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The Sky's the Limit

My mom bought a telescope. This one, in case you're curious. It's way spiffier than any telescope anyone I know has had. She researched this a long time, and learned that if you don't spend at least $200 or $300 for it, you won't get a good telescope. (Kind of like guitars, actually.) So she went for it. She'll probably never have to buy another one, that's for sure. She was like a little kid, she was so excited waiting for it to arrive.

I visited Mom yesterday. It was cloudy, so we couldn't take the telescope out anywhere. Instead we installed Starry Night, the software that came with it. It was a "special edition" that came with the telescope; it's probably not as full-featured as the versions on the website. But oh my gawd, what great software it is. It brings up an image of the sky showing the stars, planets, and whatnot that you'd see if you had clear skies, and then you can turn it to any direction as if you were turning yourself. Point the cursor at something, and the software tells you what it is and what constellation it's in. Double-click on that something, and get a paragraph or three describing the celestial body in depth. Not only that, one can change the time from "now" to a specific time between sunset and sunrise, and the display changes to what you would see at that time. You can also search for a specific entity, and the display will show it if it's possible. (I entered "Alpha Centauri," and it said not only is it not visible now, it may never be visible from where I was. Bummer. But it did work for "Regula.")

The software was better than a video game. It was almost as good as going outside and seeing things in the telescope. The really cool thing is something we can't do yet: The software will operate the telescope, if you can connect the computer to the telescope via a regular network cable. So you can search for "Regula", and then the telescope can be told to point in the direction of Regula. We can't do it yet because Mom doesn't have a laptop. But I've been teasing her that it's only a matter of time until she has to acquire one.

The mind boggles. It's all just too cool. It brought back my science-geeky inner child, it did.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 23rd, 2006 07:02 pm (UTC)
That sounds pretty coo'. I guess telescopes is another thing we don't get as much over in the UK, like donuts (we get doughnuts!). The closest thing this side of the pond is Jodrell Bank, just a few miles from us. Damn, it's years since I've been there.

Though to get a really good guitar takes more along the lines of £500-£1000, for an electric. Over here, at least. (Mine cost £1350, second hand! *wince*)
Jan. 23rd, 2006 08:21 pm (UTC)
If there's a really good facility like Jodrell Bank nearby, maybe one doesn't need a portable telescope. :-)

The problem with guitars is, a "good-enough" one will get you started, but then you start to find out what is really good. Then you better start a savings account. I bet your guitar is really nice. My main guitar was about $500 second-hand, but that was almost twenty years ago (eep!). I still dream of the one I saw in the music store for $4500 too. Acoustic, too, no electronics. Sigh....

Now I'm going to think of stars and guitars all afternoon...
Jan. 23rd, 2006 07:11 pm (UTC)
Telescopes are great and these days you get an awful lot for your dollar.

Light pollution stinks and these days there is more and more of it. Sprawling development and general ignorance and apathy is destroying our view of the sky. I hope your Mom lives where she can enjoy her purchase, or can easily travel to somewhere that she can do so.
Jan. 23rd, 2006 08:13 pm (UTC)
Where mom lives has a relatively uncluttered view to the northeast, but it's not clear enough, I'm sure, especially now with no leaves on the trees. The surrounding apartment buildings have exterior floodlights, which my sister said were a real bother.

But there are filters that cut down on a lot of the light clutter. I don't know how good they are, but I'm sure it'll help some.

Still, we have to find a place away from the suburbs where the sky might be kind of dark, at least. Mom will be totally blown away if she goes far enough up north to where the sky is full of stars, like I saw at one small folk festival I went to a few years ago.

My neighborhood? Forget it. There's so much light pollution, we'd see the moon and that's about it. Maybe Sirius and Polaris too, but not much more.
Jan. 23rd, 2006 08:36 pm (UTC)
Not even Polaris, then. It's a weak second magnitude. Planets you can probably see through the glare, though. Saturn and Jupiter are easy to spot and view. Saturn's rings will be visible. If it is dark enough, you'll see the four brightest moons of Jupiter, the ones Galileo studied. It's amazing how clearly they belong to the planet, yet you can almost see them move. They shift their positions almost hourly.

