Finding My Way In the Night Sky
Do not look at stars as bright spots only. Try to take in the vastness of the universe.
Attributed to Marie Mitchell, astronomer
Bundled in a snow-suit, I am lost in the twilight sky as the familiar star patterns emerge. I point my new two-inch aperture telescope at Venus for the first time. The planet is shrouded in clouds, in the sickle shape of the crescent phase of the evening star. I turn my telescope to the Orion Nebula, a bright stellar nursery. Ethereal gas swirls and dances with four young stars shimmering from within the cloud. I ponder what it would be like to stand on a new planet gazing up at bright red and blue gas clouds in the alien sky. Have I found my Way or am I lost?
I was fifteen when I received the red Edmund Scientific table-top telescope for Christmas. But it all began with The Golden Guide to the Stars when I was five. Maybe it was the colorfully painted Saturn, or the comet, or the river of the Milky Way on the cover that attracted me. I eagerly studied the basic sky maps in the book and lay out in the yard learning the constellations. Soon thereafter, I used binoculars to search for the brightest galaxies, star clusters and gas clouds. The moth flying to the moon in Doctor Doolittle lit my imagination, as did Star Trek.
Later, I discovered H.A. Rey’s book, The Stars: A New Way to See Them. The book was revolutionary in that Hans Rey redrew the connecting lines to the stars in each constellation to look like a mythical human, animal or scientific instrument associated with the star pattern. Before his book, the imaginary lines that connected the stars did not resemble the constellations. For example, Rey made Hercules look like a man holding a club, Aquarius—a man pouring water, and Pegasus shaped like a flying horse. His maps made it much easier to learn the star patterns, and I memorized the ones I could view at 41 degrees north, from my childhood home.
Hans Rey became enamored with the night skies as a soldier in World War I and later bought a telescope. He and his wife Margret were Jewish Germans living in Paris during World War II. They barely escaped the city, by bicycle, before Paris fell to the Nazis. The couple, both artists, eventually ended up in the United States, after spending time in Brazil. In the U.S. their Curious George books became a success and inspired me to write my stories, about Curious Georgiana. One of the first stories I ever wrote, at age eight, was about Georgiana visiting Uranus and finding aliens living in the gaseous atmosphere.
Although my simple charts were useful for finding the constellations, with my new telescope, I needed more detailed maps. I read about Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000.0 in Sky and Telescope Magazine and ordered the set. Tirion, who is Dutch, is a graphics artist and this was his first venture into uranography (star cartography). I opened the 18x13 inch sized box and found 26 charts of the entire sky. I couldn’t wait to try out my new maps and explore the universe.
I recorded my observing sessions—date, time, weather, what kind of deep sky object I spotted, and a few drawings. In the winter I used a pencil because pen ink freezes when it is minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit in Minnesota.
Gazing at the night sky is like going into a time machine. The stars are so far away that light takes time to reach us. Even sunlight is eight minutes old, and moonbeams left the moon 1.3 seconds ago. Alpha Centauri, the nearest star, is four light years away, and it takes four years for its rays to reach us. The light from the Andromeda galaxy (the closest and brightest galaxy to our Milky Way) came from the time on earth when Homo erectus walked the earth, over two million years ago.
Stars do not just stay in one place; they move through space; this is called ‘proper motion.’ Due to stars’ proper motion, maps need to updated every fifty years or so. Some stars are moving towards us, others are moving away, some are speedy, and others meander slowly. They are also moving with the Milky Way Galaxy through the universe.
With my red, felt covered flashlight (red light helps night sky adaptation) and maps, I had a new world to explore. In summer, fireflies intermingled with the flickering stars, creating a sense of awe as I gazed above the wetlands at the edge of our yard while frogs and toads croaked their night songs. Pesky mosquitoes drove me to wear clothing that was much too insulated, and I sweated as they buzzed my ears. On crisp, dry winter evenings, Orion shimmered above the white landscape, as I tried to keep warm, with my moon-boots and layers of clothing.
