My observing and writing regimens were interrupted recently, because I was cast in a play at a nearby community theater. My wife, Lynn, was directing the old Agatha Christie classic, "Ten Little Indians." While casting, Lynn ran short of - how should I put this - mature gentlemen. Hence, yours truly was brought out of military retirement to play the part of the elderly, doddering General Mackenzie. Not much of a stretch, eh wot? It's been 24 years since I performed in a stage play, and I had forgotten how totally consuming the process was. Everything else had to be set-aside for the duration, including the telescopes. Ah, but that rush of excitement you feel when performing before a full house makes it all worthwhile. It gets the juices flowing.
Anyhow, I was back in business for the Christmas eclipse. I went so far as to order 50 pairs of eclipse glasses and handed them out to family, friends, neighbors, and the cat. Also, I cranked out a poop sheet to go along with the glasses, which gave the eclipse particulars as well as safety information. December 25 was cold and windy, but the sky was clear as a bell. Here on National Lane I set up the Astroscan with its projection screen and used a 10mm eyepiece. The 44X image filled the screen and made a lovely picture. The neat thing about projection viewing is that a crowd can watch the event simultaneously. It beats having a big line of people queued up behind the scope for a quick peek. Everything went according to schedule, and the oohs & aahs were greatly appreciated. Just after mid-eclipse, we put the telescope in the car and went to Newport News for dinner with our son's in-laws, cousins, aunts, etc., etc. We set up the telescope again, and 14 more of us watched the moon's shadow recede and finally disappear. There were some nice sunspot groupings, which added extra spice to the show. Everyone enjoyed the event—especially me.
I did get in some satisfying deep sky observing in January. Don't you just love it? The haze is gone and transparent skies are back. Orion is up in the early evening hours, as are Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter. Dress for the cold, and let the good times roll. I joined a few of my Skywatcher colleagues at a nearby park. They had quite an array of new telescopes. There was a cute little five-inch Nexstar scope -- the one with the keypad recessed in a fancy, curved, single armed support. Another fellow had an 8-inch Meade LX200, and the Gee Whiz instrument of the night was an awesome 12-inch LX200. The latter had more bells and whistles than I'd ever seen before. It took a large battery pack on a handcart to power the telescope. It takes a fair amount of time to get it all together. In contrast, I used my old 13-inch Dobsonian, which takes every bit of 2 minutes and 32 seconds to set up get and running. Together we rambled through the sky and marveled at all those wondrous wintertime delights from the open clusters in Auriga and Gemini to the Andromeda galaxy and its companions. The Big Dipper was standing on its handle, so M-81/82 were easy to find. Even though they were low in the sky they were a glorious sight. While up north, I enjoyed wandering through the clusters in Cassiopeia and finished with a long look at the double cluster. Magnificent. Periodically, I returned to the planets. Venus looked like a super bright half moon. The air was steady, so Saturn and Jupiter were a pleasure to watch. The open rings of the former, along with the lovely color, make it a true delight for the senses. The Cassini Division was very clear. Jupiter is still the king, and it was so bright that I stopped the telescope aperture down to five inches. It helped increase the contrast and made the belts more distinct.
Partway through the evening things got quiet around the 12-inch. Something had gone awry with the electrics, and the operator was just about out of business. He did not know the sky. He didn't know how to get to M-31, or anything else, except the planets. It pointed out how modern electronic gadgetry can be a two edged sword. When all you need to do is punch the data into the keypad, and the telescope does the rest, there's not much incentive to spending months and years learning the sky. As long as everything is working you can dazzle the crowd. However, if a quirky diode goes belly up, you might as well pack your gear and go home. I shall be eternally grateful that I became interested in our hobby during simpler times and had wonderfully patient, star hopping mentors in NOVAC to help me learn. I'm convinced that starting out with a planisphere, a dog, and the naked eye is the only way to go. Here's how it works: You study the planisphere during the commercials on the 11pm news. Then you take the dog for a walk before going to bed. Look up at the sky and find the constellations you studied on the planisphere. It won't be too long before you have a pretty good handle on where things are and when they are visible. The next step calls for binoculars and a simple sky chart, like Edmund's Mag 6 Sky Atlas. Only after you figure out how to work your way through the charts are you ready for a telescope. Electronic gee-gaws or not, you'll always know What's Up.