Tuesday, February 7, 2012


02 May 2011

Ahoy, Shipmates!
Early this morning I explored intergalactic space from Arctic's bridge-wing, pausing to admire a baker's dozen of the Milky Way's not-so-nearby neighbors as I swept across the galaxy-rich reaches of Ursa Major and Canes Venatici.  The "Whirlpool Galaxy", M51, was a figure-eight of ancient starlight, and M81 & M82 a tight pair of tiny spirals.  In my travels I also visited the beautiful double star v (nu) Draconis, a pair of identical white pinpoints in the head of the Dragon, and only a few hours before I had been gazing at the recurrent nova T Pyxitis, which is undergoing one of it's periodic explosive outbursts.

How was I studying these distant stars and galaxies from the deck of a ship cruising the Persian Gulf?  If I were in my backyard in upstate New York I would have been viewing M51 and v Draconis (but probably NOT T Pyx--it lies too close to the southern horizon from Schenectady's latitude) through my 8-inch telescope, but telescopes of any reasonable capability are quite impractical aboard ship due to the motion of the vessel ("rock & roll") and of course there is the storage requirement--it's a challenge finding space for clothes and foul-weather gear in my little "cube", let alone a decent telescope!

No, my seagoing "observatory" is equipped with a modest selection of equipment; a pair of binoculars, compact star atlas, observing notebook and red flashlight.  With these simple tools I have done the majority of my stargazing for many years, usually from the upper works of a naval ship, and often in less-than-perfect conditions.  Not a very impressive inventory, perhaps, but with it I have traveled the world's oceans for three decades and seen too many wonders to even attempt to catalogue here. 

My own astronomical odyssey began in March of 1970, when my father and I watched a total solar eclipse from our front yard in Virginia.  I remember my fascination and surprise--it was possible to actually see and experience the motions of worlds!--and I recall that from that day I was "hooked" on the sky. A long journey of discovery had begun, a journey which continues--and continues to captivate me--to this day.

I have a theory--supported by hundreds of entries in my observing logbooks since I first began stargazing--that EVERYONE is an amateur astronomer.  That the human animal has a hard-wired fascination with the world and Universe around us, and all it takes to bring this curiosity to the fore is to place a telescope in front of the person in question and offer him/her a view of the moon, sunspots or the planet Saturn.
Much of my land-bound time is spent doing just this--many amateur astronomers engage in what we call "sidewalk astronomy", where a telescope (or several) is set up in a public location and trained upon the moon or a planet, and then passersby are asked if they would like a peek. The hardest part of sidewalk astronomy, once people start gathering, is crowd-control, and fielding the many questions about telescopes, black holes and constellations!

I suppose what I do here aboard Arctic could be called "Flightdeck Astronomy"; when interesting apparitions such as comets or planetary conjunctions are pending I put up notices on the ship's bulletin boards, inviting interested crew-members to join me on-deck for an hour or two on the date in question.  The turnout is usually pretty good--for one meteor shower last year I had fifteen "guests" for most of the wee morning hours, and a transit of Mercury across the Sun's disk back in 2006 brought out nearly half the crew for a (properly filtered) look through my "coffee-can" scope!

I'm at it again this week; I'll be pinning-up a notice about the "Eta Aquarid" meteor shower, which will 'peak' in the pre-dawn hours Friday, and should be a good show at our latitude.  Then there will be a total lunar eclipse in mid-June; if our schedule holds Arctic will be at "ground zero" for that one!

So here's the pitch; why not take a look at the sky tonight, wherever you are?  Check out the meteor shower this week.  If it's cloudy then go out on the next clear evening and admire the view, then take the family out to moon-gaze next week as Luna approaches first-quarter and then full.  Use the attached star map (my friends in the southern hemisphere can download an appropriate map from skymaps.com) to get familiar with the constellations and events for May, and start teaching the kids to recognize the starry figures in the sky. You don't need a telescope to start, or even a pair of binoculars--but you might find yourself needing one soon!

Most importantly, enjoy the show.  Trust me, you won't run out of stars!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Gulf of Oman

P.S.  Would you like to know more about astronomy or telescopes?  Drop me a line!

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