I ‘star hopped’ with my telescope, moving my scope to each bright star to find my way until I reached the object I was searching for on my star chart. I often got lost in the sky or I forgot where I was and had to glance back at my maps several times.
In school I was a loner and studious child with few friends; the dark skies were my outlet. The stars never teased or ignored me. I was tall for my age, skinny and always had my nose in a book. Two boys relentlessly harassed me every day on the playground and I hid in the bushes while they continued to torment me. “You are ugly!” they would tell me. I felt annoyed, as if they were pesky insects and wished they would just go away. In Junior High on the bus the boys taunted me, “You are ugly, you look like a witch; look at that pointy chin!”
I never shared any of these experiences with my parents; I figured I could manage on my own. But, I wondered if I really was ugly. When I consulted with the sky I realized it was not so, and I knew, “I am not ugly, I am beautiful.” The night sky was my counselor as well as security blanket, and helped me from becoming lost.
Through my telescope, open star clusters and double stars sparkled like diamonds and topaz. Globular clusters appeared as grainy balls. The coarseness is caused by hundreds of thousands of stars crammed close together. The stars in globular clusters, located in the halos of galaxies, are the oldest stars in the universe (more than 10 billion years old)—the galaxy’s retirement homes. If you lived on a planet in a globular cluster, there would be no night, with so many stars near each other.
I pointed my telescope at the Crab Nebula, where in 1054, the Chinese recorded a supernova so bright it could be seen during the day. Over the centuries the gas from the star explosion has expanded outward. Through my telescope it resembled a bright white blob. I imagined the Chinese astrologers seeing this event as a sign sent from the gods.
The first printed star maps are credited to Su Song, a famous scientist, inventor, writer and politician from Quanzhou, China in the late 11th century. He built one of the first clock towers, and also drew terrestrial maps, as well as wrote a book about pharmacy.? Earlier, in China, Shih Shen and Gan Te published a star catalog in the 4th century B.C.
Celestial atlases are as old as terrestrial maps, and star patterns have been drawn on ancient cave walls. Mariners and ancient peoples used the stars to navigate, and much of the knowledge was passed down by stories and songs. The Australian Aborigine people used stars as ‘star maps’ and memorized the stars through songlines—a story that travels the landscape. They knew by where the stars were in the sky what direction they were going. Many birds are said to follow the stars when they migrate great distances.
The dimmer the nebula, the more exciting it was to me, as I knew I was at the limit of my telescope’s power and I was traveling further back in time and away, exploring distant realms. I used what is called ‘averted vision’ to find some objects; this means looking from the side of the eye that is more sensitive to light than a straight on view. The pinks, greens and reds in photographed nebulae are not possible to see with our eyes because the nebulae are so dim that they are not bright enough to stimulate our eye’s cone cells. But long exposure photographs can do this. However, some stars show colors. A ruby and sapphire make up the double system, Albireo, on the tip of Cygnus the swan’s tail. The garnet star in Cepheus the King is a dramatic red. Some stars glitter like emeralds and gold.
Chet Raymo wrote in The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage, “The art of observing is fifty percent vision, and fifty percent imagination.”
Time flew by when I was out with my beloved telescope. The early morning came quickly, and it seemed as if I was just getting started. I was traveling through space and time on an expedition into the universe. Sometimes I could not find what I was searching for, or I found nebulae that I didn’t see on my charts—I was lost. I started and ended an observing session with something I knew I could find, such as a planet; I hated to begin, and especially end, with a disappointment.
Double and triple star systems vary from easy to see in a telescope, to blending together. Some double stars are near each other by chance alignment from earth; others orbit around each other at quite a variety of distances. Some binary systems resembled an elongated star at low power, but when I swapped out my lower power eyepiece for my higher power, amazingly, they became two separate stars.
