Eye on the stars

Nelson Walker, president of the Victoria branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, on the allure of the night sky

Nelson Walker, president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Nelson Walker, president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

I am a “serious amateur astronomer.”  That means that I own a couple of telescopes; a pair of binoculars; a tackle box full of filters; eyepieces; lenses and sketching equipment; two milk crates full of charts, maps, sky guides; and enough cold-weather clothing to keep me warm while standing still when it is cold. I am also current president of the local astronomy club, RASC Victoria Centre, which has been in existence here since 1914.

While many amateurs specialize in imaging the beauties of the universe, my main interest is in simply observing objects in the night sky: the moon, planets, interesting stars, star clusters, nebula, and galaxies. I make sketches of what I see in the eyepiece of the telescope. Most observers like me work from lists of these objects, or announcements in astronomy journals. One such list is that of the “Messier Objects,” which includes more than 100 objects catalogued during the 18th century. Observing these objects is a rite of passage for beginning amateurs. There are dozens of such lists, some requiring a large telescope and travel to a dark sky location.

Far-flung night-sky objects are best appreciated by realizing just what, and how far away they are. The Andromeda Galaxy, a commonly observed object and sister galaxy to our Milky Way, is more than two million light-years away. When you look at it, photons that originated there enter your eye and land on your retina. Those photons have travelled an immense distance to reach your eye. They have come so far that when they left Andromeda, there was not yet a mammal on earth as large as a human, or a monkey, or even a rat. That it can even be seen is barely believable. For me, that is a profound meditation, no matter how often I experience it.

I would recommend that anyone interested in astronomy as a hobby visit our website. In addition to a large program of public outreach, clubs like ours provide guidance on equipment and observing sites. We provide telescopes for the use of our members. We have our own observatory. We have monthly lectures on topics of interest to astronomers.

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