Proper observing

The place you choose for your observations contributes significantly to the joy and success of your stargazing. Of course, the perfect observing site should be as dark as possible – so it should be as far away from the lights of neighboring cities or busy roads. The eye needs about 20 minutes to reasonably adjust to the darkness, and only after about an hour the complete dark adaptation is achieved. The lights of a passing car are enough to destroy your dark adaptation. Also, you should not observe in the middle of dirt roads, because some drivers like to use these roads to avoid police controls after an evening at the bar/pub.

Most of all, the ideal observation point should be close to your home – if you have a long journey to accomplish before you reach the perfect place, you won‘t go there too often. In this case, the backyard is much better because you will use it.

You should use a tripod for astronomical observations whenever possible, since it is almost impossible to keep a pair of binoculars steady for a long time. Binoculars with more than ten times magnification usually are impossible to use without a tripod. However, you can also hold larger binoculars some time surprisingly steady, if you do not hold them as usual in the middle, but grab them instead just behind the front lens and let the eyecups rest below your eyes. If you support the elbow in addition on a pillar or the roof of a car, shorter observations with high magnification are possible even without a tripod.

To find an object, you must first of all get an overview of the sky – where is your target and what do see in the binoculars? The usual way to find an object is star hopping. You start at a distinctive, bright star or star pattern that you can easily find, and move step by step over fainter stars toward your target.

Inconspicuous, faint objects will not immediately jump into your eye. There are two tricks that may help. A slight wobbling with the binoculars can help because our eye is optimized for the observation of moving things. If a weak spot dances through the field of view, sometimes you can perceive it better. Normally, however, you should hold the binoculars as steady as possible.

A proven method is averted vision. The trick here is to look past the target. In the center of the eye are sensory cells which are responsible for color vision, but they respond only to higher light intensities. At the edge of the retina are sensory cells that can distinguish only light and dark, but they are responsive even to weaker light. With averted vision you use this peripheral area of the retina and may also perceive darker objects.

If an object is found, you can take a closer look at it – which details are visible? Is there only a weak, undefined light spot or are there any structures? Are individual stars available to recognize, and do they form patterns? It takes time to get used to paying attention to such details. Sometimes you will notice them only after comparing them with other, similar objects. Therefore, it is worthwhile to use a small observation book to record which objects you have observed, what they looked like and under which visibility conditions you saw them. A small notebook is sufficient in determining how your own observing abilities have improved over the years.

In order not to lose the fun of stargazing, it is also useful to set yourself a goal. Whether you want to view as many globular clusters or distant objects as possible, whether you prefer to hunt small planets or variable stars or whether you want to exhaust the limit size of your device, or just want to get an overview of our cosmos – an achievable goal is an important motivation.

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