Jun 28, 2012

Outreach Is The Cure For "Jaded".

The 15" and 20" Obsession(s)
were instrumental in Portal and
at the Grand Canyon.
Without question, the rate of the posts to this blog has....shall we say....occurred at a less than furious pace over the last six months.  All I can say in my own defense is that sometimes life gets in the way and if I have to choose between living life and writing about it, I'm always going to choose "living life".  It's not that I haven't been doing anything in that time - quite the contrary.  In the last 6 months I've been blessed enough to:
  • Work near full-time hours with two different clients.  It's not lost on me that while many people are still struggling for work, I have almost too much of it.  I try not to complain about the demand that it places on my everyday life. It's a blessing to be in a position that I've had to turn away work and I'm grateful for it.
  • Even with two(ish) jobs, I've been able to spend a good amount of time observing - trips to dark skies have abounded.
    • Multiple western Arizona trips including 5 days around the All Arizona Messier Marathon in March.
    • An invitation to observe near Portal, AZ and the Arizona Sky Village with some good friends in April.
    • A trip to southern Utah for the annular eclipse in May.
  • There have been many significant equipment changes which I'll detail some other time.
  • I've managed to do quite a bit of astrophotography too - some of it is even decent.
  • I've been blessed enough to do a lot of outreach work - and that's what I'll be covering today.
Leo Triplet shot at the All Arizona Messier Marathon.  10.5 hours total exposure with QHY8PRO and Explore Scientific ES127CF refractor. 

Give Something and Get Something

One of the ways that I try to conduct myself in daily life is to remember that I should always be giving something back to this life that has rewarded me so richly beyond what I deserve.  I fall short of this ideal much of the time, but when I manage to live up to it - I am inevitably the one who comes out on the winning end of the bargain.  When it comes to astronomy and outreach, this axiom has proven to be even more true.  When I talk about outreach, I'm talking about any sort of astronomical activity where I am not the intended primary beneficiary of the activity.  This can include everything from writing this blog to helping a club member out with some image processing tips to settting up a telescope and showing the universe to a complete novice.  It has yet to fail that when the motive is selfless, the reward is always beyond anything I could have imagined.  This is the beauty of outreach.

The kind of outreach I'm talking about here is the more common definition - setting up a telescope and showing the universe to less experienced eyes.  I've always been keen on outreach and some years ago, back in the early 2000's I did a good amount of it locally.  I'd like to say that work, life and family made it difficult to continue the outreach work - but if I'm being honest, the truth is that selfishness is what made it difficult.  I focused more on things that had a direct payoff for me...and in the end found that it was a far less fulfilling way to proceed through life.  One of the things that I've found to be true, at least in my case, is that we tend to become jaded.  After I've looked at Saturn a hundred times it becomes 'just Saturn' to me.  Let me show Saturn for the first time to a child who's never looked through a telescope before and it reminds me why I fell in love with the night sky in the first place.  Outreach is the cure for jaded.  This time around in my haphazard and checkered amateur astronomy career, a number of things have come together at just the right time and in just the right sequence to renew my love for this amazing hobby obsession. 

While the initial intention was honorable, my outreach activities weren't entirely altruistic starting out.  Last November I fulfilled a dream of purchasing a travel trailer for camping and amateur astronomy.  It has become affectionately known as "The Command Center" amongst my astronomy friends.  When January 1st, 2012 rolled around I was one of the first in line to volunteer to setup a telescope for this year's Grand Canyon Star Party - North Rim.  While I was excited about the prospects of the outreach and sharing the night sky with visitors to one of the most amazing places in the world, I was equally excited about being given a campsite for the command center in the North Rim Campground for eight nights.  Getting a campsite for one night is difficult enough, but getting one for eight nights is next to impossible.  I began to daydream about all the daytime wanderings that would now be possible.  In the end the outreach was the highlight but more on that later. 

