Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The VL Amateur Astronomy Extravaganza, Part II

Dr. Ian Walker

Hello again, and welcome to Part II of our feature on amateur astronomy.  For Part I, click here.

Today’s special guest is Dr. Ian Walker.  Ian is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bath and impassioned amateur astronomer.  Today, he tells us about his own experience — and shares a few tips for those just setting out.

Hello, Ian, and welcome to Vulpes Libris.  First of all, what brought you to astronomy, and how did the Baxter Garden Observatory come to be?

I think I can trace an interest in astronomy back to my childhood, at least at a vague level. But it really got serious about three years ago. I’d been talking to a friend and somehow the subject turned to Jupiter (we have wide-ranging conversations!). On the way home, I saw Jupiter shining really brightly in the sky and decided I had to look closer. A few days later I bought a small telescope and was very quickly hooked by the things I was seeing.

One of the great things is that my interest was awakened at a time when the Internet was fairly mature. I was instantly able to get my hands on vast amounts of information and to find discussion fora where I could ask questions and get excellent answers from informed and generous people around the world.

Within just a few months I’d been so hooked, and was spending so much time in the garden observing, that I upgraded to a larger telescope. This made a big difference to what I could see, and I had many wonderful nights with this.

It was largely a desire for more convenience that made me install a permanent (but extremely small!) home observatory in my little garden. This made it much easier to observe: having the scope permanently set up meant I could spend much more time observing rather than setting up and packing away.

In recent months I’ve been making an effort to learn to take photographs of astronomical objects using my telescope. Astrophotography is an astronishingly, mind-bogglingly complex and difficult branch of photography for the very simple reason that the things one tries to photograph are billions of kilometres away! But it’s also incredibly rewarding even to get a fuzzy photograph of a galaxy or nebula. Knowing what it is that you’re looking at, and how far away it is, is for me a huge part of the pleasure, such that even a poor image is rewarding. That’s just as well, as the images I’ve been getting are very poor! Some of the photographs captured by amateurs are jaw-dropping.

I’m a scientist by day, although in a totally different field. Being the sort of person who chooses to work in academia, I carry a sort of weird guilt when I do anything purely for my own pleasure — anything that seems ‘useless’ to the wider world. Perhaps as a way of addressing this, I recently started looking at whether there was a way I could be outside my house with the telescope AND do something that might prove useful to others. Doing some research, I stumbled upon the subject of astrometry, by which one measures the positions of astronomical objects. In particular, it seemed something an amateur might usefully do is help track asteroids, as there are so many and a need for a great many observations if they are to be tracked accurately — especially when new objects are discovered, as the professionals don’t have the resources to check them all. I wasn’t sure if my fairly cheap equipment would be up to the task but had a go and, with every expectation that my measurements would be rejected, submitted them to the Minor Planets Center. I was thrilled a few days later to find they had been accepted as sufficiently accurate, and since then have managed a few sessions, when the clouds allowed it, of tracking some of the brighter asteroids and comets.

Baxter Garden Observatory came about because when submitting those first measurements I had to give this new ‘observatory’ a name for the Center’s records. Fishing around for a name whilst standing in my garden at 2am and desperate for bed, I just named it after the garden itself and my dog, Baxter, who was there with me at the time. It was terribly unsophisticated — I pretty much just listed what I could see and sent off the report!

The Moon is a good place to start (click to enlarge). Photograph by John McCluskey.

I think like a lot of amateur astronomers, the things that first stunned me, and continue to do so, are the major planets. The sight of Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope is something one never forgets. Saturn, in particular, seems almost too perfect. Its rings are so crisp, and so exactly as you’d expect them to look, that it’s as if somebody has stuck a painting onto the end of the scope. The Moon is also a continually exciting thing to observe.

If somebody wants to look through my telescope then I try to let them see one of these three things first, as I just know they will be impressed.

Which books do you always have on hand?

I have a copy of Turn Left at Orion and think it is excellent. Antonin Rükl’s Moon, Mars and Venus is also lovely, and one to which I frequently refer. Otherwise, technical books on astrophotography aside, my favourite books are star atlases, particularly the work of stellar cartographer Wil Tirion. Tirion’s atlases are understated masterpieces of functional design. I have the full deluxe edition of the Star Atlas 2000.0 which is physically the largest book I own!

Finally, do you have a piece of advice for any of our readers who might like to get started in amateur astronomy?

There are many ways to get started. Perhaps the simplest is to head out somewhere dark with a pair of binoculars and a star chart and try to find some of the brighter objects such as star clusters. The cluster of stars called the Pleiades (in Taurus) is a great sight in binoculars, as is the Beehive Cluster in Cancer. There are lots of others – galaxy M31 (marked on any star chart), the great Orion nebula (M42) and the globular cluster M13 in Hercules (a globular cluster is a massive ball of old stars which floats around outside our galaxy). It’s also great fun just to lie back and sweep binoculars along the Milky Way, especially around the constellations of Cassiopeia and Cygnus (again, any star map — including free charts online — can point people to where these constellations are).

Even a small telescope will provide exciting views of the Moon and Jupiter, so if somebody wants to spend a little money they’ll easily find things to impress themselves.

However, another very useful option for somebody who is intrigued by astronomy is to track down one of the many astronomical clubs and societies around the world. This way, one could go along and look through relatively huge telescopes for free, guided along the way by people who know what they’re talking about.

Finally, a novel option for dipping one’s toe into the water is to try Bradford University’s robotic telescope. From their website you can, for free, request the telescope to take photographs of astronomical sights and send them to you when it’s done. For an example of a picture taken with this, have a look at this image, which shows galaxy M31 (which is, very slowly, on its way to collide with our galaxy!).

Many thanks, Ian, for speaking to us today.  To find out about Ian’s non-astronomy research, check out his University webpage here.

3 comments on “The VL Amateur Astronomy Extravaganza, Part II

  1. lisa
    October 26, 2011

    Another fascinating article. I am always deeply envious of people with telescopes, so perhaps it is time i started saving up for one. Baxter Garden Observatory sounds lovely. Digger Garden Observatory doesn’t have quite the same ring.

    I like the idea of amateur astronomers tracking asteroids although i suspect that this kind of endeavour could become quite intense and addictive, since the stakes are so high.

    Anyhow really great piece. Thanks Kirsty and Ian.

  2. Melrose
    October 26, 2011

    When you look at pictures, such as Galaxy M31, it makes you realise just how insignificant we humans are on our little planet. The enormity of space is almost impossible to get your head round, if you stop to really think about it…

    I love the name of Ian’s observatory – the Baxter Garden Observatory. Che’s Garden Observatory doesn’t have quite the same impressive ring – sounds a bit more casual.

  3. John
    November 10, 2011

    I just bought a star-map app for my phone and after reading this I may go out this weekend and get some binoculars. I’m also going to check out Bradford University’s robotic telescope. Nice article!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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