Off the Clock: Savoring the stars in a New England sky

In his book, “Pale Blue Dot,” the late acclaimed astronomer Carl Sagan wrote “the Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.” Almost invisible in its vastness, the universe ignites mere complacency in some, but awe and imagination in those who choose to turn their eyes and mind to the night sky.

Though beautiful and mysterious whatever the season, New England’s night sky is most brilliant during the winter months, when constellations take to their stage high in the sky and atmospheric conditions enhance cosmic light.

“The sky is crisper, colder. There is not as much humidity so you’ll get a clearer look and a longer look,” said Mal Cameron, education specialist at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord. “The Earth’s position during the winter months allows us to look directly across the ecliptic plain which is at a much higher elevation, making all our favorite constellations more visible.”

Whether it’s an extended glance above with the naked eye, or a visit to an open field far from city lights with telescope in hand, an evening of winter stargazing can open a door to the challenge of navigating planets, stars and Zodiac signs. Deeper exploration can yield glimpses of planetary moons or the spinning gas and dust of nebulas.

The ease of introduction to the hobby makes it more inviting still. According to Cameron, newcomers need not worry about purchasing costly telescopes or seeking professional guidance to get started.

A keen eye, a sky chart — easily accessible online or from local planetariums, like the Christa McAuliffe — and an open space away from city lights are all that are needed to deliver stars, planets and constellations from above.

The ability to locate something as simple as the Big Dipper or Orion — identifiable by the three stars marking the hunter’s belt — will open the door to the entire universe, giving newcomers jumping-off points for further exploration and more detailed viewing, Cameron said.

The two brightest spots flanking Orion are actually planets – Mars on the right and Saturn on the left.

For many, this simple identification induces a sense of excitement and desire to delve a little deeper into space.

“Once you have your bearings, the best thing to start with is a simple pair of binoculars,” Cameron said. “Stick with your binoculars until you get to know your way around the sky. There’s plenty to see.”

Something as simple as a look at the moon takes on new life when looked at through binocular lenses; even the four Galilean moons of Jupiter are visible as small dots in the early morning sky. Named after Galileo Galelei, the astronomer who discovered them and the inventor of the telescope, Jupiter’s satellites brought to light the fact that the universe did not evolve around the earth, a discovery that doomed Galileo to life in prison following a heresy conviction. Pope John Paul II pardoned the famed scientist 359 years later, in 1993.

Buying that first telescope

When casual interest gives way to passion and binoculars no longer bring a new viewer close enough to the heavens, thoughts will inevitably turn to purchasing a telescope of which there are two basic types available at a spectrum of prices.

Reflector telescopes use a mirror to gather light and are shorter and fatter. This type of telescope is good for looking at diffused light sources like galaxies. Bigger is better when it comes to reflector telescopes because the amount of light it captures dictates how much can be seen.

“A six-inch reflector will get you to deep space,” said Larry Pittman, sales associate at Rivers Photography and Astronomy in Dover. “An eight-inch will get you into deeper space.”

Prices for a good six-inch reflector start at about $400; eight inches will run closer to $600, according to Pittman. Motorized units, which automatically locate objects, run between $1,000 and $1,500, although smaller ones can start at $400.

Refractor telescopes, on the other hand, use lenses to gather light from dim objects, according to Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer of the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, Pa. The long, narrow tubes of the refractor telescope provide sharp images of pinpoint light sources and are good for checking out stars and planets.

“Refractors offer the best optical design. Price is based on the quality and diameter of the glass,” said Pittman. “You can pay between $8,000 and $10,000 for an eight-inch tube. A five-inch will run closer to $4,000.”

The major difference between the two is the clarity of the object being viewed.

“A reflector will give you a softer light,” Pittman said. “You still see the object but the crispness associated with a refractor telescope is not there.”

For those who want the best of both, there also is Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes, which incorporate both technologies. Prices run between $1,500 and $1,800, said Pittman.

According to both Pitts and Pittman, the one thing not to be sold on is higher magnification. The higher the magnification the lower the resolution, therefore a telescope with lower magnification will make it easier for a cosmic newbie to find and keep track of the object in view.

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