Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Nebraska Star Party: Beginner's Field School

One hallmark of the Nebraska Star Party is Beginner's Field School. According to our leaders, the NSP is one of the few star parties in the country that offer programming for people new to astronomy.  

My main takeaway from a 38-page single spaced guide book and 3 days of astronomy school? The sky is challenging to understand, and the tools we use to study it are complicated to master. And the volunteer teachers were absolutely dedicated to helping each of us develop a love for astronomy and to avoid costly mistakes as they placed their hands over their hearts and choked up while recalling the first time they saw Saturn through a telescope as a kid. And patiently explained focal length formulas.

Here is the Guido Sarducci version of beginner's field school, ala Lynne Herr: Don't buy a telescope.  If you are desperate to have some sort of equipment to study the sky, buy a pair of good binoculars.  But it would be best to just spend time looking at the sky with HA Rey's constellation manual (the one for 4th graders seems to be most accessible to me) or a planisphere to get acquainted with the major constellations. Once you have that down, visit your local astronomy club, look through their telescopes, spend time talking with them, and see if this hobby is for you.   

And remember Dave Knisley's Big 3 truisms, as formatted from our workbook on page 19: "A GOOD QUALITY SCOPE WILL BEAT A BAD QUALITY SCOPE", "APERATURE WINS", AND "SEEING ALWAYS GETS YOU IN THE END."

But here are a few other things I learned for those of you compelled to learn more, or to have equipment when you begin a new hobby.

Dave Hamilton (AKA Lincoln Dave)
teaches us about his reflector scope.     
There are 3 main types of telescopes.  

Dave and John discuss differences between
refractor and reflector telescopes.
Reflectors were the most common telescope I saw at NSP. They are large tubes - the larger the diameter the better - that collect light, bounce it offer a curved mirror in the back of the tube, and reflect it up through an eye piece that magnifies the image. Because the larger tubes can focus faint light from distant objects, they allow you to view objects in the sky such as spiral galaxies, nebula and distant star clusters. My $50 telescope I bought from Craig's List is a reflector.  Despite lots of help from Lincoln Dave and Beatrice Dave, I have yet to see anything of interest through it.  Although Beatrice Dave assures me that I will be able to see all kinds of valuable objects if I just upgrade to a $30 double ring focuser.  Something tells me he was just being nice.  Really, really nice.

Refractors focus light by bending it through a special two-element glass lens. From what I gathered, refractors are best if you prefer looking at fine detail of planets and the moon vs distant objects.  And to get a good one, you'll need to spend a lot of money. Refractors look like half of a pair of binoculars with a longer tube, and are probably what comes to mind when you think of "telescope." 

Michael wows us with his automated cadiotrophic scope.
And the roll-off-the-tip-of-your tongue Catadioptric (also known as the "Schmidt-Cassegrain" or "Maksutov") which is basically a hybrid of the reflector and the refractor, and when combined with a bunch of expensive computer components they can basically do all of the work for you in terms of finding objects in the sky, tracking them as they move across the sky, etc. Traditional astronomers appreciate what they do, but think you need to learn the sky on your own before you use one. Basically, it's like learning to read a map or jumping straight to a GPS.  If money isn't an issue for you, and you just want to see things in the sky that are on your list, buy this one.

Have I lost you yet?  This is where I started wondering if anyone would notice a 6-foot-tall woman in the upcoming children's program on Wednesday.  Stay with me.

Once you choose which type of telescope to purchase, you have to also purchase different eye pieces to use with it.  There is a lot of math involved in making these decisions, and you should probably plan to spend a lot of money. Generally, you have a few different eye pieces you would use when viewing an object through your scope. Each one magnifying the image a bit more, and thus viewing a smaller piece of the sky/object than the one before. Two full pages of our handout detailed various types of common eye pieces, but Plossls seemed to be the one mentioned most often.

The main lesson I got from this was knowing that one of the door prizes awarded after dinner that night, and described as "82 degree, Plossl, nitrogen purged" was an eye piece. There was also talk of Altazimuth and Equatorial mounts, theoretical differences between optical systems and focal length formulas but there were no door prizes that mentioned those terms so they must not be too important.

Binoculars are also an excellent tool to learn more about the night sky.  But it's not exactly easy to choose the right pair of those either. "Good roof prism binoculars are more expensive than porro prism binoculars, and not quite as light efficient as the porros, so porro prisms tend to be the ones most used in astronomical binoculars." Beginner's Field School booklet, page 11.  Hmmm.  Roof prisms.  Who knew? 

If you buy binoculars for star gazing, you definitely want the BK-4 glass over the BK-7, but we all know that, right?  

This is where I may have started looking out the window in the classroom and having flashbacks to high school physics.

We also reviewed Star Party Etiquette.  What's the number one rule?  You guessed it:  NO WHITE LIGHT AFTER DARK.  "But guys, remember.  If there is a medical emergency, you can use your headlights.  We understand. Do what you need to do." 

Lincoln Dave helped me set up my cheap-o telescope
and never made fun of it despite beautiful reflector set up
next to it.  
And, the one rule that makes me want to unite introverts everywhere around studying the night sky:  "Rule #4: Don't Tread on Me. Give other observers some space.  Don't assume that because this is a star party, the astronomer next to you really wants company tonight." 

While I found everyone at NSP to be extremely kind, helpful and welcoming throughout my entire experience there, Rule #4 excused my isolated camping spot, my lakeside lawn chair studio lounge and my waiting for others to join me at a dinner picnic table vs. sitting down with an already established group. And when we all circled our lawn chairs on the "Lincoln Hill" or the "Omaha Hill" or the "Indiana/Illinois Hill" to wait out cloudy skies, no one felt compelled to fill every space with conversation.  And all was right with the world.

Which is probably why the students at Beginner's Field School were the most attentive, inquisitive, well mannered group of students I have been around in a long time.  And the teachers, the most passionate. And I was honored to be among them.

Up next:  The People

1 comment:

  1. I love that you did this Lynne. Encourages me to get my pen out and JUST DO IT, write that is.!