Confessions of a Sidewalk Astronomer

THERE ARE TWO TELESCOPES IN my living room, a third in a backpack in my bedroom closet, and a pair of astronomical binoculars on the bookcase near the front door.

“Why so many?” you may ask.

Easy answer: I am … obsessed.

Fig. 1 (click to enlarge)

My first optical acquisition (to the right in Fig. 1) excels at lunar and planetary observation, and is known among amateur astronomers as a “grab-and-go” — easy to carry outside for an anytime celestial look-see. But it doesn’t gather much light from faint deep-sky objects (galaxies, nebulae, star clusters). When I lamented this to a good friend and fellow astrogeek, his cryptic reply was, “Watch your mailbox.”

I did, and soon found myself the grateful owner of a bigger telescope (Fig. 1, middle). As its nickname implies, this so-called “light bucket” sucks in nearly three times the starlight of the first — just right for brightening otherwise elusive deep-sky denizens. (The removeable fanny-bag on the mount holds a handpicked eyepiece assortment.)

Telescope number three (Fig. 1, left) is a smaller, wide-angle rig that shows lots more sky through the eyepiece than the other two ‘scopes put together, and collapses nicely into its own backpack. It’s also great for terrestrial viewing (birding, anyone?), but the flimsy mount is too rickety for skygazing. On one of the other mounts, though, it’s perfect for large targets (e.g., the Pleiades, the Andromeda Galaxy) and for scanning the rich star-clouds of the Milky Way.

The binoculars (not shown) are also beautifully suited for big-sky, stereoscopic viewing. And the bookcase they sit on? One and a half shelves are crammed with star atlases, astronomy textbooks, lunar maps, constellation charts, and three treatises on stellar mythology. (Did I mention the handful of stargazing apps on my phone?)

Mind you, none of this is bragging — it’s just evidence for the strength of an obsession which began with a small telescope my parents gifted me when I was 13: one look at Saturn and I was hooked for life. I’m not even sure why, save that the heavens are so agonizingly beautiful and awe-inspiring and humbling and spiritually refreshing and intellectually stimulating and and and … well. Call it a “hobby,” or fancy that up with “avocation,” but glimpse anything astronomical through the eyepiece and you’ll see what I mean. Come by some night and we’ll do that together!

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