration capability when it comes to gathering light. It's certainly not like film or CCD sensor, but "for the detection of the faintest objects, the light must accumulate on the retina for around six seconds." This proves yet again that patience and discipline play a key role for capturing faint fuzzies, requiring that you study a section of the field for several seconds rather than looking at a new spot if you do not immediately find something. It's actually a bit harder than it sounds - I know my tendency is for my eye to want to dart around the field in search of my target.

Averted vision is well known among observers. The eye's improved sensitivity to faint light outside the direct area of focus (the fovea) is due to a higher density of rods in that area of the retina. Clark provides diagrams that show the population of rods across the field of view, as well as pointing out the literal "blind spot" we all have. When you're behind the eyepiece it helps to know where this rod dense region is rather than simply looking askance of your suspected DSO. For the record, it is "8° to 16° toward the nose from the center of vision."

One of the more misunderstood concepts is the relationship of magnification to detecting a faint object. You often see people posting on FB or boards that you want the lowest magnification because that gives the brightest image. But that also gives you the brightest background (light pollution) as well, and anyone who has bothered to bump up the magnification of a misty open cluster can attest that the fainter stars are easier to see under that higher power. Many assume that the increased magnification darkens the background sky and makes the object easier to pick out - yet the object is also darkened, so that does not make sense. Clark explains with several graphs how the size of the object plays a significant role in our eye's ability to pick out a faint object. In fact, there is actually an optimal magnification for an object given its size, brightness, and scope aperture.The author kindly provides a handy appendix that list many DSO and their optimal magnification. For M97 and my 80mm Vixen the suggested magnification would be 140x, and indeed I had my best view at 150x. 

To wrap it up, I bagged the Owl by applying most of Clark's suggestions: guard your night vision to the best of your ability, patiently study one area of the view with averted vision for 10-15 seconds, and don't hesitate to increase the magnification if your first inspection turns up no result. If you are a fan of visual astronomy I thoroughly recommend you get a copy of Visual Astronomy of the Deep Sky. He truly treats the topic as a science as well as walking you through how to study an object to get the most from it. Because it is out of print you should be prepared to pay a premium price (north of $100 for a copy available on Amazon). Of course, an even better option if you are a member of HAL would be to check out a copy from the club library as noted here. With star parties resuming this summer it's a great time to learn more about the science and practice of visual observing!

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Lessons From an Owl - Part I

For a while now I have been revisiting the objects on the Astronomical League's Urban list using my 80mm Vixen refractor from my driveway. This began out of my curiosity as to what an observer with a modest scope amid significant light pollution might be able to see. Certainly the big & bold stuff would be easy pickings, but after that, where's the limit as to how subtle an object can be bagged?

Bortle 8 Skies from Towson
 

Of course, the first benchmark on visibility that any amateur astronomer invokes is the brightness of the target, i.e. it's magnitude. There are handy charts and online tools that calculate the faintest magnitude star that one can possibly see for a given telescope aperture. Out in the field there will be a host of other factors that influence that value - the most obvious one being just how aggressive the artificial sky glow is at your location. But things from the condition of the scope (clean optics, alignment) to your age will also affect your limiting magnitude.

As the observer quickly learns, magnitude is only half the story when predicting visibility of a non-stellar target. Size is a critical consideration since the given magnitude is going to be more or less spread out across the object. This is why although galaxy M33 is one of the few galaxies above 6th magnitude, it is also notoriously hard to spot from suburban settings because it has that light spread out over 60'x30'. Surface brightness, the average per arcsecond (or arcminute) magnitude for the target, attempts to level the playing field when  ranking the relative brightness of a deep sky object.

Based on some of my observations thus far (below), M97, the famed "Owl" planetary nebula located in the bowl of the Big Dipper, presented as a DSO that might be doable. Some objects fainter than its 21.88 surface brightness had been visible, while one brighter specimen - reflection nebula M78 in Orion - had failed to materialize. Could I capture the Owl? 


