Sunday, May 24, 2015

Astronomy @ Sea

I've been an avid amateur astronomer since I was ten years old.  Over all the years since then the love of the skies has been a constant; considering how many years I have been wrapped up in the pursuit of galaxies and nebulae, asteroids and comets, and all of the wonders I have witnessed, I think it would be fair to say that I've spent my life looking up.


At home I have an assortment of telescopes (some people collect Beanie Babies—I collect precision optics) and on every clear night I try to get out under the stars, moon or planets, often gathering with other amateurs at star parties or setting-up a 'scope in a public place for the purpose of sharing the skies with strangers (this is called Sidewalk Astronomy).


In addition to these pursuits I have the privilege of volunteering at the Virginia Living Museum (VLM) in Newport News, where I work in the observatory, talking to guests and attempting to blow their noodles with (filtered) telescopic views of the sun in daytime and planets during nighttime observing sessions.


But I also have a job—one that takes me far from my Virginia home and the previously mentioned collection of instruments, from the VLM and my favorite stargazing haunts, from my friends and fellow amateur astronomers.


I'm a merchant mariner by trade, making my living on the sea.  Out here, with no streetlights or outdoor advertising (often for thousands of miles in any direction) the nights are darker than anywhere in the U.S. except hard-to-reach sites far from the cities.  The stars shine here with almost painful intensity, bright beacons being nearly lost in the blaze of the tens of thousands of background "dim" stars revealed by such completely dark skies.


Most amateur astronomers on land pine for skies such as mine, and well I know my good fortune, never passing-up the opportunity to stand on deck and admire the heavens thus revealed. I would not trade this view of the cosmos... but there is a price to be paid.


Here on the deep waters, where such beautiful vistas are to be seen, a telescope is a worse-than-useless extravagance, mere dead-weight to be carried about.  For even a great ship such as John Lenthall moves slightly to the rhythm of swell and wave, pitching and rolling if only so slightly; also heeling to the winds, the combined motion making even a low-magnification telescope useless aboard ship!


Ah, irony!  To view starry nights unsullied by the glow of city or town, security lighting or fast-food eatery, but to be denied the best possible means of enjoying such skies and the multitude of celestial objects visible under even minimal magnification.  Back home, I have telescopes (too many, perhaps) to use under the East Coast skyglow, but under these all-but-perfect skies all of them are useless.


This really doesn't bother me.  Seriously.


You see, I've lived this dual astronomical lifestyle for over thirty years, and it's just how I operate.  When at home or based ashore (which does happen, though rarely) I won't be caught without telescope, mounting, tripod, eyepieces, equipment cases, and a small library of star atlases (think: "Rand McNally" for the Milky Way) and observing guides for stars, moons, and galaxies, but space is limited aboard ship and so I carry a pair of stabilized binoculars, my traveling observing journal, and a laptop full of resources.  Thus, whichever environment I am stargazing in, I am well-equipped.


My observing mindset changes as well as my baggage.  Ashore I endeavor to add to "my" collection of observed galaxies and planetary nebulae, as well as spending quite a bit of time gazing at Jupiter and Saturn, whereas aboard ship I concentrate on open and globular star clusters in addition to binocular-bright double stars but hardly ever look at the planets, which binoculars simply won't do justice to.


(An example is Saturn, which only yesterday reached opposition—the point where the planet is opposite the sun in the sky and therefore closest to earth.  Were I at home I'd be spending nearly every night gazing at Saturn's ring system through my best refractor telescope, watching its brighter moons moving in their orbits as hours go by, but since I'm aboard ship I simply note the "Lord of the Rings" as it rises at sunset and then move on to examine the lunar crater Petavius)


Underway, I spend quite a bit of time moon-gazing, something I rarely do ashore, and of course whenever I receive notice of a bright comet or nova I can pursue them with binoculars.


So I live a kind of bipolar life, astronomically-speaking, appreciating the benefits of both telescopic and binocular stargazing in two very different environs, and accepting the limitations of each as well.


As noted above, this works for me.


Someday I will retire from the sea.  I'll go ashore permanently; to the world of light-polluted skies and the neighbors' dogs, and I'll have to resign myself to never rarely the skies again the way I do out here.  Not seeing the Milky Way curdle it's way 'cross the sky, seeing the glows of Vega and Altair reflected from the water's surface.


But then…I'll have more vacation time for trips to remote areas of Arizona and Texas.  With telescopes, of course!








Today's Photo: In Summer of 2011 I was sailing in USNS Arctic off the coast of Somalia.  On the night of 15-16 June of that year there was a beautiful total lunar eclipse visible from that part of the world, and I took advantage of fairly calm seas and my old digital camera, shooting hand-held from a lawn chair set up on the flight deck.  I also made sure that all hands knew about the event by posting notices on the ship's bulletin boards, and I was quite pleased that most of the crew showed up to watch the eclipse.  Bonus!


In total I took over three hundred photos over a two and a half hour period, later sorting out the forty or so that came out well and Photo-Shopping them into this montage.  This was my first ship-board attempt at astrophotography and I was quite pleased with the result. I hope you will enjoy it as well.


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