Searching for a hobby? Try looking up

Posted Online: April 21, 2012, 7:25 pm
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By Anthony Watt,
Finding something to do this summer could be as simple as looking up.

Becoming an amateur astronomer doesn't have to be complex or expensive. Your eyes, at first, are all you need. The show can be magnificent: constellations that tell the stories of Earth's mythologies, eclipses of the sun and moon, comets, streaking meteor showers, gleaming planets, even our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

"You would be amazed at what you can see with binoculars," Dana Taylor, of the Quad Cities Astronomical Society, said. "Just turn them toward the Milky Way and thousands of stars are suddenly visible that just form part of the cloudy haze with the naked eye."

He recommends that someone new to stargazing get with a group that has been doing it for awhile.

"They have already experienced any pitfalls one might encounter when starting out," Mr. Taylor said. "They also can help one find some of the more interesting and difficult objects that one might not even have considered observing."

Experienced skywatchers also can guide novices to the right product, he said.

For binoculars, Mr. Taylor suggested ones about 7x50 or 10x50. He also suggested a small 2- to 4-inch diameter telescope as another useful beginner's tool.

"Stay away from the stuff you find in the department or big box stores," he said. "Most of it is junk and you will become frustrated very soon at the lack of performance and lousy images."

More on getting started

Lee Carkner, director of the John Deere Planetarium at Augustana College, recommended starting by going out about the same time each night and looking up, getting a feel for how things in the sky move.

"We don't really notice the sky very much," he said.

To figure out where everything is, Mr. Carkner suggested getting a star chart -- a map of the visible sky, which are readily available.

Try to spot the easy stuff first, such as the Big Dipper and Orion, which are much easier for the budding stargazer than some of the more obscure constellations, he said.

Planets look like stars, but are much brighter, and unlike stars, they don't twinkle or don't twinkle as much, because of their proximity to the Earth and how the light from each body strikes the atmosphere, Mr. Carkner said.

Getting away from urban areas is also helpful, the men said. Darker skies allow for better viewing.

3 planets at once

Now is a good time to get into astronomy, with several things involving the planets about to happen and the annual Perseid meteor showers coming in August.

Later this month, Venus, Mars and Saturn all will be visible at the same time. "You can just go right out and see the planets with your eyes," Mr. Carkner said.

They will be visible not long after sunset, though they won't be in close proximity, Mr. Carkner said. Venus will be in the west, Saturn in the east, and Mars will be sort of between them in the south.

These three planets and Jupiter usually can be seen with the naked eye, he said, adding that having all four visible in the sky usually happens every few years.

Venus usually is the brightest, while the more-distant Saturn is dimmer, Mr. Carkner said.

On April 28, Augustana will hold a viewing of the three planets in its planetarium, weather permitting.

Venus in transit

On June 5, Venus will pass between the Earth and the sun. A rare event called the Transit of Venus, it will be visible with telescopes, said Robert Mitchell, director of St. Ambrose University's Menke Observatory.

Anyone who misses it, likely won't have a chance to see it again, he said. "It's not going to happen again until the year 2117."

People will need telescopes to see the transit, and those telescopes need special filters to ensure safe viewing, Mr. Mitchell said, adding that St. Ambrose will have telescopes set up for the general public to view the transit.

The Perseids are one of the many meteor showers that happen each year. They appear to the unaided eye as small, bright streaks across the sky.

According to, meteor showers are named after the constellation they appear to originate from. The Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus.

For weeks this year, two very bright objects were visible one above the other and very close together in the western sky. That was Jupiter and Venus, Mr. Carkner and Mr. Mitchell said.

Hooked by an eclipse

Mr. Taylor said he focused on the moon when he started skywatching. His first telescope was a 40mm he got when he was 10. His interest began to grow when he was a student at Bettendorf High School, which had a 6-inch telescope he could use.

In the decades since, his knowledge and viewing habits have grown. He has built his own telescope and now can see things outside the spirals of the Milky Way.

"Generally, galaxies and nebulae, also known as deep sky objects, are my favorites," he said. "My overall favorites would be the Great Nebula in Orion and the Whirlpool Galaxy.

He said the Great Nebula is large and bright and forms part of Orion's sword. "It is visible during the winter months. One can discern spiral arms in (the Whirlpool Galaxy) with a medium-sized telescope on a good night."

However, he said the most memorable thing he has seen since he began skywatching was the total solar eclipse of 1979.

"All one has to see is one solar eclipse and one is addicted for life," Mr. Taylor said. "I'm not talking about the partial ones we have had around here on occasion. During totality, the sun turns into a flaming ring of fire in the sky and the corona, with streamers extending several solar diameters, is visible.

"And, it gets dark enough that the stars come out in the daytime."

Stargazing events and links:

Several events are scheduled in coming weeks where Quad-Citians can view astronomical events:

-- April 28: Free Spring Open House and Planet Viewing, 8:30 to 10 p.m., Augustana College's John Deere Planetarium. There will be indoor and outdoor programs and the Fryxell Geology Museum will be open. If it's cloudy, indoor planetarium programs still will be offered.

-- April 28: The Quad Cities Astronomical Society will have a public event that begins at dusk at the Jens-Wendt Observatory at Sherman Park in Scott County. Directions are available on the group's website.

-- June 5: Transit of Venus event begins at 5 p.m. on the third floor of Rogalski Center in the ballroom at St. Ambrose University. Participants can see the transit through solar-filtered telescopes or via webcast.

 For other information on stargazing and astronomy:


Local events heading

  Today is Tuesday, Oct. 21, the 294th day of 2014. There are 71 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The weather is discouraging for our great Democratic rally tomorrow, but never mind that. Let our Rock Island people show they can make a big procession themselves, rain or shine.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Apparatus arrived for drilling an artesian well on the premises of George Warner's Atlantic Brewery.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The German army continued its attacks on the allies line near the Belgian coast.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The farm home of Mr. and Mrs. Gus Zachert northwest of Buffalo Prairie, burned to the ground.
1964 -- 50 years ago: WVIK-FM, noncommercial educational radio station at Augustana College, will return to the air tomorrow. The station operates at a power of 10 watts at 90.9 megacycles on the frequency modulation band. The station is operated with a staff of 92 students.
1989 -- 25 years ago: An avenue of lights, 13 Christmas trees strung with more than 44,000 sparkling lights, will expand the Festival of Trees beyond the walls of RiverCenter in downtown Davenport in mid-November.

(More History)