7 Ways to Beat the Observing Blues

Too tired to bring the scope out? Stuck looking at the same dozen deep sky objects? Here are a few ways to get that observing fire back in your belly.

Hands in your pockets under the stars?

Don't know what to look at in the sky tonight? Feeling observing fatigue? Here are a few sure-fired ways to get fired up again.
Bob King

Weather got you down? Don't feel like bringing the telescope out? I don't care how much you love the night sky, we all get a case of observing fatigue now and again. The night might be perfect, but you lack the motivation to set up the scope. Fresh out of ideas, you can't bear the thought of looking at the Ring Nebula for the 86th time.

I know. I've been there. Spent several thousand hours in darkness sieving quasar, Moon, and comet light with all manner of telescopes. That time has instilled in me a deep sense of wonder at the being alive in a cosmos too vast for words. I also love the hunt, the pleasure of rooting around in the celestial forest for visual gems.

There's nothing wrong with letting go of the hobby for a while and returning later with fresh eyes. It can be a effective way to deal with astro-burnout. But some folks leave and never return. What they're really looking for is a different approach to liven up observing and make it more fulfilling. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to find fresh pleasure in the sky. While these suggestions are intended for long-time skywatchers, newbies might also find them useful as pathways into the hobby.

Plan Your Observing Sessions

If you find yourself recycling the same dozen deep sky objects, make a list that includes a few old favorites and half a dozen brand new objects you've never seen before. Be deliberate. Get information about what you're about to see before you set out: distance, discovery details, and distinctive details to look for, like a galaxy's spiral arms or a planetary nebula's central star. As in music and art, the more you know about your subject, the deeper your appreciation.

Take your time with each gem, tackling each one by one. Stop if you get tired, step away from the scope, and take in the big picture. Don't forget a pen or pencil. A few scratchy notes or a simple sketch make for a nice souvenir of the night and will leave you feeling a sense of accomplishment.

I like a "tossed salad" that includes favorite variable stars, current comets, a few new and old deep sky objects, whatever bright planets are visible and, if I'm lucky, a supernova. While I love deep sky, I confess a taste for the fluid and fickle in the universe. Things that go nova in the night.

Here are a few resources on deep-sky objects from which to plan your next observing session:

* Bright deep-sky objects

* NGC/IC Project (photos and information on over 13,000 deep sky objects)

FaintFuzzies.com observing guides (several lifetimes required to tackle)

 

Surprise Yourself

Take a walk on the wild side

Explore rich hunting grounds of star clusters, nebulae and galaxies by using a star atlas and "deep sky hopping" from one object to the next.
Bob King

Now do the just opposite of what I suggested above — go random! This approach is one of my favorites. Pick a page from Uranometria or another of your favorite atlases that features a region rich in deep sky objects. Areas like Cygnus, Ophiuchus, Cassiopeia, and Sagittarius are classic locales, to name a few. Locate your first object and/or deep sky hop from there to the next and then to the next. As you bump into everything from bright NGC objects to Ruprecht star clusters and Kohoutek planetary nebulae, expect surprises.

Remember, this type of observing involves no expectations. Some of these hidden treasures will show spectacular detail. Others will be completely invisible. But leaving the beaten track to explore the wilderness just might make you feel more astronomically alive than ever.

If you don't own a hardbound star atlas, download a popular free sky-charting program like Stellarium  or Cartes du Ciel (both for Mac or Windows) and print your own maps.

See the Moon from the Other Side

Like a lot of amateurs, I'm an evening Moon watcher. Once in a rare while I'll get up before dawn to see a new nova, comet, or supernova. If the Moon happens to be out, I'll make sure to take a look. And here's the thing. I'm always amazed.

Familiar Moon in a different light

The last quarter Moon looks quite different from the first quarter. Familiar features are seen in sunlight that shines from a direction opposite to that of the waxing Moon.
Frank Barrett / celestialwonders.com

When sunlight filters across the Moon from the western direction, as it does during the waning phases, familiar craters and landscapes look strangely unfamiliar. The rays of Tycho and Kepler show creamier textures; slanted sunlight tames the glare of Aristarchus. Try it. I suggest viewing either the thick crescent or last quarter phases, which means getting up around dawn.

