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.
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:
* NGC/IC Project (photos and information on over 13,000 deep sky objects)
* FaintFuzzies.com observing guides (several lifetimes required to tackle)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.