This article is being written both for informative purposes, and to hopefully lighten the hearts and minds of those who read it amid the fears surrounding the Covid-19 Pandemic. Long before “Shelter in Place” and “Practice Social Distancing” became a thing, doing any kind observing and long exposure astrophotography has always required the serious stargazer to get away from people.
For yours truly, after having dealt with overwhelming crowds at popular campsites, I am always on a quest for that perfect remote stargazing spot where encountering another person almost never happens, even in a populated state like California.
With that said, if you feel unsafe to go long distances due to the ongoing Shelter At Home orders, then do not use this article as an excuse to go out.
You Need to Get Away From the Cities!
There’s a reason why the leading research observatories in the world are in remote areas far away from any cities and even closed off to the general public at night – city lights affect their ability to observe and record data!
Sadly, nowadays many people who grow up in crowded centers of population never experience a true dark sky full of stars. The empty void of brownish-orange barf glow detracts people from wanting to look up, and when people are told they need to be at least 20-50 miles away from their cities to truly see stars, many pass on the opportunity out of discomfort and fear. With many cities being a hotbed for viral spread, you’re actually safer when you’re out stargazing in the desert!
For most Southern California residents who must drive at least a couple hours to even experience a remote location, a dark sky full of stars is a rare treat.
Most Major Celestial Events Occur When Everyone is Sleeping… we’re the only poor saps up watching them!
Let’s say that the convenient times are the evening hours after sunset on a Friday or Saturday… Well, I’m sorry, that’s the thing with astronomical events… most of them are really inconvenient with your sleep or work schedule…
- Meteor showers are pretty much all night events, but are usually best viewed between 2-4 am.
- I’ve viewed plenty of lunar eclipses that start and finish in the early morning hours after midnight. I’ve even encountered people who wonder why I have my telescope out, completely oblivious to the fact that a lunar eclipse is taking place!
- Planetary Oppositions and close approaches? local Midnight… that’s when you need to view them at their best.
- The 2017 Great American Eclipse? It was on a Monday that happened to coincide with many districts and schoolteachers beginning their school year. I personally knew a lot of people who told me out of jealousy, “well, some of us have to work for a living!”
So yes… even from the comforts of home, I’ve observed many rare events alone, knowing that people were going to skip out on them. That’s why I try to make the effort to do the pictures, the videos, and the live streams… in that way, getting them into your own screens is the only way I can share such events with you!
It’s Hard To Sell a Star Party or Meteor Shower Party Far Away From Civilization
It happens all the time: people ask me, “how do I see this meteor shower?” or “how can I spot this comet I keep hearing about?” When I tell them where they should go, they balk at the chance and come up with excuses not to make the trip! I mean, who in their right mind will waste gas just to go look at some stars?!
I get it, life happens. It’s a long drive to a faraway place. People don’t want to be out too late especially if they have work or their kids have school in the morning. Others are just uncomfortable being around wildlife and plants that could harm them if they’re not careful. But as an organizer for events, it’s all the more frustrating when I get a lot of people telling me, “oh yeah, I’m so there!” But once the event is about to start, THEN I get notified that they’re not coming.
It just makes it all the more special when we do run successful events that draw a good amount of people to make the trip.
Observing and Imaging at Crowded Sites Can Be A Pain!
I organize events at Cottonwood Campground in Joshua Tree National Park simply because it’s convenient, has amenities for people wanting comfort, and it’s dark enough for my tastes. But the place can get pretty packed.
While I do have my share of stories dealing with annoying people, let’s just categorize them as the following at Cottonwood:
- Campers who are just there to sit around the fire and drink alcohol all night… not caring that their smoke and glow from the fires affects nearby astronomers’ ability to observe.
- People who constantly shine bright white lights towards me, ruining my dark adaptation and any exposures I may be trying…
So yes, when I want to do any form of serious observing, people like me want to be left alone. While I don’t mind meeting and presenting to people who are considerate, it gets old dealing with people who don’t “get it.”
When You’re All Alone Out In the Middle of Nowhere, It’s Quite Humbling!
Did I mention that we astrophotographers sometimes want to be left alone so we can get stuff done?! Serious observing, and the most rewarding experiences require a sense of adventure.
Oh sure, when you do bring a friend or small group, it’s a great time to hangout and do fellowship with each other in the sense of shared interests and ideals. But, when it’s just you, miles away from any gas station or emergency service, in an area with no cell coverage, it’s a lot different!
Now it’s just you, the elements, and nature. It’s a time to become one with yourself, your instincts, and call it whatever you’d like – your connection to your higher power, conscious, inner thoughts, etc… Knowing that these places have hazards such as wildlife and plants that can harm you if you’re not careful, or hazards associated with non-paved streets (don’t want your sedan getting stuck in the sand!), it’s quite a thrill and can humble you very quickly!
Sure, it’s a lonely place, and But when I’m out there, and certain deep sky objects actually start resembling their pictures somewhat thanks to no light pollution affecting the contrast, and that summer Milky Way glow is bright enough to cast faint shadows, then those views alone are worth it every time, and I arrive back home with an “astronomy high!”
TL;DR – Astronomers and Astrophotographers NEED to be away from people even when there isn’t a global pandemic causing governments to tell people to stay home as a safety precaution…
When you see these images done by people, including yours truly, I hope you can appreciate the effort made, as a lot of times, they require solitary work. Because of the need to get away, that makes Astronomy one of the original “social distancing” activities before it became a thing!
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