Find out what the Moon's up to by using this simple calendar.

Self-Assigned Observing Projects

My friend Mike decided he wanted to see and draw all the globular clusters his small refractor could show. This helped narrow down the hundreds of possible objects to study and focus his observing skills on one type of object, the better to appreciate the individuality of each cluster.

You can work up a list of quasars or hunt for faint outer moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Last fall I honed in on the Uranian moons. Others make a temporary specialty of planetary nebulae or close double stars (check out Sissy Haas's Double Stars for some inspiration). Some folks love red stars or tracking down white dwarfs. One time I got totally caught up in observing Jupiter's Trojan satellites, herds of small moons that orbit 60° ahead and 60° behind the giant planet. By the time the project was complete, I had a whole new appreciation for how far-ranging Jupiter's gravitational domain truly was.

Breaking things into chunks or small projects is a great way to continually refresh your observing chops. You'll also soon become a quick study in identifying your targets.

Informal Competition

Pick a project, hit the re-set button

Self-assigned observing projects or informal competitions will often get you back on track and renew your motivation to spend time under the sky.
Bob King

There are times we all like to be the first. In the world of amateur astronomy, there are plenty of opportunities to be at the head of line. First to see a newly-discovered comet, first to catch a variable star during an outburst or see a new spot erupt in Jupiter's atmosphere. The satisfaction and motivation to continue are undeniable. Even if you're not first, you know that what you're doing helps to alert others, including professional astronomers, to new or sudden changes in the sky. Plus you've got skin in the game from the start, and that keeps you going to the finish.

Wisconsin amateur William Wiethoff photographs new bright transients — supernovae, novae, or variable stars — for the All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN or "Assassin") program. As soon as he can, he posts his photographs and awaits confirmation, hoping to be one of the first to observe the new object. When he succeeds, he's justifiably proud (and can't wait for the next opportunity!).

Join a campaign

I've been a member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) since 1982 and submit monthly observations of variable stars. Even if I only make 10 observations a month, each one goes toward building a light curve for that star, increasing our understanding of its behavior.

With the Internet and technology available today, amateurs can contribute to numerous groups and campaigns created to observe everything from comets to transients to occultations to Jovian weather. The current PACA_Rosetta67P campaign in conjunction with NASA and the European Space Agency is a great place for amateurs to contribute.

Additional ways to hook up:

* International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA)
Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO)
* Comets Mailing List
Seesat 1 Mailing List (satellite observations)
Planet Hunters: Discover Exoplanets by their transits

Share the Sky

Sharing the pleasures of the telescope

William Wiethoff shares views of solar prominences with the public during Astronomy Day in Duluth, Minn. on April 25, 2015.
Bob King

There's nothing like hearing someone else's reaction to Saturn or a beautiful double star. Share the view. Bring your scope to an event in town or gather with like-minded amateurs in a favorite public place. Answering questions and listening to people's reactions can re-awaken your sense of wonder.

These are just a few ideas. We'd love to hear your suggestions about how you've tackled those occasional bouts of stellar blues.

CATEGORIES
Astronomy Blogs, Explore the Night with Bob King, Observing
Bob King

About Bob King

Amateur astronomer since childhood and long-time member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Bob King also teaches community education astronomy and writes the blog Astro Bob. The universe invites us on an adventure every single night. All we need do is look up. Check out my forthcoming book "Night Sky with the Naked Eye" (on Amazon and BN) about all the great things you can see at night without any special equipment.

11 thoughts on “7 Ways to Beat the Observing Blues

  1. john-tudek

    Agreed. Especially in urban areas, even with a medium (10″) Dob, the number of things to see is limited. On the other hand, I showed my 9 year old the new crescent moon a week ago and he was completely blown away. So this month, its lunar observing.

    Note: he’s also taken to following aircraft with the telescope. He obviously has trouble keeping up with the passing jets, but when he does, he’s ecstatic. It keeps him occupied for the next month until his favorite planet (Saturn) is up early enough for him to see it before bed.

