Being a passionate astronomer, even at an amateur hobbyist level, means one wants to make the time to gaze at the night sky. When one wants to share their passion or introduce it to eagerly interested people, especially children, it can be quite a chore trying to plan such an outing that works for the non-astronomer. The following are the Top 5 Astronomical Annoyances we all have to deal with.
5. The Moon
The moon is only the most viewed object in the night sky. Yes, it’s quite beautiful when it’s full, especially when it appears larger at the horizon due to an optical illusion.
Now, during the weeks when the moon is less prominent, it’s always a treat to observe the moon with binoculars or telescope because the surface features like craters appear more defined because due to the shadows on the lunar surface.
But there’s a saying, “when the moon is full, astronomers put their telescopes away.” Trying to view a full moon through a telescope is a beginner’s trap, as the reflected sunlight gets amplified and can hurt the observer’s eyes if the telescope allows too much light to pass through.
During the two weeks when the moon is more prominent in the sky, such as the gibbous or full phases, the moon’s light washes out the stars of the night sky. Forget about trying to view any nebulae or galaxies; the bright moon makes deep sky viewing almost impossible, even from sites away from the city lights. If there is a distant comet that’s just becoming bright enough to be spotted with the naked eye, the moon will make the comet much harder to spot. Even the best meteor showers become shells of their usual selves because the moon’s glow washes out all but the brightest meteors streaking through the sky.
Unless you are planning on viewing the moon as part of the astronomy experience, especially if it’s an eclipse, chances are you will plan a star party or meteor shower viewing on days and times when the moon is not in the sky.
4. Bad Weather
Planning around the moon’s phases schedule for night sky viewing means you typically will have perhaps up to 7-10 days out of an entire month to choose for a dark moon-less viewing experience.
But for the weather, the phases do not matter. Bad weather will ruin any night it chooses to. That means if you plan a night because of the New Moon phase, if bad weather is in the forecast, then you’re just going to have to wait for the next window of opportunity!
All it takes is ONE stray cloud to ruin your night sky viewing experience! The weather can be clear one minute, but then the clouds quickly roll in and block your view of the sky. Even clear nights with a lot of humidity and moisture in the atmosphere can affect your viewing!
While millions of Americans enjoyed the 2017 Solar Eclipse, there were many within the path of totality who did not get to witness the spectacle of a total eclipse because they got clouded out at the wrong time. My sister living in Kansas City, Missouri was one of them.
Still, I cannot tell you how many celestial events I myself have missed because of bad weather in my location. I’m talking lunar eclipses, Mercury transits, planetary conjunctions, and some meteor showers all missed because of those thick fluffy things in the sky.
Oh, and don’t forget about temperature!
Summer nights may be nice, but viewing parties during winter nights are often cut short because of people sitting or standing in the cold too long. Watching a meteor shower outside in freezing temperatures while forgetting my thick jacket is NOT a fun experience!
3. Inconvenient Times
One big reason why people don’t take up astronomy as a hobby or join people like me for viewing parties is because Astronomy itself is inconvenient with everyone’s schedules!
There are some events in the sky that happen at the convenient times – the times that are just after sunset during a decent hour so one doesn’t have to stay up late; or they’re on a Friday or Saturday night.
However, celestial events are on their own schedule. And they will usually be during the inconvenient times – the times when most people are asleep and don’t want to be bothered.
Meteor showers usually peak in the dark early morning hours before the sun rises, and I’ve viewed lunar eclipses in the middle of the night, losing sleep in the process.
For someone like me, this isn’t that big of an issue. But the thought of losing valuable sleep, or having their children stay up late for a meteor shower or a lunar eclipse on a school night just isn’t something that most people are willing to do.
For the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse over the U.S.A., there were definitely millions of Americans who were able to take the time off and travel to see the total eclipse. But because it was on a Monday, perhaps tens of millions more could not get the time off work or school.
2. Telescope Set Up
If you own a good telescope, this one just comes with the territory.
Most of the time, the telescope will get set up and only be used to observe one thing in the sky. It can be a quick look that lasts only a few seconds, or it can be a long observation session.
But the larger the telescope, the longer it takes to assemble and set up, and equally just as long to disassemble to take it down and store it. Equatorial mounted scopes take longer to set up because there are things with alignment with the celestial pole that are needed to be done to get the tracking devices working properly.
Larger telescopes also need more room to be transported, and trying to squeeze an 8 inch telescope with luggage and supplies for three people inside a Honda Accord is like playing Tetris in real life! Any larger and I would have needed at least a pick up truck or an SUV.
If you don’t want to assemble it and disassemble it for every viewing, yes, we can always just keep it in the set up position to save time. But a fully assembled telescope with larger tubes and heavy mounts are both heavy and bulky, and can require two people to carry it without breaking precious dinner plates in the process.
1. Light Pollution
So, you’ve got a clear night with no moon. There is not a cloud in sight! You have a group of people with you for a star party! Your telescopes are set up! Everything seems perfect, right?
But the night sky looks empty and unimpressive!
If only the city lights weren’t so bright! Light Pollution! Oh I hate you!
That’s unfortunately the biggest enemy of astronomy. Yes, it does affect the ecosystems in more harmful ways than you think, but this article is speaking simply from a passionate astronomer’s point of view.
Now, from bright city skies, you can still view the moon, planets, and a few bright stars without a problem, and they still look impressive through a telescope. This is good enough for the casual viewer who has never viewed anything of the sort through a telescope before.
However, when you want to see the deep sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies, or if if you’re trying to view a meteor shower, you’re out of luck.
That is unless you take a trip far away from the city lights, at least 20 miles away from them will do the trick, and viola! You can see the night sky how it actually is supposed to look like! The time it takes to do this varies depending on your location. For some people, this drive can easily last an hour or two, especially if you live in the Greater Los Angeles area.
Wait, surely the people you’ve invited for this night sky viewing party will be willing to go with you, right?
Whether it’s because they feel the dark sky location is too far, or it’s too late at night and either they have work or their kids have school in the morning, many people are just not as willing to make the effort.
And because most people grow up in light polluted skies, they never see the night sky as it actually looks like. That also means they prefer to stay in their comfort zones, surrounded by the lights,which makes it harder to generate interest in star parties in dark sites.
The fact that I have been able to get groups to the dark skies over Joshua Tree National Park at least once a year does mean a lot to yours truly. But as the person with that passion, there’s always that desire to go out there more, and of course, bring more people!