Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Music to Stargaze By

By: Sherry Rashad

My family’s (even though I seem to be the only one using it) 250 US dollar – MSRP bought back in 1996 – Tasco refractor did prove useful after being purchased timely enough to witness a couple of notable comets. Even though Hale-Bopp is now a distant memory and I have to drive – no plan a trip like it involves major Hohmann transfers that would envy Isaac Newton – due to our increasing local urban light pollution just to secure a better vantage of the universe.

It’s been a well-known anecdotal fact that tenured professional astronomers tend to gravitate toward Classical Music like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. But what about the background music that they listen to while doing old school stargazing – i.e. stargazing with a telescope that they can lift alone in some spot beyond the scourge of urban light pollution?

As an “experienced” amateur astronomer – a contradiction in terms if ever – most “man-portable” astronomical telescopes priced under 5,000 US dollars tend to be very sensitive to vibration. I experienced this first hand when I observed the Hale-Bopp comet back in 1997 while listening to Iron Maiden’s “Fear of the Dark” to a portable boombox. Mind you, portable low-rent boomboxes are notorious for screwing up the sound quality of properly recorded acoustic Classical Music. Since “good quality man-portable hi-fi that pass muster to my finicky ears” are yet to be invented, its low-rent boomboxes for background music for now.

Not surprisingly, my Heavy Metal -”elevator music” produced enough vibration to make the image on my astronomical telescope’s eyepiece a very curious psychedelic event. The Hale-Bopp comet, or the planet Saturn, or any celestial body that I happen to look at now looks like that alien probe shown on the TV series Threshold as it quantum-tunnels itself from it’s homeworld into our planet. Or is the proper term super-stringed itself via a higher dimensional plane into our planet after instantaneously traversing billions of miles of interstellar space.

When you magnify anything greater than 30 times, vibration can be a serious issue. Adapting my trusty astronomical telescope for ad-hoc use on distant sailing yachts, even a cat gingerly passing a meter away is enough to make the observed image on my telescopes eyepiece shake like I’m having an acid flashback. Even if I was born in 1972! Way after the LSD craze - or is it the ease of availability.

Basing on my firsthand experience, I now wonder if tenured professional astronomers who are being assigned to man telescopes with mirrors over a meter in diameter and who manage to smuggle a “decent” hi-fi into their workplace. Like a Quad II amplifier, Thorens turntable, and a pair of Quad ESL 63 electrostatic speakers plus the de rigueur subwoofer – might be compromising their “observations” by excessive “musical vibrations”. Listening to Bach played on the Saint Säens organ might seem like an excessive extravagance in my point of view. I just even recently found out that even string quartets playing genteel minuets are enough to produce vibrations visible on your telescope’s eyepiece to make stargazing into a pseudo acid flashback.

Now I get it why Hollywood just started to recently “glamorize” US Army and USMC snipers with a big-bore anti-materiel rifle hitting targets over 10,000 feet away equipped with just a 22 power scope. When you are shaking like your average crystal meth addict, it’s a task that’s impossible as hell. With sonic vibration such a big issue, will stargazing cease to be a multi-sensory experience of staring at distant celestial object while listening to a Bach organ cantata or The Gathering’s “How to Measure a Planet”? I’m not asking any other soul to comply with me. I’m just saying that given the sensitivity of the kit that we have – and it’s getting cheaper by the way – you can’t just plunk in any CD in your boombox. And not be expecting that the “musical vibrations” to turn a120-times magnified image of the planet Saturn into a “psychedelic experience”.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hale-Bopp Experience

By: Sherry Rashad

One of my childhood dream jobs was being an old school astronomer, the one that peers into the eyepiece of a single-person portable astronomical telescope out at night. Unfortunately, tenured astronomy professors today sit in front of a computer monitor looking as images delivered by their CCD cameras stuck to the end of their astronomical telescopes. Lucky ones even have access to live feed Hubble Space Telescope downloads. But I’ll probably never forget my Hale-Bopp comet experience back in 1997, especially since I was lucky enough to have purchased a starter astronomical telescope a few months before the Hale-Bopp comet became headline news.

Maybe it was the “mild guilt” of not having an astronomical telescope back in July 16, 1994 when the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. Or the appearance of the extremely long tailed "Great Comet of 1996" a.k.a. Hyakutake Comet back in 1996. Though spectacularly visible to naked eye observation because it's the closest comet to approach Earth in the past 200 years or so. Comet Hyakutake really compelled me into purchasing a modest starter kit capable of magnifying up to 300 times and cost 500 US dollars or less.

Eventually, I did purchase a Hong Kong made Tasco model which got good reviews from Sky and Telescope magazine on refractors costing below 300 US dollars back in 1996. And my modest but sensible investment really did pay off when the comet Hale-Bopp arrived back in 1997. This comet was an oddity, originating in the Oort Cloud region of our Solar System with a period of 2,380 years. The Hale-Bopp comet will next be seen in the year 4377.

Unlike other fair-weather amateur astronomers, my astronomical telescope hasn’t retired into some storage space gathering dust unlike most of my fellow Hale-Bopp comet watchers. Though I have to drive three ours or so into the country to use my astronomical telescope in it’s intended purpose due to increasing levels of light pollution in urban areas. Despite of the dearth of comets visiting the inner Solar System in the 21st Century, our Solar System’s two closest gas giants – namely the planets Jupiter and Saturn – still manage to attract my interest.