Galaxies and planetary nebulae were my favorites—galaxies because they are so far away and long ago, and planetary nebulae because they are a challenge. Galaxies are millions of light years away, such as the whirlpool galaxy at 14 million light years away, or 14 million years ago, when the primates who were ancestors of today’s humans and apes, roamed the earth.
Planetary nebulae are roundish like a planet, not point-like as a star. I learned how to distinguish these tiny balls from nearby stars. Charles Messier recorded one of the brightest planetary nebulae, called the dumbbell for its shape. Messier, of France, was a comet hunter in the 1780s, and recorded ‘deep sky objects’ in order not to confuse them with comets. He created the Messier Catalogue of nebulae that we still use today on star charts. Because they are fuzzy-looking ‘stars’ and resemble planets such as Uranus, William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus (1781) named them planetary nebula. They are not planets at all, but bubbles of gas around old stars that have shed their outer layers. They come in many shapes, from bipolar lobes to ovals, cylinders, and squares, and sometimes are in double star systems. They have many interesting names, based on their shapes, from the Eskimo, to the helix and crystal ball.
I watched the moons of Jupiter change position from night to night, and the tilt of Saturn’s rings move from open wide to a thin ‘line’ edge-on over several years. I observed Mercury’s phases and the white polar caps on Mars, the challenging star-like Uranus and Neptune, as well as the asteroids Vesta and Ceres.
On occasion, the northern lights pulsated and burst in waves of green and salmon-colored light. Comets (dirty snowballs, as the astronomer Fred Whipple so eloquently stated) varied from green or yellow round spheres to those with flowing tails. Some could be seen with the unaided eye (such as Holmes and Hale-Bopp). On a visit home, having moved to California to go to college, to see my grandmother who was on her deathbed, I saw comet Hale-Bopp and thought of how she had seen Halley’s as a young girl. I felt the comet was sending her on her journey beyond the veil.
Lunar eclipses varied from gray to copper, burgundy, crimson or black. Sometimes the moon almost disappeared into the night sky and the sliver of moonlight near totality resembled the diamond ring of a solar eclipse. The shadow (umbra) of the earth makes a cone shape. Occasionally the moon goes through the middle of the cone, sometimes only part of it, or the shadow’s edge, the pre-umbra—these are partial eclipses and not as dark. The lunar color also depends on what is in the atmosphere; volcanic ash makes the moon darker.
I watched the magical reappearance or disappearance of the bright stars Aldebaran and Antares from behind the moon (called an occultation). Astronomers time the appearance and disappearance of the star and with these timings we can learn about sizes and distances of stars. Meteors flashed across the sky, as I watched the Perseid and Leonid meteor showers—my own private fireworks display—no matter how much frost covered my sleeping bag in November. I traced meteor trails back to their ‘radiant’–the constellation they come from during meteor showers.
In 1515, Albrecht Dürer (with Johannes Stabius, an Austrian cartographer), the celebrated painter from Nuremberg, published two woodblock prints of the constellations, the first printed star charts in Europe. His source for the star maps included Claudius Ptolemy’s astronomical descriptions of stars in the Almagest, (150 AD), which in turn was partially based on another Greek’s, Hipparchus, ephemeris from 100 BC.
Dürer drew the 48 ancient constellations that Ptolemy described—which came from Greek, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Sumerian cultures; including the Zodiacal star patterns. He added the parts of the southern hemisphere that were known, although this area was still mostly blank, to be filled in later as Europeans sailed south. Dürer made the map ‘reverse-geocentric,’ viewed from above, like a globe, showing the star patterns backward from our perspective on Earth.
Several of the Ptolemy constellations include the Greek mythological story of Princess Andromeda. Perseus kills the sea monster (Cetus) to rescue Andromeda who is chained to a rock as a sacrifice to Poseidon, because her mother, Cassiopeia, bragging that Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids—the sea nymphs. King Cepheus sits beside Cassiopeia and Perseus in the sky. Pegasus, the flying horse Perseus rode to rescue Andromeda, also has a place near them, as does Cetus, the sea monster. In high school I escaped into the movie, Clash of the Titans, about this myth, imaging myself as Cassiopeia.
