End of the Line for “Skyline”

Any amateur astronomer over age 40 surely remembers the heady excitement that preceded the return of Halley's Comet in 1986. As Sky & Telescope started getting calls about this celebrated visitor in late 1985, we editors worried that we'd be inundated by phone queries when "Halley Mania" peaked the following March.

So we attached an old answering machine to a phone line, wrote and recorded a 3-minute script about the week's astro-highlights and how to find the comet, and hit Play. "Skyline" was born.

As word spread about our new dial-up news service, Skyline's popularity grew — a trend that continued even after Mr. Halley's comet had come and gone. (Remember: the Internet as we know it didn't exist yet.) Soon we needed a new machine, and we upgraded to a state-of-the-art Takachiho model that could answer two lines at once. Woo-hoo! In a typical week it dutifully answered 1,200 to 1,500 calls.

I recall attending Stellafane one year when S&T columnist David Levy mentioned Skyline during his talk. From the rear of the gathering's huge crowd, someone yelled out Skyline's number from memory: "6-1-7 - 4-9-7 - 4-1-6-8!" It was that popular.

Recording a new tape (or, later, digital audio) every Friday afternoon continued without interruption for more than 23 years — even after Internet access became ubiquitous, Skyline continued to get calls. Over that time callers might have heard my voice, or Rick Fienberg's, or more recently Stuart Goldman's. But as more people got on the internet and went to SkyandTelescope.com instead, the calls got fewer and fewer. In recent times they were down to a mere handful a week.

Rick and I left last year, and two weeks ago S&T said goodbye to Stuart Goldman. So the remaining editors have decided to pull the plug on Skyline; Alan MacRobert updated the recording for the last time on March 6th with a farewell. . . in case anyone was listening.

Happily the spirit of Skyline lives on in bigger and better form, thanks to This Week's Sky at a Glance (itself a veteran of two decades) and to the Weekly Bulletins and Astro-Alerts dispatched by email to tens of thousands of you.

P.S.: For those of you who still prefer to hear what's going on in the sky, I have two suggestions. First, try dialing up Griffith Observatory's Sky Report, recorded every Wednesday; the number is 213-473-0880 (not toll free).

Second, you can listen to or download our Sky Tour podcast I record each month, which offers a 5- or 6-minute guided tour of the evening sky. Play it on your iPod under the stars.