The first spring evening of 2021 turned out clear and with reasonable temperature. I decided to set up for an observing session, even with a waxing fat crescent Moon hanging in the sky. Since this evening coincided with the first HAL public virtual star party I set up my phone nearby and listened in as I went through the alignment process. Jim Johnson provided some celestial mechanics relative to the Moon as it traverses the ecliptic throughout the year while getting it centered for viewing. Victor Sanchez took a turn and shared a colorful image of the Orion Nebula using his equipment. It was as if I had the company of fellow observers as I embarked on my quest for the Owl.

https://freestarcharts.com/messier-97

 

With a good alignment obtained I drop in my 9.7mm Plossl with UHC filter and bid the mount to slew over to Dubhe to ensure sharp focus, and then slip over to the nearby Owl. As expected, there was nothing there at first glance except a few dim field stars. Time to apply the tricks and techniques that I've picked up over the years. First up is draping a dark pillow case over my head to shield my eyes from neighbors' house lights. Then it is a matter of just relaxing and allowing my dark vision to gradually improve. I shift my focus to various points in the field so that my averted vision has multiple opportunities to notice anything. When that fails I turn to using the controls to nudge the field a bit, hoping the well camouflaged Owl face will give itself away if it moves slightly. 

After perhaps 10 minutes of effort it is time for the next tactic and I boost the magnification slightly with an 8mm TMB eyepiece. I again start off at Dubhe for a focus check and then swing over to where M97 should be. The same now familiar field stars are there to greet me while the planetary still refuses to emerge. I begin my stalking routine again and then it happens. I think I see something there to the right of the three brighter field stars! I spend the next five minutes directing my focus to various points in the field in an effort to give my averted vision its fullest advantage. Finally I am convinced enough that the faint, shapeless specter is indeed M97 and not just imagination. Success!

The elusive Owl Nebula captured!


 As I work up a sketch of the Owl I notice that it becomes a little easier to see. This is likely because drawing an object involves some study, allowing your brain & eye collaboration to bring out the more subtle features of the field. But even given that, M97 remains an averted vision only object, impossible for me to honestly comment on size or form given its tenuous nature.

Out of curiosity I decide to push things a little and add a 2x Barlow into the optical path. A quick refocus on Dubhe and I'm off to the Owl again. This time I am able to see the glow a bit more readily, enough that I can judge that it is more or less round in shape. It's still an averted vision only object, but the higher magnification seems to darken the background a bit and make the planetary slightly easier to see. 

The Owl had been a challenging target, possibly at the limit of what I can do in terms of this equipment and location. I saw yet again that surface brightness does not provide an infallible predictor of whether an object can be seen, only an estimate (something I plan to explore in part II). But without question this observing session served to reinforce some of the best practices when trying to pluck a DSO from skies bathed in city lights:

  • Guard your dark adaptation, even if your neighbors may think you're a bit weird sitting in your driveway with a pillow case over your head.

  • Averted vision should be applied thoroughly and systematically when inspecting the field.

  • Just as a camouflaged animal gives itself away when moving, inducing a little movement in the field can sometimes unveil a faint target.

  • Contrast is crucial. To that end a light pollution filter (UHC, OIII) can improve the view if the target is an emission nebula and bright enough to overcome the light loss caused by the filter. Boosting the magnification is another way to enhance the contrast and will work regardless of object.

  • Patience - above all, patience! Study the entire field carefully, giving each section a few moments of attention and then review them again. While our eyes don't build up an image over time like a CCD, your eye & brain do collaborate to gradually reveal dimmer objects as you spend time at the eyepiece.
 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Got to GoTo?

So if I yelled "Tastes Great!...Less Filling!" - what comes to mind? If you grew up in the 80's (and maybe even if you didn't) you'll recognize that as the catch phrase for Miller Light beer, ranked as one of the most successful marketing campaigns of that era. It epitomizes the situation of two camps staking out and digging in around their assessment of a product. 

Amateur astronomy has certainly seen its share of hotly debated issues. For many years as digital photography came to the marketplace we sparred over whether it would (or even could) replace film for capturing quality images of deep sky targets. That one seems to be settled. Then there is the occasional discussion of whether digital media is better than a hard copy. I'll confess that I still like a book/magazine/newspaper in its printed format over the digital. There is something thoroughly enjoyable about thumbing through a volume of Burnham's Celestial Handbook, perusing a constellation that will be available for viewing that night. But as the digital revolution has unfolded we also enjoy the portability and accessibility of online content.

One enduring topic of debate is most certainly the merits of using a computerized mount with "GoTo" capability when you are out under the stars. For the better part of 50 years I've been a star hopping guy, planning my trip to that evening's targets with a little research and printed maps to outline the approach to be used. Sometimes half the fun was that research and planning to capture the target, and then successfully bagging that faint fuzzy provided a sense of achievement and affirmation of my skills. Undoubtedly it gave me a foundation of the heavens and the ability to bring a variety of celestial showpieces into the eyepiece on any given evening without any aids.