These Greek constellations are based on earlier Sumerian star patterns and are from 2000-3000 years old. Orion is believed to have come from the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh, and Aquarius from Enki, the water god of Sumer. The Mul-Apin, first compiled around 1000 BC in Mesopotamia, is one of the first star catalogs and records 66 constellations.
Besides Andromeda, one of my favorite constellations was Orion, maybe because I loved the song in grade school by James Zimmerman.
Orion is arising
You can see his stars ablazing
Way out here in the middle of a deep blue country sky.
And still what is amazing
You can see his stars ablazing
Way out here where nothing hides it from my eyes.
And sleeping outside in a bag as a kid
It seems like the best thing that I ever did
And chasing the shadows
and the tracks in the snow
Don’t you know?
Living in rural northern California, I was reacquainted with dark skies and the dimmer constellations such as the unicorn and giraffe. In high school, light pollution had become a problem as people moved to the suburbs, living thirty miles north of St. Paul. After graduating from college, I wanted to travel the world, but with no money and not in a healthy marriage, I did not. Instead, as I did as a child, while dreaming of faraway lands and getting out of Minnesota, I escaped with my telescope to view the stars. When I searched the sky for galaxies and gas clouds, I focused on the moment, thought of the immensity of the universe, imagined what these faraway places were like, and forgot all my troubles. When I was lost in life, I always had the sky. But, I wasn’t really lost, I just had to find my way.
Greg Bryant, an Australian astronomer, wrote the stars are, “A relaxing break from the intensity of daily life. It’s also a journey: exploring the firmament with our eyes and broadening our horizons mentally.”
On a road trip, from far northern California, my telescope was stolen out of my vehicle in San Francisco. I was on the way to observe my first solar eclipse in Baja, Mexico with my new solar filter for my telescope. With no optic aid, I felt I would lose much of the experience. But I was wrong. Perched on a desert hill, I watched the moon’s shadow come barreling across the ocean while the dry landscape dimmed as if it were twilight. Suddenly the moon enveloped the sun, and the brightest stars shone out of the plum sky. Confused roosters crowed, and dogs barked at the nearby farm.
We don’t think about the stars in the sky during the day, but they are there. During a solar eclipse is the only time we can see stars in the daytime. I might have missed a lot of the experience if I spent my time staring through my telescope. Before and after totality, during the crescent phase of the sun, tiny crescents appeared on the ground through holes in plant’s leaves. I set out a white sheet and saw the evasive shadow bands before and after totality—like ripples of sunshine, and are caused by the motion of the earth’s atmosphere.
Back home, I couldn’t afford a new telescope, so instead, I star gazed, enjoying the constellations, but I missed having a telescope. A few years later I bought a cheap telescope at a garage sale so at least I could peer at the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn.
Being lost in life, one day I read the book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. The book confirmed to me how bad things were in my marriage and soon thereafter my artist brother came out to the Pacific Northwest, where I was living, to drive home with me to Minnesota.
The rain engulfed my old, beater Saab car as we headed over the Cascade Mountains where the rain turned to snow. We stopped to put chains on the tires. A gruff trucker helped us put them on, and soon we were over the pass. We heard on the radio that the pass closed five minutes later. I had shut that door in life as we continued on into a foggy landscape. The sky cleared over the Dakotas where the northern lights shone brightly and I felt the magic come back into my life and I had hope again.
