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Touring the Skies By Jim Bonser (

November 8, 2018
Reinbeck Courier
Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. There are many things I enjoy about being an amateur astronomer. Like the thrill I get when I track down an object for the first time. When I got a telescope for a birthday present when I was about 9 or 10, I was really excited and couldn’t wait to take it out and explore the night sky with it. Trouble was, I had no idea where to point it. I had an aunt who was an elementary school teacher and she gave me a gift of a book about the night sky called “Stars and Planets”. It was full of star charts showing the constellations and pictures of the planets and lots of information about all of them. I read it from cover to cover and learned a lot but unfortunately, the charts in the book didn’t really look like the sky. I was lost. This brings me to another of the things I enjoy about amateur astronomy: introducing people to the night sky. It was not until many years after I got that first telescope and had kids about the age I was when I got that little telescope, that my interest in the night sky revived. I bought a good planisphere (a kind of star chart that can be adjusted to show the sky for any date and time of the year) and began using it to teach myself to identify a few of the constellations. What really helped me the most though, was finding a friend who already knew the sky very well. He sold me a very good telescope and then helped me learn how to use it and how to find things in the sky to observe with it. How I wish I had had a friend like that to show me around the sky when I got that little scope for my birthday! I hope some of the things I have written over the years have helped you become a little more familiar with the night sky, like my friend Mark who was such a big help to me. It is November already. Christmas is not far away, and I get asked a lot by people who want to get a telescope to give as a gift, about what kind is best. Most of the time, the advice I give is a little disappointing to them. Most of the time, I recommend instead of a telescope, they consider getting a good quality pair of lightweight binoculars instead. Why? Well a “good” telescope is going to cost between $300 and $800 dollars or more! I know, you can buy amazing looking scopes for much less, with beautiful pictures of planets and craters on the Moon on the box, but most will have plastic parts that don’t fit well, focusing mechanisms that strip and break easily, and mounts that are wobbly and hard to aim. A very good pair of binoculars can be purchased for between $90 and $150. I usually recommend looking for a pair of 10X50 or 7X50 or 8X42 porro prism binoculars with fully multicoated optics and a prism made of BAK-4 glass. They should weigh no more than 2 lbs or preferably less, especially for a young astronomer, but even an adult will appreciate the lighter weight when looking up at the sky through them for any length of time. I also suggest a good star chart and/or a book on using binoculars for astronomy - there are many good ones on Amazon. What can you see in the night sky with binoculars? Well, there are actually many open and globular clusters as well as galaxies and nebulae that can be seen in binoculars and some of them, like the Pleiades, are actually seen best with binoculars. If interest in astronomy wanes, the binoculars will still be useful for sports, bird watching etc. and if interest grows, the binoculars will continue to be very useful - I still love scanning the Milky Way with my Celestron 10X50’s! And, of course, I recommend becoming involved with a local astronomy club. There are always members like me, who love helping people, young and old, get started. They can help you learn how to set up and use your equipment and show you how to use those star charts to find your way around the stars. There is nothing more valuable than a good friend to “show you around”! Most astronomy clubs have scopes you may borrow and take home as well as the opportunity to look through and operate different kinds of telescopes so you can “try before you buy”. Astronomy can be a very enjoyable and rewarding hobby. It has and continues to be for me. If you are thinking about getting a scope for a budding astronomer this Christmas, I hope this article will help give you some pointers. And I hope you will get to enjoy many peaceful nights under the stars together. Take my advice: do your research. Buy the best you can afford. Join a club. Make some friends. As far as what to see without a telescope in the sky this month, the only bright planet left in the evening skies in November is bright Mars. Mars is pretty much due south most of the month around 7 PM. A bright gibbous Moon visits Mars on Thursday, the 15th. The next night, it will have moved to about ten degrees to the east of the Red Planet. November is not known for having lots of clear nights here in central Iowa, but who knows? Perhaps we’ll have some pleasant, clear, November nights to enjoy the beauty that God has placed in the sky for us this year before arctic temperatures set in! I certainly hope so. Clear Skies!



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