As I've noted in prior postings, last August I invested in a Celestron CGX-L mount. My main motivation was the hope of better tracking for some photography and the ability for it to bear a larger OTA than my old Orion Atlas mount could handle. One of the features of the mount is, of course, "GoTo" functionality. I will confess that it's very seductive. 

My current project has been revisiting the AL Urban List objects using my 80mm Vixen refractor. The open clusters in Monoceros are particularly challenging since there are very few stellar guideposts available amid Bortle 8 skies to serve as a foothold when setting out on the star hop. So when taking the scope out this past week on a cold and clear winter evening my prep was primarily generating a list of objects along with a very brief description. Once aligned the mount did a fantastic job of centering the targets, leaving me time to inspect and sketch each of them. Where I might have bagged one, possibly two, of these clusters by star hopping I was instead treated to a very pleasant and productive session before my toes became too numb.

I would submit that there are strong parallels between "GoTo" functionality and our reliance on satellite navigation when driving to an unknown destination. It's said that many under the age of 25 simply have no skills for picking up a map and using it to see where they are and how to get where they need to go. While I do make use of apps like Wase from my phone, especially in heavy traffic or when driving solo to someplace I've not been to before, I often will not bother if the route is one I'm reasonably familiar with. As a teenager delivering prescriptions for my dad's pharmacy in Baltimore I acquired a pretty good sense of the main arteries and thoroughfares around here, so it seems natural to eschew the voice giving me commands and go my own way. It may be that getting your terrestrial bearings and navigating from a map is going to be relegated to a sort of black art practiced by old codgers like myself. I am still amazed sometimes how the person behind the counter is totally reliant on the cash register to determine the change due from a $7.23 meal when I hand them a $10 bill. Thanks dad, having me work at the pharmacy taught me that one as well.

But back to our task of celestial navigation. There is another value to star hopping beyond getting a grasp of the sky. As noted by Bob Prokop in a recent thread on the HAL group, you have no idea what little gems you are gliding past when in autopilot mode. I specifically recall stumbling across the beautiful double star WZ Cassiopeia one night on my way to NGC 7790. I likely spent more time looking at that then the intended target.

Perhaps the appropriate balance for a new telescope owner with the technology is to challenge themselves to star hop to the brighter Messier and Herschel 400 objects. It is not that hard and gives you the satisfaction of bagging the target based on your skills, not your equipment's. Take your time when sweeping the area for your quarry and soak in the neighborhood, letting your eye search for colors and your brain form interesting patterns among the field of stars. Simply because it does not get called out on an atlas doesn't mean it's unworthy of a few moments of admiration. But then when the need arises to find (or confirm) the end point of a challenging star hop, you'll find that computer assistance to be a real boon. Yes, computerized mounts can be highly efficient, but is that really where the enjoyment lies in amateur astronomy for you?

Friday, February 19, 2021

Reflections on a Star

The news came yesterday that Herman Heyn, a fixture in the Baltimore astronomical community for decades, had passed. The melancholy was palpable as friends and those who simply knew him as the guy with a telescope at Harborplace expressed their sadness in learning he's no longer with us.

Like a lot of folks I had the good fortune to meet Herman many years ago as I was delving deeper into amateur astronomy. I was struck by both his practical knowledge of the hobby as well as his desire to share it. Whether it was a simple Post-it note memento stamped with "I saw Saturn!" on it or a handout describing how you can use your hand to estimate degrees in the sky, Herman was always giving away something to stimulate your interest in the night sky. A few months ago HAL's Jim Johnson did a wonderful "Astro School" introduction to understanding the celestial mechanics of the heavens. As I listened in on that talk I was reminded how Herman had done much the same for me in the 80's, giving me a souped up planisphere where he had added a thread for meridian and drawn a precession circle as well. I still have it and occasionally make use of it when planning an evening's observations.

Planisphere customized by Herman
 

Herman was also helpful in improving my night sky photography. He offered not only some technical recommendations but shared artistic feedback (such as always include some interesting background to your shot.) He was quite accomplished and often made some money by putting his work onto t-shirts or greeting cards. And the subject didn't have to be heavenly - the 17 year locusts found themselves on commemorative t-shirts at their last outing courtesy of Herman. When Hale-Bopp appeared on the scene in 1997 I used his advice to capture some wonderful photos of that grand comet and even ended up making a couple hundred dollars selling them amid the high public interest.