  2. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    Thank you bob for these great suggestions.

    I enjoy following the movements of the Moon and the naked-eye planets through the sky night by night, week by week, and month by month. Yesterday evening, despite partly cloudy skies, urban light pollution, and the fact that I’m recovering from a respiratory infection, it only took a few minutes to see Mercury peeking above the horizon, Venus climbing between the horns of Taurus, Jupiter well west of Regulus, and the waxing gibbous Moon scooting south of Leo’s hindquarters. Late last week, before dawn, I saw Saturn north of the head of Scorpius, noticeably farther west than he was a couple of weeks ago. The scene changes at least slightly from one night to the next, you don’t need any equipment (although binoculars are helpful), and I come away feeling more connected to our ancestors who followed the “wandering stars” through the heavens.

    Regarding the waning Moon, I wish somebody would publish a Moon map that shows how the Moon appears under constant lunar western (celestial eastern) illumination, as she appears during her waning phases. Every Moon map I’m familiar with, including Sky and Telescope’s, shows the Moon under constant lunar eastern illumination, as she appears during her waxing phases.

    And I believe the best cure for the observing blahs is to share the view with others. I love setting up my little refractor on the sidewalk in front of my home, surprising passersby with views of the Moon or Jupiter. People are amazed and appreciative, and hopefully some of them will get in the habit of looking up at the sky.

  3. Mike-McCabe

    Another popular way to maintain the drive to observe is to engage in some of the Astronomical League’s observing programs. They have at least 50 programs and the list runs the gamut of the astronomical genre, and you don’t necessarily have to be a member to engage in them, but the recognition is nice when you’ve completed a program.

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Mike,
      I’m glad you brought the League up. They really are excellent, and the recognition can inspire observers to try new challenges. I’ll never forget getting a certificate long ago from the League for observing the Messier catalog. I felt like a real astronomer when it arrived in the mail.

  4. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    I left a comment yesterday, but it seems to have disappeared into the aether.

    Thanks Bob for these helpful suggestions!

    I never get tired of following the Moon and the naked-eye planets as they move through the zodiac. During recent evenings it only took a few minutes, and no optical equipment, to see Mercury peeking above the horizon, Venus climbing toward the horns of Taurus, Jupiter stationing direct well to the west of Regulus, and the Moon heading east under the hindquarters of Leo. Before dawn, Saturn is noticeably father west above the head of Scorpius than he was just a couple of weeks ago. The view changes at least slightly from one night to the next. Following these “wandering stars” helps me feel connected to our ancestors, who also marveled at their movements.

    I completely agree that the best cure for the observing blahs is to share the view. I love to set up my little refractor on the sidewalk in front of my home and surprise passersby with a look at Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon, or a bright double star. People are generally amazed and appreciative, and hopefully some of them will get in the habit of looking up at the sky.

    Regarding observing the waning Moon, I wish somebody (hint, hint) would publish a map that shows the Moon under constant lunar western illumination, as she appears during her waning phases. Every available map, including S&T’s, shows the Moon as she appears during her waxing phases. That’s only half the story!

  5. Wayne Roberts

    You missed the most obvious of all kickstarts – a Messier hunt, whether a marathon or a gap filler.
    This has served admirably as my personal rejuvenation tool.

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Hi Wayne,
      I was just waiting for you to write to suggest it 😉 Thanks – I heartily agree. It was my own personal motivator many years ago, too.

  6. teachnew

    Hi Bob thanks for your ideas, Let me ask a question. I am tried of assembling my scope every time , so can leave it fully assembled ever. If I do so, will the tripod, eq mount and the scope get jammed over the time. Can the counter weights too be let to remain in the assembly ?

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Hi teachnew,
      Thank you. I don’t why you can’t leave your scope assembled. I have a couple of telescopes I leave assembled all the time. Even after years, they work just fine. I make sure to cover my assembled scopes with large plastic garbage bags to help keep dust away. If the equatorial mount movements ever get “sticky” you can refresh with a lubricant.

Comments are closed.