Fall’s skies are perfect for starting a sky-watching habit.
When I was a wee lad, I was fascinated by astronomy. It might have had something to do with the fact that during my pre-teen years, America was becoming the world’s preeminent space-faring nation. The Apollo program was in full swing, there was talk of a “space shuttle” and landers, and orbiters and probes of all sorts were either on the drawing board or already on their way to various points of interest around the solar system.
At some point, my parents bought me a low-end telescope at the old K-Mart in Hixson. I vividly remember seeing it on display there and begging to get it for Christmas. It was your basic long white tube, with a side “finder” scope and two interchangeable filters: A green one for looking at the moon and a pitch-black one for looking at the sun. I spent many a night looking at the moon and trying find other targets, usually with little success. I was simply unaware of how to find objects in the sky or where to even begin. I seem to remember my school library being unhelpful on the subject, and none of my friends really shared my astronomy kick. So, I slowly lost interest and then lost the scope itself during one of my many moves after leaving home.
Recently, however, I’ve inherited a new scope from my father and a rekindled interest in actually looking at the sky from my kids. But my problem still is, “Where do I start?”
Fortunately, the 21st century has a lot more resources available than just the school library. The internet, of course, is a good place for raw information. But for actually learning something, you want to connect with people. Here in Chattanooga, we have quite a few people and organizations that are willing to help new sky-watchers get going.
The most obvious place to start, of course, is UTC’s Jones Observatory. Located in Brainerd, just a few miles from the UTC campus, Jones Observatory has been open since 1948 and provides a wide range of programs, all free to the public, compliments of UTC. (The full fall schedule of events is available on the Jones Observatory website.)
If you went to school in the Chattanooga area, chances are that, at some point, you went on a field trip to Jones Observatory. Jack Pitkin, operations manager at the observatory, notes that the longevity of the facility is one of the things that makes it so unique. “Once I had a guy who had worked there as a student volunteer. He brought his daughter and she brought her daughter. We had three generations looking at Jupiter through the telescope.”
While Jones Observatory is the nexus of astronomy here in Chattanooga, you’ll probably want to connect with at least one other group as you get going with your sky watching. After all, the observatory is only open so often.
One such group would be the “Impromptu Astronomy Club” (IAC). This is a Facebook group that was founded, by accident, during the “Transit of Venus” back in 2012. Galen Riley, the group’s organizer, and a few friends were using glasses (with “solar safe” filters) to watch Venus pass between Earth and the sun. But they were doing it from the Walnut Street Bridge. As you might guess, this caused some curiosity from the passers-by. So, Galen and his friends offered looks through the glasses to anyone that wanted to see the once-in-a-lifetime event. As for the name itself, Galen recalls that, “Someone walking past on the return trip asked the name of our organization. When we said we didn’t have one, he joked about stumbling on the ‘Impromptu Astronomy Club,’ and the rest is history.”
As you might guess from the name, the IAC caters to the extremely casual sky watcher. The Facebook group sees a few posts a week about interesting things in the sky at the time. There’s also space-related news, with a focus on info that’s easily understandable. It’s a great place to find out about planets or interesting stars that are readily visible in the sky that same day. More noteworthy events (eclipses, meteor showers and the like) will usually be discussed for days or weeks in advance, giving you plenty of time to get ready to view them.
Just like any other Facebook group, it’s easy to join the IAC. Just search for “Impromptu Astronomy Club” on Facebook and hit the “Like” button.
Another, more traditional, group that operates here in Chattanooga is the Barnard Astronomical Society (BAS). Founded in 1923, the BAS actually predates the Big Bang! Well, the Big Bang theory at least. (What became the Big Bang Theory was proposed by Belgian Catholic priest and scientist Georges Lemaître in 1927.) According to Richard Clements, current BAS President, the BAS was actually instrumental in the development, design, and implementation of the Clarence T. Jones Observatory in Chattanooga in the 1930s. That’s where they still meet, on the second Thursday of each month, starting at 7 p.m. (There’s a $20 annual membership fee, but apart from any fees charged by a venue, the BAS has no other fees.)
The BAS prides itself on being a family-friendly, low-to-no cost group that promotes science and education here in the Chattanooga area. As such, the topics of the monthly meetings are wide-ranging, and cover pretty much everything, including: getting started in astronomy, maintaining equipment, current astrophysics and space and science in the movies.
In addition to the regular monthly meeting at Jones Observatory, the BAS also hosts a monthly “star party” at Harrison Bay State Park on the second Saturday of each month. They also have the occasional star party at Greenway Farms in Hixson. Actually, they have so many different events going on, you should really just visit their website to find an event that’s close to you.
Now that you’ve got an idea of where you can find other sky watchers, what do you actually need to get going?
Galen from IAS says that all you need is, “A little bit of curiosity and cooperative weather.” True enough. The first astronomers were simply people that looked up and wondered “What are those things?”
According to Richard of the BAS, “This is the issue that far too often stops many people in their tracks on the pathway to becoming an amateur astronomer. Everybody thinks you need all kinds of fancy gear, a big telescope, etc. This is absolutely not true. The minimum requirement for getting started in astronomy is a sense of wonder and curiosity about the sky above your head. Just your eyes and a star map (many available for free online) can provide years of pleasure by learning star names, constellations, and the lore that goes with them. A simple pair of binoculars—nothing fancy, probably something that many people already have—can open up the sky like nothing else. A telescope is not needed to start; it is really more of a stop along the journey.”
And this is, by far, the best time of year to get started with sky watching. The fall temps are pleasant through most of the night and the sky is typically very clear this time of year.
What sorts of celestial events can you look forward to seeing? Well, on October 23, there will be a partial eclipse of the sun at sunset. This will be hard to see (due to the mountains), but the BAS and UTC will be at the Chickamauga Battlefield, trying to get a glimpse. (Note that you should never attempt to observe a solar eclipse without proper equipment! Which is a great reason to attend this hosted event. They’ll have the right stuff.)
Mid-December will see the return of the annual Geminid meteor shower. All you need for that is a blanket and some clear sky.
And, on August 21, 2017, there will be a full solar eclipse visible from this area! (OK. Technically, you’ll have to drive to Dayton for “totality.” But, still, these things are usually only visible from halfway around the world.)
Of course, the biggest, most important, astronomical event of the year is happening tomorrow night. Best of all, it’s probably visible from your back yard! So, make a picnic, grab a blanket, gather up the kids and head outside to see if you can spot it!