Paying a visit to the ‘old neighborhood’

A couple of decades ago, one of the things I loved to do was go out at night and take photos of the night sky. I actually got started doing this for several reasons. Comet Halley was one of them. When it made it’s last appearance in the 1980’s, it was predicted to be one of the brighter of it’s many visits to the vicinity of Earth. Another was my interest in space and astronomy in general. Back then, I was reading and writing about space and space exploration a lot. So it seemed a natural extension to begin paying attention the stars in the sky. Last, but far from least, the images I captured, primitive as they were, had a beauty to them that is hard to describe. There is no secret to how to capture a night sky image, you just need a camera that will allow you to open the shutter for an extended period of time so the film can gather the maximum amount of light possible. The fact that I used “film” should tell you that I’m not lying about how long ago this was. Back then, the few CCD cameras that existed were the property of either the government or some of the high-end educational institutes. Of course, it was no where near as easy as I describe it. For one thing, keeping the shutter open required some sort of mechanism to to both open and close it without causing the camera to shake or move in any way. Most decent SLR camera had a “manual” setting, which when engaged, caused the shutter to remain open for as long as the shutter release button was kept depressed. Of course, you couldn’t just hold your finger on it, because no human is completely still all the time. So trying to hold your finger on the button would cause the camera to shake enough that what you’d end up was a lot of strange-looking squiggles on a dark background. A better route was to use what was called a shutter release cable, which screwed into a small opening in the center of the shutter button. Once in place, you just pressed a button on the end of the cable and the shutter opened. A second, concentric button could then be released whenever you were done with the exposure, releasing the button and closing the shutter. Now, because as I said earlier, you shake all the time, you could not actually hold your camera. No, to take night sky images, you needed a tripod that was strong enough to take your camera (plus the weight of any telephoto lenses you might add to get more detail out of an area you were imaging), and stable enough to not shake if the wind happens to start blowing. I had all this, but to really, really get good images, you needed to be able to track the stars as they slowly move across the sky. This requires what is known as a sidereal drive, and it was both expensive and in no way a snap to set up properly. Not being graced with a ton of money even then (and not being sure I could ever learn to properly adjust the drive so it could function as it should), I opted for what is known as “unguided” photography. If you limit yourself to fairly short exposure times (less than a minute), the results aren’t all that bad. You get a view of the brighter stars on a background that is often a field of deep grayish-green (the sky doesn’t come out black because of a lot of factors that aren’t important to this missive). If you go beyond that limited time frame, what you end up with is more stars, but they’re not pinpoints, but blurred lines stretching across the background.

For really stand-out objects, things like bright comets, the Moon and the brighter stars that make up the constellations, unguided photos will give you very nice results. They’re even fairly good for some of the brighter galaxies (I was once lucky enough to capture a fine image of the Andromeda Galaxy as a fuzzy patch of light on my image, lucky because I couldn’t see it in the viewfinder!). But to capture the real beauty of the night skies, the fainter stars, nebulae and other objects, you need to go to guided photography, preferably with the camera connected to a telescope. That, coupled with way too many experiences of having a camera shop develop my film, then tell me it was “unexposed” because “it was all dark, there weren’t any images on it”, lead me to eventually abandon night sky photography. I even stopped just going out and looking at the night sky.

A bit of boredom, coupled with a chance reading of a story about the Perseid meteor shower and the forecast of a cool, clear night led me back out under the night skies. Without any film, I didn’t have the option to get my old camera out and try capturing any meteors streaking across the sky, so I decided to just go see what my eyes could see. Living in a small town, fairly well away from large cities, finding a place to go watch wasn’t hard. What you really need, more than anything else, to enjoy the night skies are dark skies. Cities, unless the power fails, are never dark enough to really bring out the splendor of the night skies. No, to see the stars, and more important, to see dimmer objects like smaller meteor, you need to be in the country, well away from any source of light. For me, such sites are within less then half an hour’s drive. So, with the meteors forecast to really start putting on a show after midnight, I decided to go to bed early and get up at midnight to go out to see what I could see.

The alarm drove me out of a sound sleep, and in that befuddled state you often are in in such a situation, I got dressed, got in my car, and headed out. It didn’t take me long to spot a place that interested me: a perfectly-black stretch of land off to one side of the road. At the next crossroad I came to, I turned onto a gravel road and started hunting for someplace in that wonderful blackness. A second, crossing gravel road came out of the headlight’s glare, and I turned again, moving deeper into the unpopulated area. At this point, I slowed down and began to watch for a ramp off the road, one the farmer’s use to access their fields. This sort of spot is ideal, as it gets you (and your car) off the road, while providing a solid base to park on so you have less chance of ending up stuck in the middle of nowhere. One presently presented itself, and because of the orientation of the road to direction I wanted to watch, I worked the car around so I was backed into it.

Now was when all the things I’d learned, and should have remembered, came flooding back to me. Usually, if I’m planning on lying on my car (a favorite and convenient place to relax), I try to remember to bring an old blanket. This both protects my car’s paint and also keeps my clothing from picking up all the crud that is usually on my car. Well, I hadn’t remembered to bring one, so I had to be careful how I moved, and know that the clothing I was wearing was going straight into the dirty cloth when I got back home. A blanket also gives you the option to pull a flap out and cover yourself if things start to get chilly. You can also take a light jacket to put on if you get cool, but like the blanket, I hadn’t thought to bring one of those either. I also hadn’t thought to grab the little clip-on bug repellent I sometimes use. The chill air kept the damage on that front down considerably, but I still managed to collect a few bites.

So how did things go? Well, you can get away from the lights of the cities, but there’s one light you can’t get away from if it’s present: the Moon. Being within a couple of days of full, the Moon was bright enough to allow me to walk around without tripping within a minute of the car lights being shut off. This limited what I could see in the way of meteors quite a lot I’m sure. As it was, I saw three meteors I’m sure of, plus another four I think I caught out of the ‘corner of my eye’ (the most light-sensitive part of the human eye) in the course of an hour’s time. By that time, it was feeling decidedly chilly to me in my tee shirt and jeans, so I decided to go home.

Wasn’t it all a waste, you ask? No. I got out under the night sky again, got familiar with the constellations once more, and remembered all the other reasons I love to be out doing things like this. While the bugs might have bitten me, I got to listen to their night songs once more. I also was reminded of just how well sounds can travel if there’s not a lot to drown them out. Out there in the countryside, I could hear trains blowing their horns, trains that were never nearer than fifteen or twenty miles. Cars on the road I’d first turned off sometimes got me to looking around, wondering when they’d come up on where I was parked. Beneath all that, lingering at the edge of perception, was the slow thump of my own heart.

They say you can’t go home again, but sometimes, you can pay a visit to someplace you loved and find you still enjoy the ‘old neighborhood’. Last night, I got a chance to do that, and I think I might just start visiting again soon, and as much as I can, because the night sky is a neighborhood we should all visit from time to time. It’s a beautiful place, so if you can, get out someplace near you and enjoy a visit.

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