There are two parts to this post. The how I get ready to go and observe and it is somewhat boring, but I share it so some can see what I do. The second part is more reflective, more personal. I will mark that in caps with PERSONAL and if you wish, you can go there and just read that section. I'm going to be upfront on this. This is a selfish post. Why? Because I want to share what it means to me to observe, and how I go about it. I'll include some details, probably too many, but I really want to touch on the human element, on my perspective on why observing is so incredibly wonderful.
So, the first thing I do, is to actually prepare for my observing night by ensuring that I have my printed charts from Sky Tools 3 printed out and ready to go. One of these days, I will prep one of my laptops to go into the field so it doesn't shed LP into the field and kill my night vision and the night vision of those observing around me. Until that day though (and it is coming, probably this winter as I have an extra laptop that will do this and has SkyTools 3 on it), I print off my charts from SkyTools 3 for the constellations that I am going to observe.
So for my next observing session this July, I continue to work on the Herschel 2500, and am in Cygnus, Aquila, Vulpecula, Delphinus and Serpens Cauda. I set aside time to pull up the constellations and the targets in SkyTools 3, minus any I have already observed from the Herschel 400 and 400 II, and then print off the charts for that night. You can see that here for Serpens.
Once that is done, I pick the nights, and yes, I usually pick several and I usually pick a couple of locations in case I can't hit a weekend or a day I am off, that will mean hitting one of my secondary dark sites that are closer to home and where I can get in and out in 3 to 4 hours and still hit work the next day. This time I have focused on Saturday, July 11, 2015 because initially the weather looked good for that day. My back up is Tuesday night, July 14th, 2015. So once the date is picked or dates, I now go to the National Weather Service website for Salt Lake City at this LINK. Here is what that site looks like:
On the left hand column, near the top is one called Forecast Discussion. This is a discussion by a NWS meteorologist who is discussing the short term weather and the items impacting it in my area. You can see that page here (see, I told you, lots of detail and I am not to the part that is what I really want to write on yet).
From here I can gather a basic picture of what weather conditions are, and what they are predicted to be in my area based on weather patterns and systems that are impacting the region. Next, I go back to the original page and go to the Local Area and then to Utah Zone Forecasts and click on that. This brings up a 7 day forecast for specific areas in Utah:
This provides me a more specific forecast for where I am going to go observing. It lets me know if the days I am looking at are good for me to go. In this case, the pattern has shifted, possibly and Saturday has gone from clear to partly cloudy. This is depending on what the High Pressure does related to allow monsoon moisture back up from the south. Arizona gets this worse than Utah does in July and August, but northern Utah is often impacted by the monsoon moisture as it wraps up from Mexico as a high pressure draws the moisture up from Mexico on its western side.
There is another tab I use, and that is the Activity Planner tab. Here is what that looks like after I have clicked on it, entered the latitude and longitude of the sites I want to use.
I am now ready to hit enter or search under the latitude and longitude to get my graphs and then I can run my mouse around each of the parameters I have set to see the percentage of cloud cover predicted for that day and time, chance of precipitation, forecast humidity etc. Here is that image:
I did this for one of my sites, and yes, Saturday is not looking good. Tuesday is looking good from all forecasts and I will have to see if this holds up.
Finally, I check two of the amateur astronomers most used resources, ClearSkyClock and SkippySky Astronomy. Here is Skippy Sky Astronomy's forecast for 12:00a.m. on Saturday, July 11th, 2015.
Now according to the NWS and Skippy Sky (and Skippy Sky I have to say is VERY accurate for me) Saturday is not looking good. I am still planning on going, but my expectation is not high so I don't have to worry about disappointment IF it falls through. I have a backup for Tuesday. That is what works for my schedule and so I have to live with it.
