I'm Tony Flanders, the most recent hire on Sky & Telescope's editorial staff, having started late in 2003. I'm taking over as a blogger from Bob Naeye, who just left to work at Goddard Space Flight Center. All of us here at S&T will miss him sorely, but we wish him great joy at his exciting new job.
I'll be writing about stargazing, or visual astronomy: looking at the universe through telescopes, binoculars, and with unaided eyes. Or in my case with eyeglasses, since I can see only the very brightest stars without them.
One of the reasons that S&T hired me was that unlike most of the editors here, I still have fresh memories of struggling to master a telescope. It's now been almost exactly ten years since I set out on the project that changed my life: tracking down all of the Messier objects with my newly purchased 70-mm refractor. I started with the big, bright open star cluster M41 on January 28, 1997, looking out the window of my city apartment with a 75%-illuminated Moon, and moved to progressively darker locations as I encountered more challenging objects.
I checked off M79, my last Messier object, under a rural sky shortly before dawn on September 7, 1997. M79 reaches its highest in the early-evening sky in January and February, so I wouldn't have needed to get up in the middle of the night if I had observed it early on instead of saving it for last. But it was probably a wise decision nonetheless; I doubt that I would have been able to see this medium-faint globular cluster low in the urban skyglow when I started my observing project.
Now, with ten extra years of experience under my belt, M79 is immediately obvious in the city through my 70-mm scope, and I can make it out with some effort using 10x30 binoculars. It's still the same cluster, and I still have the same eyes, but I've learned to use them a lot better.
A couple of months ago I started to re-observe all the Messier objects with that same 70-mm refractor. Why repeat something that I've already done? And why use this dinky little telescope when I own a 12.5-inch Dob that shows M79 as a glorious swarm of individual stars rather than a tiny, bright dustball? For that matter, why view the Messier objects at all when I can download magnificent photos of them with a few clicks of a mouse? I'll be answering these questions and more in future blog entries.