From Sky & Telescope article, Sept 1994
 

While the exact date escapes me I recall a daytime lunar occultation of Venus many years ago. A couple of BAS friends, Dr. Richard Pembroke and Charlie Cyrus, met at my house to witness the event. Herman was there and set up his scope so that we could watch the Moon slowly creep up on our brilliant sister planet. Viewing astronomical objects during the daytime was one of his fortes. While it likely began as a way to perform sidewalk astronomy during the day, he really honed the skills of aligning his scope without the aid of Polaris. In fact, his attention to finding true north from downtown Baltimore led him to discover that the surveyors of yesteryear didn't quite lay out the roads in a N-S line, being off by about 3°. Whenever Venus headed for an inferior conjunction he was sure to try to locate it in the sky (provided it was passing a reasonable distance north or south of the Sun.) And he wasn't limited to Venus, he could easily display any 1st magnitude star in his Celestron for passers by. He even penned a detailed article about doing it which appeared in the September 1994 issue of Sky & Telescope.

Herman also indirectly contributed to my landing a job back in 2004 while interviewing for a senior developer position at a scan center in Upper Marlboro. I was ushered into the operation manager's office where a fairly gruff individual started sizing me up. It was at about that time that I spied a card featuring Hale-Bopp on his desk and recognized it immediately. I inquired whether he had gotten it from my friend and colleague Herman Heyn (knowing he must have in some way.) The ice thawed immediately between us as we took a few minutes to discuss the card and the great comet that inspired it. I left his office having secured my new position.

One of Herman's best sellers - Hale-Bopp from countryside

I am very glad that I was able to be present at Herman's virtual 90th birthday celebration a few weeks ago. It was a wonderful outpouring of affection from the many friends he had made along those nine decades. And what a life he lived - a true renaissance individual of our time! From championship high school swimmer, to accomplished dancer, to street corner ambassador to the stars, he lived a full life. We should all take a lesson from him and strive to always to be kind and to help others find amazement and inspiration by what can be found in the eyepiece of a telescope. 

Bless you Herman Heyn, you will be missed.

(To learn more about Herman visit his website)

Friday, January 29, 2021

Circumventing an Obstacle

Roughly 18 months ago I pulled the trigger on a PoleMaster for my Atlas mount. If you're unfamiliar with the instrument, it's a digital camera that attaches to the front of your mount so that it is aligned with the RA axis. Then with accompanying software you can perfect your alignment to achieve the best possible tracking from your system. While there are other gadgets and techniques that are useful to get a good polar alignment I found this system to be a solid, workable approach for me.

My Orion Atlas mount has been a good work horse for well over two decades in my observing. It was my first "real" mount that could adequately track the sky, opening up not only a more pleasant observing experience but also planetary "lucky imaging" with my 6" reflector and then deep space targets when I acquired my Vixen 80mm scope. It was portable enough to fit in the back of my Rogue, traveling with me to nearby Alpha Ridge or out to Wyoming as part of my Great American Eclipse road trip. The power source was never a worry - a simple battery pack of 4 D cell batteries that seemed to last forever (and easily acquired at the corner drug store if they were to give out.)

Leo Triplet
The "Leo Triplet" taken with Vixen 80mm & Atlas mount

But even with the PoleMaster, the tracking was not accurate enough to allow for exposures beyond 20 seconds, causing me to resort to a very large number of short subs in order to arrive at a respectable image. Another shortcoming is the weight bearing capacity of the Atlas - there is no way it would be able to support my 10" reflector that I am hoping to complete refurbishing this year. After taking several months to research various mounts on the market that would work within my budget I finally took the plunge and invested in a Celestron CGX-L mount which arrived in September.

In the almost six months since acquiring the CGX-L I have had it out perhaps a dozen times. The first couple were to simply get acquainted with the unit (I am glad no one witnessed my first night when it took me over 40 minutes to realize that there was an "on" switch that had to be toggled - I had just assumed that when I plugged in the battery that it was ready to go like my Atlas!) With it powered up I followed the instructions on how to perform a two-star alignment with an optional 4 additional stars. Once that was done the computer assisted tracking worked surprisingly well. And, truth be told, that "goto" functionality really makes me feel like I'm cheating after a lifetime of star hoping. 

Polar alignment, however, is back to roughly eyeballing the RA axis in the direction of Polaris. According to the manual one also can precisely align to NCP following the star alignment process by entering the "align mount" routine. In theory, you center a star in your eyepiece and then the computer moves the scope to where the star should be if you were properly centered on the pole. Your task is then to use the mount's azimuth and altitude controls to center the star and thereby refine your polar alignment.