So I am going to touch on something that each observer has to determine for themselves. When to go and when not to? I will repeat the above Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon, early. I will also look at NOAA satellite images for the area, state and region to determine what is going. I will openly admit that I got picky for a period of time. If the sky wasn't perfect, I wasn't go to pack up and go. Now I observe in my secondary site with an average SQM of 21.6 and my primary sites SQM average being 21.77 are 45 minutes and 1 hour and 20 minutes from my home. I'm spoiled. SO if the weather is 60/40 for clear in my book, I will load up and go and get to my dark site. Then I wait. Often the weather clears, I set up and boom, I'm observing. Even if it remains cloudy and conditions do not justify a set up of the telescope and equipment, I still have a wonderful evening enjoying twilight, talking to anyone who has joined me, or just enjoying being out in nature by myself.
That is what I do to GET ready to observe. I usually decide if I am taking the 14" or the 17.5" out, if I am going to need my 4" refractor for wide field, and then load up my equipment. That is it for a one night trip. Now to the heart of what I want to write about.
Here is where I get personal, reflective and open up a little. The most important thing though, besides making sure I have findercharts in a binder and all of my equipment, is to mentally get ready to observe. Observing for me is almost a spiritual experience. As I load up, as I change into my observing clothes (depending on the season) and then as I go through my checklist (yes, I have one), I then get in the car, close the garage door with the remote, and I drive off. That is when I feel the excitement of going observing kick in. I get it to a lesser degree in the backyard still, but not like knowing I am going to a dark site to really take the time to observe and more importantly to break from the world that I live in everyday.
Now don't take me wrong, I love the world I live in everyday. I have a personal belief that any day in my ordinary world is a great day, a day to do my best for that day and to really enjoy the day and enjoy life. I have far less days ahead of me then I have behind me so I need to enjoy each of them. Observing is the same way. The weather patterns for the last two years and my schedule have limited my observing and that has narrowed my life. I find myself less energized, less reflective, less creative in all aspects of my life when I don't observe versus when I observe. So as I drive out, the excitement kicks in, not a jump all around, but the excitement of knowing what a night out in the desert will bring to me.
The drive out is usually uneventful, thank goodness. I usually am listening to music until I get to a certain point. For me that point for those who read locally is a place called Five Mile Pass. There the music goes off, and if the temperature is bearable, not too hot or cold (summer or winter) the windows up front go down and begin to feel the wind from the car as I transition down a dirt and gravel road at 50 to 55mph. I feel my senses heighten as my eyes begin to scan the road and the observing places I am heading toward. I am looking for my secondary places to see if there is a reflection off a RV or truck and trailer signally a ATV is out there. If I am going to my primary spot, I look to the Sheeprock Mountains in the distance to see how sky conditions are down low.
Usually I spot some type of animal on my out, at least in the spring, summer and early fall. Pronghorn Antelope are the most common. I usually spend a few minutes thinking of the Pony Express Riders as I am driving next to the path they used in the 1800's as for a short period, they delivered posts from back east to California and posts along the way. I also think of the Native Americans who lived here and their ways of surviving in the desert and that has led me to studying up on them and their life before the settlers came, and life after. My mind, also reflects on my life of recent, how things are going, how my wife is doing, how my children who are adults are doing and how work is going and things I want to work on or improve on. Usually I begin to get ideas to situations I face that need a solution, its a natural brainstorm for me.
After I arrive, I get out first thing, and just look around. I take in the views from each of the cardinal points of a compass and my heart feels gratitude for the opportunity I have to be in nature, to connect with nature, and to now put aside the things of my day to day life, and enter a new world. I set up, and that brings a focus, a focus on how I want things to be placed for that night and then I go about doing that. I set up my dob first, usually a truss dob and then I collimate the scope. That entire process signals to me my observing session has begun. When the scope is set up and ready, I then unload the remaining items I have; a table, my observing chair, a chair for sitting at the table, my sketching materials for that night, my findercharts on the table, any books or atlases that I'll need. I always keep my eyepieces and filters and such items in the back of the Outback, with the lights turned off, and I open up my two primary eyepiece cases. I take out the three eyepieces I know I will be using that night the most, and then ready a couple I may want based on items I am going to see, and breaks to see some eye candy. Last I take out my cooler, setting up two or three bottles laying on the windshield on the front of the car so they cool as the night comes on. I place my cooler back by the rear of the car and remove my water for the night. Yep, plenty of water, even in winter because you have to stay hydrated.
