Sunday, July 26, 2015

Down To The River

A young couple enjoy the view of Saturn through the "120"
Last night I loaded up my favorite telescope and drove to the shore of the James River for a few hours' Sidewalk Astronomy.  Arrived at the Crab Shack* just a few minutes after sunset, noted that the restaurant and adjoining fishing pier were quite busy, and began to set up.  The plan for the evening was to alternate between Saturn and the Moon, inviting passersby to come over for a look-see.

As noted I had my preferred telescope for "sidewalking" along; it's a Celestron 120mm ED-APO refractor on an Orion Sirius mounting, which I've recently refitted with a GSO focuser.  Technical lingo aside, I like using this scope for public events because its superb tracking capabilities allow me to spend less effort adjusting this or that and more time talking to people and answering questions.  In addition--full disclosure here!--a big, beautiful refractor on a hulking mounting is extremely cool-looking, and attracts the attention of the "public" very nicely.

And getting people's attention, making them notice the skies above them, is the object of the exercise!

It normally takes me about fifteen minutes to set up tripod, mounting and telescope; long before I was ready to begin folks began to come by, asking what was "up"and whether there was some special event to be seen. When I answered that I'd be showing passersby the Moon and Saturn there was immediate interest. Just as twilight began to fade I completed preparations--and none too soon.  Immediately I had a family (on their way to a night's fishing on the pier) lined-up for the Moon.

Conditions were excellent; our natural satellite's image was rock-steady at low powers, and even at higher magnifications there was very little distortion to be seen (mostly when heavy trucks roared by on the nearby highway).  In addition to trying-out my new focuser (it performed splendidly) I was also testing a recently-purchased 6mm eyepiece which delivered a magnification of 150X--in the exceptionally calm air the views of both the Moon and Saturn were spectacular!

I kept busy; between 2030 and 2330 (when I began closing down) I was able to share the beautiful views with forty-five people coming and going from the pier and restaurant.  Many stayed a while to talk and ask questions, and one young man actually tried to give me five dollars after enjoying the sight of Saturn and Titan framed in the eyepiece! (I refused, of course--told him to use it to start saving for a telescope of his own!)

As I drove home I took a few minutes to reflect on this aspect of my favorite hobby.  Sidewalking is one of the more pleasurable things I know, for a number of reasons.  In addition to my ingrained need to show off, I draw a great deal of enjoyment from the "wow" moments, when an unsuspecting "guest" (often a child) first sees the amazing rings of Saturn (many think it must be a "picture" I am somehow displaying in there) or the Moon's highlands through the eyepiece.  There is the quick breath, the "ooohh" of surprise, and the excitement of seeing something totally new to the person in question!  I am reminded of my own reaction to "first light" so many years ago; through sharing the heavens with strangers I get to re-live those days of wonder.

Sounds like a "win-win" to me.

The Crab Shack, 8-Day-Old Moon, and Saturn (to left of Moon)
 * I've used the Crab Shack as a "sidewalking" site for several years now, with the permission of the owners. A terrific establishment, and I recommend them for fine seafood, a great view of the river from their dining room, and of course their support of Amateur Astronomy!

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