CGX-LI will confess that I have yet to try this routine. I could not help but want to use the PoleMaster which worked so well. But, alas, the design of the CGX-L has a handle bar directly in front of the RA axis of the mount. It seemed that I would not be able to have my cake and eat it too - those handles are indispensable for positioning the heavy mount head onto its tripod. 

Thinking I was likely not the first CGX-L owner to feel frustrated by this obstacle I spent time searching online for solutions that others may have come up with to use their PoleMaster. And, as so often happens, the Internet did not disappoint. On Cloudy Nights there was a reference to a guy who designed a literal workaround; a 3-D printed component that attaches to the face plate with a detachable U shaped bracket to hold the PoleMaster camera. Genius! Brilliant! And the best part was that he was selling them on eBay with about a week's turn around time. The credit card came out within sixty seconds of watching the video demo of it. 

Last month I finally got the chance to install the adapter and try it out. The Celestron mounting plate was readily removed and replaced by the custom printed plate. The U bracket's holes aligned beautifully with the PoleMaster camera so that I could transfer it from the Atlas adapter to the 3-D one. And to make attaching the U bracket to the face plate foolproof the creator provided two guide pins that snap into place thanks to a couple of strong molybdenum magnets. (It brought back memories of my dentistry days, fabricating dentures that seated and held fast with the use of such magnets - but that's a story for a different blog 😉). The video below shows the component and how easy it is to use. Problem solved!


I have a feeling that this recent experience reflects yet another paradigm shift for amateur astronomy. While 3-D technology has been around for a while it is clearly becoming more mainstream and allowing imaginative engineers to bring their designs to rapid prototype and market. We recently had a discussion on HAL's email group regarding this very topic, and several folks chimed in about how they were using parts/accessories created in this fashion. In the "good old days" this was the realm of the machinist who had access to a shop where equipment could turn out custom parts. What we may lose in the durability of a machined part is going to be offset by the accessibility to many more people with innovative approaches to solving problems and creating new tools for our astronomical community. I can hardly wait to see what comes next!









Friday, December 11, 2020

Special Occasions

The science writers are at it again, hawking the "Grand Conjunction" of Saturn and Jupiter that will take place on December 21, 2020 as a bright Christmas Star for all to see. On that evening the two planets will be a scant 0.1° apart, close enough that they should both comfortably fit into most amateur telescopes at low to medium power. It is clearly a special occasion since the last time these two giants were visible this close together in the night sky was 1226 when St. Francis of Assisi was around. Of course there's also the fringe media that is having a ball with it, claiming this alignment at Winter solstice is a bad omen (just search for "grand conjunction 2020 predictions").

Hype aside, amateur astronomers are indeed excited to witness this alignment. Roughly every twenty years Jupiter catches up with Saturn, pairing up with it in the heavens. In 1980 and 2000 they got to within about 1¼° of each other, and will do so again in 2040. But the 2000 and 2040 alignments suffer from Sun glare, making the spectacle hard or impossible to appreciate. The spring of 2060 should deliver a mega hit to any conjunction junkie with Jupiter and Saturn getting within about 1 degree of each other amid Taurus while Venus threads her way through the Pleiades and a crescent Moon thrown in for good measure on the night of April 4th!

Saturn-Jupiter-Venus Conjunction
Grand Conjunction of 2060


So, looking at that Stellarium Online image of the conjunction on the night of April 4th in 2060, did you get excited? Did you think, "Wow, don't want to miss that!" (assuming you're under 40)? What is it about these gatherings of celestial orbs that makes the amateur astronomer circle the date on their calendar in expectation?

I think some of it relates to the yin-yang aspect of our hobby. On the one side we have the "passive" sense of the heavens. They are consistent, steady, predictable. There is something almost reassuring seeing Orion raise up from his side on a late October evening. We know that almost nothing of shallow or deep space has altered much since Galileo's first scope or Messier's compilation of faux comets. When I say "Albireo" your mind's eye brings forth a beautiful double star. Like travelers who've embarked on a country wide road trip to see the sights, we revel in comparing notes and swapping photos of the cool things we've visited. 

And then there's the "active" side of the night sky. Here we seek to catch ephemeral sights that may be constrained by location or good fortune. You venture out under cold, clear December skies on the 12th in hopes of catching a Geminid that is spectacular. We trek across country or even across continents in hopes of catching a few minutes of the solar corona. These two examples categorize the action; some of it is somewhat random (meteor showers, super novae, sunspots, aurora) while others are anticipated. 