The best dark skies in Michigan require you to go north, yes. All the way to the UP if you can, but anywhere away from Traverse City is good.
Jan. 23rd, 2006 10:55 pm (UTC)
The folk festival where I saw all the stars was in Johannesburg, Michigan, which is about forty miles east of Gaylord. It was mostly clear, and there was supposed to be a meteor shower so we were all looking for shooting stars, but there was also a pretty bright moon -- still, it was one of the most amazing star displays I remember. There's a song idea from that night that still needs to be written (the lyrics are in at least two pieces so far that need to be knitted together and then applied to a melody somehow).

The grounds at Blissfest, the festival I regularly go to near Harbor Springs, keeps lights on around the stage area, so it doesn't get quite as dark. But the stars are pretty good there too, especially toward the south from the camping area (since the stage is north of the camping area).
Jan. 24th, 2006 01:53 am (UTC)
The best stars I have ever seen in my life were in Michigan too, seen from the shores of Torch Lake (northeast of Traverse City) and given the burgeoning growth in that area they are probably obscured by the usual flare of light pollution now. It's amazing how people seem to have no grasp of what they are doing, or what they are depriving themselves and their children of.

My brother and his wife own a piece of land on the Old Mission Penninsula in Grand Traverse Bay. When they bought it, similar star displays could be seen there but I'm sure those two are lost now. They intended to build a retirement home there but I don't expect they ever will. The taxes will be so high by the time they get around to it that the most logical course will be to just sell the land.

The second best starry skies were undoubtedly those on Isle Royale, in the middle of Lake Superior and where no development or expansion of human light pollution is likely. Probably those would have been best, but we were hiking the length of the island in seven days, at midsummer, so by the time it got dark at night we were much too tired to stay up and look at the sky. I regret missing that. I count them as second best only because the heavy forest growth in the camp areas where we spent the nights would have obscured large parts of the sky anyway.
Jan. 23rd, 2006 10:07 pm (UTC)
Starry Night is great! One of the options allows you to elevate your point of view, and if you press the button and keep holding it, your point of view continues to elevate indefinitely! As you lift off Earth's surface the stars are still the same, but as you start to move light-years away you notice the stars shifting about, and eventually you end up thousands of megaparsecs into deep space with little pinpoint galaxies all around you. Marvelous fun!
Jan. 23rd, 2006 10:43 pm (UTC)
Oh wow, we didn't try that... that would be so cool! See, it's better than a video game, and a lot less blood too.
Jan. 24th, 2006 12:28 am (UTC)
How cool that you have such a science-nerdy mom! I hope she gets some clear skies sometime soon--this seems like a frustrating time of year to have a new scope. Been meaning to take my old 8" newtonian out the desert...
Jan. 24th, 2006 05:24 pm (UTC)
Mom tried to get us started on a few science-nerdy things. She and dad bought me a telescope one year and a microscope another year, and she took up birding, which was great fun for both of us. I flirted with being a scientist of some sort, but lost my nerve and ended up in liberal arts in college. (There's a long LJ entry that could come out of that sentence, someday.) But I still keep an interest in a lot of science-related stuff.

Frustrating, yes, being that Michigan is often cloudy, and when it's clear it's cold. It was clear early last night; I should call Mom to see if she went out.
Jan. 24th, 2006 01:58 am (UTC)
Yes, I meant to remark that your mother must be quite unusual, too. A quality telescope would be an unusual purchase even for a male that age in our culture. I bow to your mom's curiosity and interest and hope she gets a lot of enjoyment from it.
Jan. 24th, 2006 05:27 pm (UTC)
I'll let her know she has inspired the respect of my friends. :) Seriously, she's cool. A lot cooler now than, say, when I was 17....funny how that is, eh?
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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