When the Weather is Lousy



Bill Pellerin

Houston Astronomical Society

GuideStar Editor

My observing log is looking a bit empty these days. It’s accurate to say that I don’t live in a part of the world known for its clear skies (the gulf coast). I suspect that only a few of us are fortunate to live in places with a large number of clear nights.

What to do? What can we do when we are visited by cloudy nights? Quite a lot, actually. Let me suggest a few things.

Schedule an observation on a remote telescope. There are several telescope systems online on which you can purchase time. You can point them where you want, take the images you want and download those images to your personal computer. Generally, these systems are quite good, using telescopes, mounts, and filters, that are quite costly. Maybe you have a comparable system in your backyard, but I don’t. You can operate these telescopes in real-time, schedule observations, script observation runs on these telescopes and pick up the data (images) in a day or so. I’ve made numerous observations this way, and, although I’d rather use my own system, these systems allow me to pursue my amateur astronomy interest without leaving home. Want to do something fun? Take an image of a moving object over a period of time and stitch the images together to show the movement. I did this with Vesta in 2010. The downside of using these systems is that, depending on what you’re doing, they can be expensive.

Read your equipment manuals. Have you ever done this? If not, you may be missing out on features of your telescope, mount, or camera that will make your observing process easier and more fun. It’s easy for us to find ourselves doing what we’ve done before because that’s the way we’ve always done it. My mount has a capability of significantly improving its polar alignment built into its controller. It took some time for me to understand the process, but now that I do I use this capability to improve the mount’s tracking.

Plan your next observing session. The amount of time we actually get to spend under a dark, starry sky is often limited. Optimize your time by planning your observing. There are several computer programs that can help with this. This software allows you to create an observing list based on, say, an Astronomical League observing program. Some observers have created these lists and made them available for download. Then, the software will tell you which objects are available to you to observe on that night. If you don’t want to have a computer on the observing field with you, print the list before you go out.

If you’re imaging you’ll need to decide which filters you want to use for your object of interest, assuming a monochrome imager. You need to determine your exposure time for each filter and have in mind how you are going to process the images following the imaging session.

Read a book, or one of those magazines you’ve been stacking up. Make a serious effort to read through the astronomy magazines or an astronomy book that you’ve been hoarding for a while. If you don’t have a book you’re eager to read, get one – buy it or visit your local library to borrow it. My library even has e-books available for loan. It’s easy to get behind on your reading, so don’t let it happen. Make an effort to keep up.

Take an online class or view an online lecture or presentation. There is a lot of astronomy related material online these days. Some of it is in the form of podcasts, both audio and video. Many colleges are putting their class lectures online for all to see. There are college level courses available via audio (CDs or download) and video (same). There are audio books that you can listen to. Check those out. I have listened to an audio book on the history of astronomy several times. I can even quote some passages from the book. Still, it seems that I hear something new every time.

Process your imaging data. Do you have any images that you haven’t processed yet? Have you learned any new techniques for processing those images? Cloudy nights are a good time to work on these images, develop some new skills, and produce a ‘keeper’ picture for the wall.

Rationalize your equipment inventory. Admit it. You (and I) probably have too much equipment sitting around. What about that old, but still usable, telescope that’s been sitting in the closet for a few years. A friend of mine has a personal ‘policy’ that if he hasn’t used something in a year he gets rid of it. I’m planning on taking a telescope that I rarely use to a star party. I’ll use it for the event and offer it for sale at the end. I hope that someone else will take it home.

There are web sites that list equipment for sale, often at no cost to the buyer or seller. I’ve bought and sold on these sites with outstanding results. It’s a bit of work to photograph your equipment, create the listing, monitor the sale, and finally pack and ship the equipment to its new owner but it often a true win-win situation. You’re getting rid of something you are not using, you are getting a bit of cash, and the buyer is getting equipment he or she will use at a good price.

Wishing you clear skies.


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