Most of that predictable action centers around alignments. Conjunctions, eclipses, occultations, transits - all provide opportunities to experience something that ranges from uncommon to very rare. And while we have the sublime beauty of Saturn's rings or wispy tendril's of Orion's sword available to us on any clear night when they lie above the horizon, the beauty of a celestial alignment is often brief and may not be repeated in your lifetime. I doubt I shall ever see another Mercury transit but hope to work in another total eclipse.

Thankfully the universe is like a top chef at a 5 star restaurant, continually serving up one delightful alignment dish after another. In spring we had the octennial passage of Venus through the Pleiades, in fall we had a generational opposition of Mars. And now we get something even more uncommon, a "grand conjunction" of Jupiter and Saturn to close out a rather tedious year. So go out there and try to see it, photograph it, soak it in as yet another special occasion brought to you courtesy of the universe!

Jupiter & Saturn Dec 8, 2020
Jupiter & Saturn Drawing Together on Dec 8, 2020

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Celestial Oenology

It's the holiday season and, like every year, thousands of people will be convinced that they want to take up astronomy as a hobby. Even before Thanksgiving this year I've had two people reach out to me for advice on what telescope they should buy for a loved one (or perhaps in truth the scope is for themselves as well as the loved one). Facebook teems with posts asking the same question. Unfortunately there is no easy answer to the question of "what's the best starter telescope?" because it is a nuanced question with a variety considerations. 

Suppose that instead of exploring the universe you were taken by the idea of exploring the world of wines. Perhaps you had a friend who introduced you to a couple of nice wines at a dinner party. They skillfully chose the wine and paired it with some good food to create a delightful experience.

Star party
The Party Introduction

Or maybe it is those posts on social media or articles in a magazine you thumbed through in the doctor's waiting room. They tease at this world of tasting & enjoying wine that convinces you that you want to explore this hobby. 

Whatever the trigger, you are sure this is worth pursuing and you want to purchase a corkscrew to enable you to enter this realm. But which one is best? An inexpensive and rudimentary one may only be good if your are skillful enough to wield it. An expensive one with bells and whistles may work for any bottle but likely requires you to read the manual thoroughly to use it properly, spending as much time opening the bottle as consuming it. A simple but efficient opener should allow you to master its use quickly and serve to open many bottles of wine.


With your new tool to open the oenophilic world your next step is to target some wines, so off to the liquor store. The array of choices can lead to analysis paralysis. Red or white? Fruity or dry? Each category of wine seems to have its own characteristics and proponents. You might ask your friends who already enjoy wine what their favorites are and try sampling some for yourself. Or perhaps you follow the recommendations in a magazine or good book to start you on your exploration. As you sample the varieties you find you're drawn to some more than others and become passionate about locating ever more examples of your favorite. You also might find that keeping a log with notes about the wines you've tried helps improve your appreciation of them.

After some time you become aware of accessories that can possibly deepen your enjoyment of your favorite varieties. You open up your wallet and start to add to your armamentarium of wine tools. Some prove to be useful for any bottle you select, while others have more specialized application. 

So let's distill what our theoretical journey into Oenology can offer the budding amateur astronomer:
  1.  When picking a telescope you should probably avoid inexpensive models that will frustrate you and likewise expensive models that will likely baffle you. Somewhere between $300 to $1000 should net you a quality starter telescope that can give years of pleasure, even after you upgrade.

  2. Figuring out what to view is challenging so consider asking other amateurs what they enjoy, or pick up a copy of a book that is geared towards initial exploring of the universe. Just like wine is an "acquired taste" with many glasses needed before you can discern those subtle flavors of a vintage, examining faint fuzzies or planetary features is an acquired skill. The more you observe them and read about them the more subtle details you'll uncover and savor.

  3. Just as your wallet will dictate whether you can afford to taste the more subtle and exotic wines, your budget will also influence your ability to experience the heavens. If you are smitten by seeing features of Jupiter and Mars then sharp optics, tracking mount, and a video camera are in order. If you yearn to see the spiral arms in M51 then a large Dobsonian will fill the bill. But they will mean a financial commitment.

  4. Just as oenophiles gather at wine tastings to share sips and opinions, amateur astronomers benefit greatly from joining a club and getting out under the stars together where they can share views.

  5. Accessories can make your hobby more enjoyable and enhance what you taste/see. Do your research before making a purchase by reading reviews online or checking with club members who already use the item, but gadgets are part of the fun.

Go ahead and take the plunge into the world of amateur astronomy - it can provide you years of enjoyment and new friends that share your enthusiasm.