In Minnesota, I again used binoculars to behold the familiar bright objects of my youth. I was finding my way again through the sky as I had felt lost in life. Some celestial sights are better with binoculars, such as the Pleiades star cluster and double cluster in Perseus, because they cover a large area of the sky and are diffuse. Galileo Galilei was the first to view the Pleiades through a telescope, counting 36 stars. In the countryside, more than seven of the seven sister’s stars are visible with the naked eye. I took my heavy binoculars along on a solo backpacking trip in the Porcupine Wilderness of northern Michigan and was rewarded with fields of stars and the bright Milky Way. Other cultures saw the Milky Way as fire, a river, or snow.
Some of the constellations in Australian Aborigine and South American cultures include ‘phantom’ black star patterns (the space between the bright tendrils of the Milky Way) made out of the dark gas clouds in the Milky Way—which are higher in the sky in the southern hemisphere.
I bought a new handbook of star maps, the Constellation Guidebook by Antonin Rükl, a Czech cartographer known for his atlas of the moon. Two pages are devoted to every constellation with highlights of the celestial objects to view, a general map, as well as photographs and descriptions of some of the heavenly bodies. My notes cover the margins.
The invention of copper engraving replaced woodcuts and allowed for more detail and accuracy in star maps, as did the invention of the telescope in 1608 and reports from seafarers visiting the southern hemisphere about new stars. The golden age of sky mapping had begun.
Johann Bayer, a German lawyer with many interests, engraved the stars on copper plates and published Uranometria in 1603 and brought celestial cartography to another level. He added star brightness, the Milky Way, and produced more accurate and artistic maps. He designated stars by their brightness using the Greek alphabet, which we still use today. Bayer added twelve new constellations to help fill in some of the gaps between the tradition ones, as well as new information from the Dutch navigator, Pieter Dirksz Keyser, who was mapping the southern sky. Bayer’s atlas was geocentric–viewed from earth.
I attended my first star party in 2004, at Jeffers national monument in the dark skies of the prairies of southwestern Minnesota. Star parties are gatherings of amateur astronomers to share technology, tips and telescopes with each other and the public.
The park preserves over 2000 petroglyphs on the quartzite red rock ridge and has been a sacred site for Native Americans for over 2000 years. I wondered if any star maps were recorded there and I especially felt the connection with our ancestors at this ancient site.
Unlike a landform that is only known locally, the sky is the same for everyone near the same latitude, and all people, north, and south of the equator, can see the equatorial (Zodiac) star patterns. The night sky belongs to humanity and is available to everyone, although fewer and fewer people can view pristine skies as light pollution spreads and more people live in cities.
Over half the world’s population lives in urban areas and it is projected that by 2050 eighty percent of the world’s population will be urbanized. The Milky Way and deep sky objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy and Orion Nebula (both observable with the unaided eye under dark skies) are no longer visible from cities.
I volunteered at a park west of Minneapolis for a small star party. Many families from the cities attended this event, unlike remote Jeffers where there were just a few older, long-time, male amateur astronomers. Several of the children exclaimed as I pointed out the Milky Way, “I thought that was a cloud!”
Even where it seems dark, there is an overall world sky glow and nowhere on earth are we seeing the truly dark skies that existed before the spread of electricity. We are losing our nighttime heritage and connection to the infinite. At Jeffers I still felt the universal relationship through the history and dark skies.
Henry Beston wrote in 1928, from the Outermost House, and it applies even more so today,
Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than the night sky. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of the night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea, the little villages, the crossroads. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the patterns of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, today’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd as to know only artificial day.
In my thirties, I was posted in Madagascar in the Peace Corps, south of the equator, and far from the bright lights of civilization. I brought my old Rey’s The Stars to learn the southern constellations, such as Centaurus, and Crux—the Southern Cross. The small and large Magellanic Clouds glowed as if they were night clouds. These satellite galaxies of our Milky Way, not visible in the northern hemisphere, are named for the Portuguese sailor of the southern seas, Ferdinand Magellan, in the sixteenth century, who first ‘discovered’ them. I finally saw Omega Centauri, the brightest globular cluster in the skies, and the Carina Nebula, a giant star nursery, and viewed the Milky Way straight overhead instead of low in the south. The northern constellations were ‘upside down’ at least from my perspective. I was learning all over again as I kept losing my way in star fields and referring back to my maps.