Now IF I am lucky, have arrived early I am now in what I call magic time. It's twilight and the sun is setting or has just set and there is a transition. I can feel nature transition from day to night. Birds that have been silent come alive and sing, and fly. Coyotes begin to sound off and to go on the prowl. Crickets begin to chirp and I get to re-discover every time, that unlike what we may think, nature does not sleep at night but comes alive! I think then of this,recalling from memorization, one of my most favorite quotes from a man who was a teenage hero of mine, John Muir:
"Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail." John Muir, Our National Parks 1901, Pg. 56.
I can share that nature's peace does flow into me at this time as sunshine flows through trees,
that the breezes of the afternoon have blown in their own freshness, and then allowed my cares to float away like leaves as night falls. Indeed as age comes on, nature's sources never fail and can be enjoyed wherever one is. This night though, I enjoy them here as I watch the Belt of Venus, signal that the transition has begun to night, and that my inner transition has begun to peace, absorption, focus, oneness and humility.
After this, the work begins. I ensure that my alignment of the finderscope, Telrad and eyepiece are working in unison, realizing that for this night to be a success, these three tools must be united. That reminds me of something personal, deep and meaningful to me, and how in any endeavor we do as part of a team, we must be able to work together in unison for that team to function successfully. I pull out the first chart(s) for my first object and now I go to work. I spend the rest of the night finding objects, observing them, sketching them, and switching out eyepieces to get a better view or to find them. I am a hunter, not of animals but of the variety of wonders of our universe. I am humbled and do feel small as I compare these objects and their distances and time it has taken for light from those objects to reach me, yes ME, here on the third rock from our Star, the Sun. I think of the worlds that have come and gone in that time, the history of our planet and where it will go. I am amazed that as I look at a Supernova Remnant, that the iron in my blood, the oxygen I breathe, the carbon that makes up my body, all these elements came from a massive star that exploded billions of years ago. I then realize that though only a small part of all this, I am connected, I am of value, I matter because it has all come together. I have the opportunity to make a difference with my life, and then I realize, I wish that I could have two more life spans to accomplish all that I want.
At some point, as I am observing, I realize how quickly time has flown by, I have forgotten it during this period of oneness, and I know the time has come for me to wind it up. I finish usually with a couple more objects, then I withdraw the eyepiece from the focuser, and place all the eyepieces in my pockets back in their case. I close the cases signifying an end to this joyous time, and I begin the reverse process of packing up. The telescope is the first thing I break down, and I realize I am now preparing to re-enter my normal life again. I pack up everything in the car, or get ready for loading in the morning if I am staying the night, and then say good-bye to anyone there, and we depart. The stress of everyday life has left and as John Muir said, my cares have indeed fallen off me like leaves in the fall, I am refreshed, creative, innovative, ready to return to the world I live in day by day and to face the situations in life that need solutions. I usually have ideas for those solutions, and begin to drive back. Once past Five Mile Pass, the music returns (sometimes before) and I begin to notice how the light pollution is recalling me to my home. Home. Home where my wife is. Home where my son lives with us for now. Home where my daughter is near. I am focused and know that is where I want to be. I am ready for the challenges of work, the joys it brings and for the joys of being with people I love, people I treasure and people in general. See, I am a loner at heart on those observing trips. However, when I return refreshed, renewed and refocused, my gregarious self comes out and I want to be interacting with people.
So what do I do to get ready for an observing session is to mentally get ready. I yearn to be out under the stars, to smell nature, to feel nature, to feel the immensity of our world and of the universe we live in. I am renewed by this experience, I am refreshed by this experience, I am refocused by this experience. This is why on new moon I am selfish and will not do outreach. This is why when the weather doesn't allow me, you may find me when the moon is up enough to stop a trip to a dark site, I am in the backyard trying to capture a snip-it of this experience. It is why I LOVE this hobby; it is why I observe and do what I do. For each of us it is different because we are each different. However, I think anyone who has observed for some time knows of what I speak and can in someway connect with it. Here is hoping we have far more clear nights when we are open to enjoy them. Here is to hoping each of you finds joy in observing, in doing what you do in this hobby. Find the joy in observing. It's there if you look.