Clubs, Star Parties, Observing and Reality
Over at CloudyNights, one of two astronomy forums I enjoy visiting and participating, I asked a question that continues to gather responses. The question is "What are you? A Lone Wolf, Small, Group, Large Group, Dark Skies, LP?" Well the vast majority of those answers are the for most of us, we observe alone and I would say that for the most part, most amateurs observe alone and in their backyard. Next to that would come those that are observing alone and at a dark site. There is some that prefer the observing at a dark site with perhaps one or two others for safety. By far and I find this interesting, most did not like observing in large groups at LP sites. It also seems that those on CloudyNights that I would consider serious observers observe alone and at a dark site or the backyard.
What I find interesting about this is for me, is the fact that it shows something that I really believe is true. For most, they observe in the backyard and that experience is done alone. Why? Convenience is probably the most significant reason. It is easy to come home from work, eat, do your evening items, then set up, and when ready, begin to observe. When your done, you can take down and put away or close up the observatory if that is the avenue you go. If you have an emergency, your at home so it can be dwelt there, quickly and effectively. If that emergency isn't a health issue, but an equipment issue (not that it matters, a health issue can be dwelt with at home quickly) issue can be fixed or resolved quickly at home.
So observing from one's backyard usually alone is how I think by far the majority of amateurs observe on their own. There are plenty of other reasons why the vast majority of amateurs observe from their backyards, but in the end, this is where amateur astronomy is done by the vast majority of its members. For many in this group this means observing from some type of light pollution, most from suburbia level light pollution. A few are lucky and have rural skies in their backyards, but I believe that many amateurs, are like I was, who for a good four or five years limited my observing to my backyard. It is where I observed all the known Messier from. I also began to observe what I call the bright Herschel 400 objects from my backyard as well. I chased double stars, planetary nebula, bright NGC items. All I cared about in that time of my observing was getting out in the backyard and going to work and learning how to read an atlas and star hop. How I could record my observations, how I could enjoy my telescope, my eyepieces, improve them and observe.
From that point, the next group are those that observe at a dark site, which for most, requires driving some distance to that location, setting up, and observing through the night. Again, for many this is a solitary or lone wolf activity. Some prefer to be alone in the boonies or at their dark site locations, enjoying the sounds of nature, coyotes howling, crickets chirping, a slight breeze rustling the branches in trees. This is followed by becoming absorbed in your observing, working a list, or search the sky for objects and then observing and recording what they are and how they look and impact you. For some of this group, listening to a book on tape, or podcast or music when the silence of the night wears on them or they want connection to something more human than nature. There is no right or wrong to this, it is how it is done.
The next group also prefers to go to a dark site to observe, knowing the benefits to their observing and to their instruments when they are used under dark skies. Unlike the group in the previous paragraph though, most of these observers prefer to go in either a small group of say one other person or a few other person, or in a large group. The reality that at some point ill health could set in (think heart attack or stroke or if they have diabetes an issue with that) or a car could break down and require the help or assistance of another observer. Again, there are several reasons for observing with a friend or several friends, but this seems to be the next group after observing alone. Another group that would fit here is observing at a dark site with a group of friends. Reasons for this can include sharing views through different scopes and telescopes. The sharing of observing techniques and in sharing observing knowledge are other reasons. There are many other reasons for observing in a larger group, and they are all valid.
The last group, that seems to be small but has its place is outreach astronomy. Most amateurs that responded to my question pointed out that they do not consider outreach to be the same as observing. One member on CloudyNights, Jim, puts outreach into a "teaching" category, not as an observing activity. For some, outreach leads later in that evening to an observing session. So though many amateurs do outreach, that indeed is a "teaching" activity, not an observing activity.
Where am I? I have two modes. I observe at my favorite dark site. That is probably eighty to ninety percent of my observing. I have often observed in small groups, with one to three others and I am selfish to some point with this time. I usually have an observing list, and I like to work those objects in terms of finding and observing. I sketch so I also like to sketch some of these objects. So when I observe with others, I'll often spend a couple of hours observing, then take a break and visit and look at what they are observing at. I would say over the last year though, I have moved into the solo or lone wolf category when observing at a dark site about seventy percent of the time. Most of this is because of my schedule. I am committed on Tuesday nights and on Saturday's from 12:00pm until 7:00pm (volunteer activity I do each week and that I enjoy doing, a lot). So this limits a Friday night observing to a location called Pit n Pole which is about 45 minutes from my home, so I can get home that night, and get up mid morning to be ready for my volunteer activity.
With my wonderful job (literally, I love what I do), I can schedule a day off during the week of new moon for a Thursday or Friday, which allows me to observe Wednesday night or Thursday night. That often means others are working so I am observing as a lone wolf. I actually have grown to like this and find it rewarding on so many levels. I will admit, I like personally having another person at least, observing with me for safety and for company. However, I find I like my time in nature alone, as it renews me and my soul. I find that I am reminded of my place in nature, this world and in the universe in which we live. I like hearing the sounds of the night, though I find that once I get into my observing, I am on guarded status, listening to any sounds that are out of place. Sometimes I do play a podcast or to some music as I observe. Sometimes I get in the mood to hear some human noise so I play these softly (audiobooks work too!).
I do my own outreach in my city and mostly in my neighborhood. Again, I don't consider this outreach but teaching since I like to show others, especially young people (say age 12 and up) to use the equipment and telescope to find and observe objects.
I do observe in my backyard, to view Messier objects, double stars and objects I find interesting. Since the vast majority of amateurs fall into this class, and since I do not find in any of the astronomy magazines or online sources an on going backyard astronomers guide, I am going to share once to twice a month some objects to go and observe in the backyard, and how to find them. I am hoping this will encourage others, probably the vast majority to observe from their backyards, and give them an opportunity to have items to observe. Since my XT10 is loaned out, I will be using my 4 inch refractor until my XT10 comes back this month. Then I'll share with that as well.
I will still post my own observing sessions, my sketches and pics of those days. I am just going to supplement that with another direction to add and increase my own enjoyment from the hobby from my backyard. I will include Messier Objects, NGC Objects that are bright enough to see, double stars and some lunar targets. We need more of this I believe as the vast majority of amateurs are in this group, and need something to guide them as they are in the backyard. I am open to suggestions so if you have one, leave a comment. The new posts will be started with Backyard Observing: _________. The blank will have the area of focus which often will probably be a constellation. I am excited and hope some of you can be over time. More, I hope it keeps some in the hobby using their telescope and equipment.