What is happening beneath the earth,
At the remote nadir?
Lean over a fountain,
Near a river
Or over a spring:
There you will see the moon
Fallen into a hole,
And there you will see yourself,
Luminous and silent,
Among trees without roots,
And where the mute birds alight.
Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, Malagasy poet, from Translated from the Night.
After returning to Minnesota from Madagascar, I finally bought a high-quality telescope. I decided on a six-inch aperture Orion Dobsonian reflector. Reflectors, made with mirrors are less expensive than refractors—made of lenses. Most Dobsonians are altazimuth telescopes, meaning you have to push them (like my old Edmund telescope) up, down, and sideways to find stars by hand. Many of the more expensive telescopes have equatorial (clock) drives that move with the sky (Earth), after you plug in where you want to go and the telescope slews to the spot.
Dobsonians are named for John Dobson, a former Vedanta monk who founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers in 1968. In his quest to build telescopes with limited resources, he invented the Dobsonian telescope, a reflector that could be produced cheaply at a mass scale. Dobson became obsessed with sharing the beauty of the night sky and was expelled from the monastery, as astronomy education was taking too much of his time.
“I want people to see where we are.”
A new technology, called ‘push to’ was available with Orion Dobsonians. The observer plugs in a nebula to the handheld computer and arrows appear which lead to the object. The person pushes the telescope up and down in the direction of the arrows. The telescope does not have a clock drive to move with the sky but makes it quick to find objects. I saw more objects than I ever had in one outing.
Every day on the way to work, I drove by an observatory dome on top of a school. Curious, I met the observatory volunteer organizer, an enthusiastic amateur astronomer. A 12-inch aperture reflector, twice as tall as me, resided in the Eisenhower Observatory. Lawrence Sauter, who was an industrial arts teacher when the building was a high school in the 1950s, had his students build the Sauter telescope, even grinding the mirror and building the dome.
There were seven other volunteers, all older men, so I thought it was important that I demonstrate to people, especially children, that women can be engaged in astronomy. I gave an introductory talk and update on new discoveries or sky events and showed videos on cloudy nights.
People wanted to peer through the telescope even at the clouds, especially boy scouts. The scouts also wanted to spy in windows—but I told them the views would be upside down since reflectors—being mirrors–reverse the images. Boy Scouts were my most common visitors, and sadly only once I had a Girl Scout group—science education is still needed for girls. Young couples, families, and home-school groups also came for visits. I much preferred these smaller groups; they were not so unruly, and I could have more one-on-one time with them.
I volunteered alone, but sometimes we had events, such as a lunar eclipse, or the transit of Venus (which we watched over the internet since we were clouded out) where we set up smaller telescopes in the parking lot.
I learned to use the setting circles (set by hand, today they are computerized) to find objects with the Sauter telescope. I entered the coordinates from a star ephemeris to the azimuth and declination (like latitude/longitude on a map) circles. Moon craters, Jupiter’s stripes and satellites, and Saturn’s rings always brought ‘Ooohs and Aahs.’ Saturn especially impressed the public. Comments included, “Is this real?” “No, it can’t be!” “It is just like on TV, but this is real!” “Did you put a photograph in the telescope?” Even in this day of computer games and easy distractions, people are still enthralled with the wonders of the universe.
The 17th-19th centuries had several significant contributions to stellar cartography. Johannes Hevelius of Poland produced Firmamentum Sobiescianum, published posthumously in 1690. Some attribute his death to his sadness of the destruction by fire of his observatory and library. He financed his projects with a brewery that only recently closed. Hevelius used his observations of the stars and added several more constellations (such as Lacerta the lizard and Scutum the shield) as well as the most detailed yet maps of the southern hemisphere, based on measurements from Edmund Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame). Hevelius also produced the first map of the moon. His wife, Elisabeth, assisted him and is recorded as one of the first female astronomers in Europe.
