Observing from the City
Making the most of urban skies.
This paradox will grow ever more extreme as equipment improves and dark skies retreat. The future of amateur astronomy is, perhaps, a microcosm of the rest of the world's future: better technology in a poorer environment.
Which of these two trends will outrun the other and become dominant is anyone's guess, in amateur astronomy as in the larger world. One result, however, is already becoming clear. The environment is public but equipment ownership is private. The stars belong to everyone, but access to them is becoming privatized. Many once-common celestial sights already require expensive instruments or the money and time to travel to distant, unspoiled locations.
No matter what the future holds, however, some observers will never let anything stop them.
These are people who set up telescopes in city lots and observe with blankets draped over their heads to block streetlights, while keeping an ear out for muggers. These are people who spend a year examining bleary star images through an apartment window and come away with a sheaf of variable-star light curves. These are people who time the instants when stars are occulted by skyscraper walls and determine the rate of precession of the Earth's axis.
"Normal" observers who have (or travel to) decent skies tend to regard such enthusiasts as crankish inhabitants of an unimportant amateur-astronomy backwater. They are wrong. As the world grows more densely populated, urbanized, and brightly lit, city observers are the vanguard exploring trails to our future.
Rooms With A View
Years ago I discovered the unexpected possibilities of city observing after moving into downtown New Haven, Connecticut. I assumed that skywatching would cease to be part of my life. But our garret apartment had a plastic bubble skylight over the kitchen sink, and one night, just for laughs, I tried looking through it with 7×50 binoculars. Amazingly, I could make out some stars.
Observing anything under these conditions seemed so remarkable that I did some experimenting. I arranged a way to stand on a stool with my head in the bubble surrounded by light shields. Using a plot of the light curve for the variable star Mira, I discovered that my limiting magnitude with the binoculars was as faint as magnitude 8.6. I even spotted Mira near its minimum light.
Star images were distorted by the plastic bubble, it was true, but they were there. Surely lots could be done with a limiting magnitude this faint! In the following months I explored the binocular sky more carefully than I ever had before. I would pick a small area of sky and research everything about it the distances and spectral types of stars, interesting objects to try for and draw little maps. I set up a writing board in the bubble and arranged to rest comfortably there. It was my own little world, with my feet on the stool and my head in the stars. I followed the monthly pulsations of T Monocerotis, the unpredictable quiverings of Y Tauri, and the nightly creep of asteroids. Binocular double stars could be surveyed at leisure, and I spent long periods mapping everything I could see in Orion's Sword. I identified scores of features on the Moon.
Unexpected benefits began to appear. Restrictions on your observing impose discipline; rather than aimless sightseeing, I had to do desk work with maps and catalogs beforehand to develop good projects. This turned out to be the key to rewarding astronomy. The inside surface of the bubble proved to be a rock-solid "mount" for the binoculars when they were pressed against it face-on. The beautifully steady views made up for the plastic's poor optical quality and the gray film of pollution coating its outside. And it was a new experience to be in shirt-sleeve warmth examining Orion, while an icy winter wind screamed by inches away.
The lesson was clear. Desk work, steady optics, and comfort make for fine skywatching in the worst environment.