Observing Project 3D Organization

Ever feel the total helplessness that goes with being disorganized and unprepared? It's a feeling I often had out at the telescope when I would carry my eyepieces out with me in the original box that Celestron had shipped them in. That's all well and fine when all I had was one Plossl and one Orthoscopic. When you own six eyepieces, a Barlow, a telecompressor, an LPR filter, a filter set, a CCD camera and a 35-mm SLR, that box gets a little crowded and a bit disorganized. Want to be the bad guy at a star party? Try turning on your white flashlight to look for something in that box. You will become very unpopular very rapidly.

Organization is the key to success. You must be able to find any tool at all at once and in complete darkness. The only way you can possibly succeed is to know where everything is in advance. That means that every piece of equipment goes back in the box in exactly the same way. Spend some time and brainpower figuring out the best way to organize your box so that everything is in a logical order, stores easily and can be found by touch in the dark. Then try it in the dark to prove to yourself that your plan actually works.


First Nioht Out

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Finally with your studying done and your mind primed, your eyes trained and all your equipment cleaned, prepped and ready to go, its time to head on out into the field to let your new telescope see "first light." There's a lot that goes into a night of productive observing, much more than just throwing the scope together and looking around, although that certainly can be fun. A serious night of observing can require some serious advance planning. You must plan where to go, when to arrive there, how you will get your stuff there, how you will set up your equipment and so on. You must also carefully plan on what you are going to do with your precious time. Sometimes the plan is based on personal constraints or desires (how long can you stand the cold) and sometimes it must be based on the happenings in the sky. If you are out to watch an event such as an asteroid occultation, your entire life for that evening is going to be based around those few seconds when that rock hides that star. You must be ready when that moment comes. Planning to observe a few select targets in the deep sky requires a different kind of planning. Faint galaxies require the presence of a dark sky so your planning is not for a particular moment but for a range of hours within a range of days when the Moon is not in the sky. Perhaps the most demanding planning task will be on the night when you dare attempt the Messier Marathon. This is a one-night run where you attempt to observe every single object on Charles Messier's famous list. There is a narrow window during March and April where it is possible to see every object on the list in a dark sky. The marathon requires not only selection of the right night where no Moon is visible during the window of opportunity, but careful planning of that night almost minute by minute from the end of evening twilight to the beginning of morning twilight.

The first night out should be designed around giving you a careful opportunity to set up your scope properly while there is still some ambient light, then taking a good two to four hours to view a selected series of targets which will allow you to sample the full range of your scope's capabilities. A perfect night might include a night where the Moon will be visible in a dark sky for a short period of time after twilight ends or rises later leaving a few hours of dark sky time before moonrise. It should include two or three bright planets, then a handful of deep-sky objects. These can include nebulae to test your scope's ability to pick out those faint glows from the background, galaxies that will test your scope's ability to resolve fine detail in faint objects and double stars in several combinations of relative brightness. To begin the planning process, use either an astronomy software program such as the ones we've discussed in prior chapters or a simple guide to events of a desired evening. Such a guide fits on one page that is published in each January issue of Sky & Telescope. Let's plan out one particular evening that would seem to fit a perfect first night perfectly.

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