With my Orion push-to telescope, I stopped using my star charts and maps. Instead, I would plug an object’s name into the battery operated controller, and push my telescope in the direction of the arrows. A light pollution filter helped with my views of the sky from the Twin Cities, but my best observations were from northern Minnesota, and when I moved to Nevada, the desert of the southwest.
The International Dark Sky Association promotes dark skies by educating the public about lighting and establishing dark sky reserves and parks. Although not designated, the town of Tonopah, Nevada promotes dark sky tourism. Far from the city lights of Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and California, the central desert of Nevada is one of the most pristine dark places I have been. Objects I’d viewed over the years were spectacular there; I saw more galaxies than I ever had before, and the Milky Way appeared to be a river of milk.
In Nevada, I reconnected with the love of my life, but he lived 5800 miles away in Germany. We were both dealing with separations from long term marriages and were embedded in our careers. When I missed him, I looked to the dark skies in the backcountry, and again the heavens soothed my emotions. We often viewed the moon at the same time and the miles didn’t seem so far away; we had the moon connecting us.
When I married him and moved to Germany, my telescope didn’t make it. The stand was demolished in the mail, and the tube was dented beyond repair. I bought a new simpler Orion telescope and got out my old Atlas 2000.0. I was back to star-hopping and taking my time.
Atlas Coelestis (1729), by the first Astronomer Royal in Britain, John Flamsteed, was another key atlas. He included star measurements that he had worked on for over a decade. The coordinate system we use today is based on his charts.
Seventy years later, Johann Bode, from Germany, published Uranographia in 1801. He added six times as many stars as Flamsteed’s atlas. Bode included William and Caroline (his sister and one of the first European female astronomers) Hershel’s and Charles Messier’s nebulae and added some new constellations. Uranographia was the last of the major atlases that included drawings of the constellation figures and ended the golden age of celestial cartography. As telescopes became larger, more stars and objects were added to atlases, and continues today with computers.
Dusting off my atlas, I noticed my notes where comets or asteroids were years ago. Now historic, my atlas has been replaced by newer atlases as well as apps; however, the screens of phones are brighter than a red flashlight and more difficult to read. They also cover a tiny space; my big paper atlases cover a much larger region at once. There is a seemingly endless selection of books with sky charts available now; but I am content with my old maps.
Star hopping with my telescope has forced me to slow down. I think of how GPS has replaced maps. Many amateur astronomers use computerized maps with telescopes connected to television screens while relaxing in their warm living rooms. One can purchase observing time on the large telescopes of the world, to be viewed from inside your home. We have lost our connection with the universe. Today we know more but see less. Our spatial thinking is disappearing, and we would be lost without our gadgets that find our way on earth and in the heavens. Sadly, there are few sailors who have the knowledge to navigate by the stars, and I feel we are losing so many fundamental skills that ware associated with our natural surroundings.
To me, the point of gazing through my telescope is to be engaged with the universe. Finding my way around the sky by star hopping and using my star maps makes me appreciate what I find more than if I just press a button, as well as connects me to the stars. Being out in the elements, versus sitting in my house, adds to this connection with nature. Amateur astronomers are well aware of this, and despite all the high-tech equipment available, I read numerous articles about observing directly through the eye-piece of a telescope. Even telescopes can take one away from seeing the sky, so sometimes I just lie back and look up, tracing new constellations and watching satellites and meteors fly overhead. I love getting lost in the universe while dreaming. Again, I am a child looking into the abyss, hopeful, dreaming and finding my way through life.
 “Sky and Telescope”, Focal Point, p. 84, May 2016.
Siffy Tolkildson is a Guest Contributor to Panorama
Share this piece: