Add Venture #5

For Explorers, Adventurers and Visual Storytellers

Sat Mar 13th, 2021

Heavens above! (It's full of Stars)

You've scaled peaks, hiked deserts, dived the Blue Holes, overlanded the Silk Road. But you ain't seen nothing 'til you look up! 


Here's why astronomy is one of the most enthralling, adventurous and addictive hobbies, that will take you to the four corners of the world, leads to the happiest (and well paid) professions and relies the most incredible imaging techniques! Sounds hyperbolic? Not really. Read on.


For my 10th birthday, a 60mm refracting telescope landed on my urban balcony, bringing me to a state of frenzy while winter clouds made it unusable. The shape of it was so evocative, and it felt so big compared to me that gazing at it rather than through it was my main pleasure for days. Until the day the clouds parted and we aimed it at a "big" yellow-ish star.


Saturn


It was one of those defining moments. The tooting horns at the street lights below stopped. The chatter at the bar terrace and the tiptoeing clatter of souls on the pavement evaporated as my whole awareness was sucked in by this tiny, blurry ball of beige light surrounded with rings. My hand relaxed and I dropped my second eyepiece on the floor and to its ugly demise, 4 storeys below, onto the hard, concrete sidewalk. It was worth it. Needless to say, I was a hero at school the next day ;)


Here's how astronomy reels you in: you've seen the Hubble photographs, of course. Abstract and spectacular. But nothing prepares you for the actual experience of finding and seeing the planet in real life. Maybe, you've visited every spectacular coast and desert on the planet. Maybe you've bungee-jumped on elephant back from a zeppelin flying over Zhangye Danxia. Maybe nothing on Instagram surprises you anymore. Viewing Saturn in a tiny, department store refractor, in a light polluted city is exact opposite to all that. Unspectacular and unforgettable. Grounding and real.


Face it. When you finally get to that restaurant terrace with incredible vistas over Santorini, however nice it is, the view is never quite what the travel influencers make it out to be. Your eyes don't polarize light, paint out the other tourists, or super-saturate the blue coppolas. Experience lags behind the promise of the pretty photographs. The opposite is true with astronomy, as years of science fiction movies and scientific imagery at the back of your mind get projected into a view that is made all the more gripping by the various difficulties that lie between you and your target: the very staggering distance of the planet, a shaky atmosphere, an unstable mount buffeted by the wind and the reality of optics. This is where that sense of adventure is immediately triggered : the view takes effort and the reward is hard to describe. Think racing heart, teary eyes and emotional mind, and you get the gist of it ;) 


I vividly remember reading "Roid Fever" in the August 1982 edition of Astronomy magazine a dozen times or more, following an amateur astronomer tracking an asteroid occultation to the very limit of obstructing trees and fences, low on the horizon, through a hazy atmosphere, and thinking that no novel had ever left me with that feeling of suspense and emotion. Real life always beats fiction when its difficulties and rewards - the stuff of real adventure - are told and documented by passionate human beings. Adventure and storytelling are two sides of the same wonderful coin.


From that point of discovery and awakening onward, the hobby of astronomy takes on a life of its own, one that branches out in as many directions as personal desire, the balance between science-driven intellect, mythology and romantic emotion, as well as your personal context and situation, care to take you. The moon, the planets and their own moons, double-stars, variable stars, asteroid occultations, planetary nebulas, diffuse nebulas, dark nebulas, dust lanes, galaxies, open and circular clusters, quasars, novas ans supernovas, sunspots, solar flares, auroras, visual imaging, long exposure imaging, high-resolution imaging, timelapses, interferometry, infrared and UV, radio-astronomy, collaborative projects, citizen science, pro-am work, professional careers, mirror grinding, telescope making, software development, naked eye observing, binocular viewing, large instruments, high-precision instruments, short focals, ultra-long focals, Northern hemisphere objects, Southern hemisphere objects, the hunt for dark skies, the hunt for stable skies, camps, shows, remote observing, robotic observatories, outreach, education, you name it. Behind one single name lie a hundred various activities for all purses, mindsets and ages.  


Whenever you next get a chance, find yourself a club open-day, or grab a used telescope online (see recommendations below) and take it to a balcony, rooftop and have fun. Astronomy comes with one simple warning that knows no exceptions : never look at the sun through any instrument not explicitly designed for that use. Immediate blindness would follow.  


Live exciting, live happy ;)
Pascal

Milky Way in Provence - Imaging Adventures

The Milky Way from a suburban window

Travel, Adventures & Exploring

10 Reasons to give astronomy a try !


  1. Adventure from home.
    A huge telescope on a mountain top is best for some types of imaging. But the thrill of the hunt is often easily experienced at home. Many objects are bright enough to be found with binoculars or a small telescope through a town window.
  2. The great outdoors.
    Large, faint objects can only be located and enjoyed from the darkest sites. If you're going to enjoy deep skies, you'll often have to get out into nature. You'll need to train your vision to adapt to the dark and generally get more in tune with your environment. 
  3. Sheer beauty.
    Even if you never get seriously into astronomy, at least be sure to get someone to show you the moon through a good telescope. The view will be unlike anything else you've seen before. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Colourful double stars, star clusters, comets and larger galaxies provide equally mezmerising sights accessible to modest equipment.
  4. The creativity of imaging.
    Photographs and timelapses don't have to be purely documentary. Some photographers get very creative and produce beautiful work as well.
  5. The technicality of imaging.
    Compared to ordinary photography, advanced astrophotography requires a very steep learning curve to deal with noise suppression, very long acquisition times (for deep sky) or very short acquisition times (for high resolution), creation of colour from individual monochrome frames using colour filters, the stacking, processing and sharpening of images. To some people, the technicality is part of the thrill. More importantly, this imaging chain is what allows serious practitioners to create their own signature style.
  6. The variety of projects. and objects to observe
    With the aforementioned security caveat, the Sun is a fascinating object in its own right (requiring very specialized equipment). The moon is achingly beautiful to observe and image. The planets can fuel your casual observing for a lifetime. Messier Marathons require you to observe a large number of deep sky objects in a single night, requiring skill, strategy and luck. Double and variable stars, as well as asteroids offer endless opportunities. And then, of course, there are all the man-made objects in the sky offering incredible targets for talented amateurs (3D and incredible).
  7. Citizen science
    Because most research funding goes to large-scale projects, serious amateurs can contribute valuable observations in neglected fields using affordable equipment and rigorous protocols. Pro-am collaborations are not rare and many comet discoveries in the past have been made by amateurs. Those of us who move on to make astronomy their full-time job enjoy healthy salaries and very high satisfaction (a rare thing indeed today!)
  8. Collaborative work
    Professional astronomers have access to fancy mountain-top observatories costing billions of euros, but collaborating amateurs can produce results that Hollywood and austere pros can only dream about. This extraordinary time lapse "flyby" of Jupiter may not further our understanding of the universe, but it represents a triumph of human collaboration. Star parties are another expression of this wonderful community spirit.
  9. Telescopes are just cool
    Photo and cine lenses come in two flavours, zooms and primes, albeit with a variety of designs yielding different renderings. Compared to this, telescopes come in so many types and specializations that it will make your head spin. And any well crafted optical instrument is just a joy to own and use.
  10. Do it yourself
    The advent of affordable computerised telescopes has relegated home-made projects to a specialized sub-segment. But building your own instrument used to be big (I build my first 9 inch Newtonian at age 13, and a 24 inch monster 30 years later) and, to this day, most of the very best instruments on the planet are the work of cottage-industry craftsmen or home projects. Talk about pride of ownership.

Bonus track : the history and people involved!


How about we stop being told where to travel and what to enjoy by diversity-busting algorithms and start rediscovering the art of travelling?

Ten Celestial Events to Look Forward to in 2021

by Nora McGreevy (Smithsonian Magazine)

Two have taken place already. But it's not too late to prepare for these other eight (mostly) naked-eye spectacular events.


“To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”
Stephen Hawking


Photo Video & Storytelling

Image making in Astronomy focuses primarily on capturing faint objects, managing contrast and compensating for the blurring effects of our agitated atmosphere. 


Long exposures (sometimes spanning multiple nights), fast instruments (f/ratio) and sensitive cameras take care of the first objective. Filters focusing on one specific band of light emitted by the objects but not present in terrestrial light-pollution often come to the rescue of the second. And the algorithmic combination of multiple short exposures, as well as the occasional adaptive optics, are designed to tackle the third.


We'll get back to those techniques in future issues, but the storytelling part is not often discussed in amateur circles. Which is a shame, because my memories of observations stories in magazines are vivid, decades after reading them. I think there is a lot to explore here :)

No Telescope - The 15 Best Astrophotography Targets
by Antoine & Dalia Grelin (Galactic Hunter)

15 portraits of distant objects made only using a DSLR and standard photo lens. While the provided photographs made using more advanced gear are even better, the "basic" one should get your motivation going :) !

Jupiter is a Feast for the Eyes In New Time-Lapse Animation (Video)

by Hanneke Weitering (Space.com)

91 advanced amateurs, 102 days, and over 1000 individual photographs combined into a timelapse video that even Hollywood would envy. Collaborative astronomy at its very best. (thumbnail from the video)

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People, Ideas & Gear

How do you choose an instrument ?


Start with your naked eyes, and quickly move on to binoculars. Bins will bring you closer to birds and wildlife, the stars and remote mountain ranges. I cannot think of a better gift for a child :)


By the time you've outgrown the binoculars, you'll have a pretty good idea of what your greatest celestial interests are. Even the best bins will fall short for planetary observing or any sort of imaging. Telescopes then come in many shapes and sizes depending on their intended use. Their diameter determines how faint an object can be observed. Larger telescopes go deeper but cost far more, are much more difficult to make high-quality and very cumbersome. Definitely not recommended for first-time buyers.


Maximum magnification should not be viewed as an important consideration. Realistically a quality instrument will function properly up to a magnification of twice its diameter expressed in millimeters (hence, up to 200x for a 100mm telescope, ie 4 inches). In most locations and conditions, the atmosphere will limit magnification to 300x anyway. Your magnification is calculated as the instrument's focal length divided by the eyepiece's. Here are the best telescopes for beginners, selected by an expert (the brands do not matter here, the types of telescopes are what you should take away from the video).


For photographic purposes, quite a few objects can be tackled with photo lenses. Mating a photo camera to a telescope is the next stage. And dedicated, cooled, astrophotography cameras constitute the sky-is-the limit final stage of evolution. 

Optics are only one variable in the equation. The mount plays an important role in letting you point your optical tube at an object and track it through the sky. Sturdy mounts for long exposures come in computerized heavy metal forms that make them unsuitable for casual observing. Two types of mounts are available : Alt-Az, which swivel around a vertical and a horizontal axis. And equatorial mounts, in which one axis is parallel to the  Earth's. The first requires little setting up, but both axes must be engaged to track an object through the sky, and the field rotates in the eyepiece over time. The latter only requires one exis to be engaged for tracking and eliminates field rotation, but requires very accurate setup.


Goto mounts use GPS receivers to know where the telescope is located and ask you to point manually to a few bright starts to calibrate their axes. After this initial setup, they are able to take you automatically from one object to another and prove very useful to all those who want to spend more time observing or photographing than manually hopping from star to star to locate them.


If you've gotten this far, please leave a comment. Tell me what you think, what you agree with and what you don't. What you'd like to see covered in future issues. Let's get talking!

A selection of great binoculars at all price points, various sizes and for various uses, along with a guide for selecting the best pair for your specific use. For birding, astronomy and outdoors.

Top 3 Beginner's Telescopes!
by Ed Ting (YouTube)

One of the very best experts in the field selects and presents his top three pics for beginning in astronomy. Start here!

How the ubiquitous technology behind self-driving cars, rescue mission, modern mapping and outdoors safety came to life through the efforts of one unknown lady.

What Motivates Amateur Astronomers?
by Gada, A., Stern, A. H., & Williams, T. R.
(Amateur - Professional Partnerships in Astronomy, ASP Conference Proceedings)

Very interesting research about psychological motivations such as the thrill of discovery, learning, community, ego-boosting work with pro, exciting gear ...

Images (c) JJ Jordan, Jaanus Jagomagi, Alec Favale, Parish Freeman, Werner van Greuning.

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