Pleasures of Keeping an Astro Journal

Keeping a record of what you see in the telescope is not only fun but helps grow your observing skills. Learn how to start a journal and see how other amateurs keep theirs. 

Rough notes made at the telescope before they're entered into my journal.

Rough notes made at the telescope before they're entered into my journal.
Bob King

Do you write down what you saw after a session at the telescope? I've been doing it since I was a kid. I started my first diary at the tender age of 12. The loopy letters of my youth look funny to me now, but that little leather-bound book records highlights of my life when my hair was thick and heart beat strong.

Within its pages I recorded daily high and low temperatures, my first experience holding hands with a girl, and of course, short descriptions of the amazing things I saw through my 6-inch reflecting telescope at the time. I can't recall what motivated me to write, but the experiences were important to me. They meant something.

Sketching makes the eye grow sharper

A couple of my astronomy notebooks with sketches and descriptions of Comet Hale-Bopp (left) in 1997 and Jupiter, when it was bombarded by fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July 1994. 
Bob King

Much later in life, as responsibilities grew like dandelions, I abandoned the 3-times-a-day temperature readings. Cut out the daily ups and downs of life. But everything else goes in there — weather, the joy of spotting a long-sought comet, night sounds, failed attempts to find some faint galactic wisp, and sharing Jupiter with strangers passing by on snow machines. Now I've got boxes of large, black-bound journals bursting with sketches of planets, supernovae, the Sun, and auroras, along with descriptions of each night's explorations.

Pleasures of skywatching to recall prize moments

Three entries from amateur astronomer Elizabeth Warner's journal. "From the start, I kept a logbook of my observations. Those first entries were brief paragraphs. Later logbooks incorporated stuff I had learned in science classes about keeping scientific journals," said Warner.
Elizabeth Warner

Some read back with the workmanlike tone of simple data recording; others capture the rhapsodic feelings so many of us experience when the sky gongs us with wonder, when we realize how our evanescent lives find a home in infinity.

Color brings Mars to life

Color was used to wonderful effect in this excerpt from Bernd Pauli's Dec. 27, 1992 journal entry. "I used to keep one (a journal) and would also make sketches when useful, so that I could compare to observations made before or after a certain date," said Pauli.
Bernd Pauli

All these jottings. Maybe I'm crazy, but I've got company. Lots of company. Skywatchers the planet over happily put pen to paper or tap away at the keyboard to capture the stuff of their nightly journeys, too. How could you not record the story of how you finally found a long-sought galaxy or reveled in another's joy at seeing Saturn for the first time?

Handwritten history

This bit of journaling by Canadian comet discoverer and science writer David Levy is now a piece of history. It recounts the discovery of the "squashed comet" Shoemaker-Levy 9 (D/1993 F2) on March 25, 1993. The comet later broke into pieces and smacked into Jupiter. Levy's journals frequently include comments from other observers who stopped by the scope that night.
David Levy

Successful photos - happy comet

Another entry by David Levy, who has kept a continuous logbook from 1962 to the present. Want to see them? They're all available online by clicking the image. Levy remembers the words of Isabel K. Williamson regarding logging time at the scope: "Observations not written down are not observations."
David Levy

Most journals I've seen are brutally honest. We're OK admitting we tried but simply couldn't see that 14th magnitude planetary nebula. Heck, we'll go for it again another night. Was the night so cold you quit early because you couldn't take it anymore? Did a sound coming from the nearby woods scare the pants off you? Maybe you lacked an observing plan one evening, got tired, and returned to bed. All dutifully recorded.

Saturn preserved in pencil

Saturn drawn by Duluth, Minn. amateur Mike Sangster. "I like to go back and review observations I've made in the past," said Sangster. "It brings me back in time to that night and helps grow my observing skills. When I write down descriptions or make drawings I concentrate and see much more of the object."
Mike Sangster

One of the things I like about a journal is how easy it is to begin one. Buy a notebook, find a pencil, and you're ready to go. I usually take brief notes and make crude sketches at the telescope on a sheet of paper. Later, away from the mosquitos, biting cold and darkness, I sit down and more fully "illuminate" my observations in a notebook or bound artist's sketch book. Blank, unruled paper is your friend. You don't want parallel lines crossing through that lovely Jupiter sketch, do you?

Long-ago moon preserved in pencil

The lunar craters Beer and Feuilleé drawn using a 6-inch refractor. "I've been keeping an astronomical journal since September 1965. Most recently, because of my imaging the journal has suffered. My memory has never been great and my journals have allowed me to relive many nights under the stars with my telescopes. My journals are records of my wanderings through the universe."
Jim Phillips

Start with the basics -  day, date and time. Maybe a temperature, a brief statement about the weather, location, and telescope used. Then go on about what you saw and try your hand at sketching. I'm the worst artist on the planet, but I work at it. Now I can draw galaxies, comets and planets. But getting Saturn's rings just right still eludes me. Some organizations like the American Lunar and Planetary Observers offer convenient templates for each of the planets. These are much appreciated!

"Ancient" astronomical history

Lawrence Garrett of Fairfax, Vermont, sent along this entry. He was using an Edmund 4.25" reflector, school notepaper and a typewriter. "My trip through the stars and beyond as a teenager had just begun," said Garrett. He keeps a journal because "it lets you re-live the year just past with a look forward to new sights ahead." Garrett's log has 2,100 entries to date.
Lawrence Garrett

Some observers use color pencils for sketches, but many stick to a simple pencil. Depending on the pressure you apply, a pencil allows a broad palette of tones, while an eraser allows you to "sculpt" a drawing by judiciously removing bits and pieces of pencil smudging to delineate a galaxy's spiral arms for example. Of course, you don't even need a pencil. Lately I've been experimenting doing color sketches of comets with Photoshop using the dodge and burn tools.

Easy electronic drawing

Using the dodge and burn tools in a basic version of Photoshop Elements along with the colorization function, I "sketched" Comet Lovejoy when it passed near the globular cluster M79 last December. Bob King

Your verbal descriptions can be brief or as long as you like. Some skywatchers keep their logs tidy and organized, others not so much. If you make an observation of a short-lived phenomenon such as the brightness of a nova or variable star or appearance of a comet, record the time. You never know when you might catch a key event in an object's evolution. Should the call come for observations to help unravel its behavior, you might be in possession of a crucial data point.

There are many reasons to keep a journal. It's a low-pressure, low-tech creative outlet. Over the years it's fun to look back at your astro-adventures to relive a moment. Writing and sketching prepare the mind and eye to see better and more deeply the next time we step up to the telescope.

Careful notes on Venus

Observation and sketch of Venus for the British Astronomical Assn. (BAA) by Jackob Strikis of Athens. "It was very difficult for me to choose the "best ones" because they are my life and my passion and I love them all equally." Click to see more of Strikis' images.

Taking time to write up an observation is a form of appreciation for the beauty that's all around us. The more we appreciate the world, the happier our lives. I want to thank all the amateurs who contributed samples of their work for this article.

For more on sketching and writing and journal writing, check out these links:

* Astronomy Sketch of the Day
* Cloudy Nights Sketching Forum

CATEGORIES
Astronomy and Stargazing Projects, Explore the Night with Bob King, Observing
RELATED POSTS
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.