Mount Lemmon and Messier

My June 2012 observing site

In early March, as I was preparing to haul The Command Center out for the All Arizona Messier Marathon, I was contacted by one of my astronomy friends to see if I had any interest in doing some outreach at the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter.  I quickly answered "Duh!!"  Of course I would!  On a couple of occasions since then I've made the 3 hour trek to the 9100 foot summit of Mt. Lemmon and assisted with their SkyNights program.  Besides getting the thrill of sharing some people's first experience with the night sky through a telescope, it's always a joy to share the sky with people who are genuinely interested in the knowledge that you have to share.  It's that exchange that makes outreach so much fun.  Being able to view the universe through a 32" Ritchey-Chretien from the top of a 9000' Sky Island doesn't hurt either.  There is interest on both parts (mine and the SkyCenter) to make that a more permanent arrangement but as of yet that hasn't completely materialized.  If you ever make time to get down to Tucson, Arizona a trip to the SkyCenter and a trip to the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab should be on your required list of things to do.  You can't appreciate the size of an 8.4 meter mirror until you're standing next to it.

In late March, I did indeed haul out The Command Center for the All Arizona Messier Marathon and it was a great time.  As I used the five day trip entirely for astrophotography, I had a lot of time to walk the observing field and catch up with friends old and new alike.  I spent a bit of time with some students from ASU and a young woman out for her first star party ever and did a little outreach and promotion of astronomy in general.  Highlight of the trip though was the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with a young guy who's fanatical about astronomy outreach.  Spend five minutes in a room with Kevin Legore of Focus On Astronomy and you'll be ready to run out and point a telescope skyward to find all the stuff that William Herschel missed the first time around.  His efforts are tireless and he's regularly hosting events in an effort to share the night sky with new eyes whenever he can.  It was a sad day for Arizona astronomy when he moved to southern California soon after the star party.  He continues his outreach work in So-Cal and occasionally makes it back to Arizona as well.  If you get a chance to attend or support one of his events I highly encourage you to do so.  Kevin is also a longtime fixture at the South Rim edition of the Grand Canyon Star Party.  In his work life he's a purveyor of fine astronomy instruments. If you just want to talk about astronomy equipment, he's also a walking encyclopedia of astro-gear knowledge - so stop in at Woodland Hills Telescope and chat him up if you're in the area.  

Grand Canyon Star Party

It took six months to get here, but finally it was time to make the trek northward for the Grand Canyon Star Party - North Rim.  The Tucson Astronomy Club typically handles the festivities at the much larger and more crowded South Rim.  A few years ago the Saguaro Astronomy Club assumed the duties of providing telescopes and outreach at the North Rim.  The two star parties are only 10 miles apart if you're a bird, but they're two entirely different worlds.  They're both an awesome time....just different.  We arrived early on Saturday and claimed our campsite.  After setting up camp we drove down to the Grand Canyon Lodge to setup telescopes on the veranda - overlooking the Grand Canyon.  At the South Rim there are more scopes and it's a bigger affair.  At the North Rim, there's only about a dozen scopes but it's such an intimate setting that you can trip and spill a drink right into the canyon.  We set up the heavy artillery near the door leading into the sun room - the highest traffic area in the lodge.  I prepared my 15" Obsession right next to the ramp that empties onto the veranda and my friend Chris setup his 20" Obsession behind it, overlooking the canyon and commanding the attention of every person within sight of it. 

When the sun had set and Saturn appeared, the madness began with a quickness.  Before twilight had even really set in, the line at my telescope was twenty people deep all waiting for a look at Saturn.  It was awesome!  People were astounded at the views and what could be seen through a telescope.  It gave a great opportunity to expose people to amateur astronomy in one of the greatest settings in the world.  As night fell it got dark down in the canyon - as in pitch black.  But looking skyward, it was a dark grey with what can only be described as a stoopid amount of starlight.   The Milky Way was obnoxiously bright and particulate matter in the atmosphere - presumably from the New Mexico wildfires - completely blotted out any indication that Flagstaff and Phoenix were to the south.  This pattern would repeat itself for all eight nights.  When you get eight straight nights at 8200' elevation with 10% humidity and temperatures in the mid 50's and absolutely no light pollution the astronomy Gods have smiled upon you.

I got to share the universe with so many excited people and it renewed everything about amateur astronomy for me in just that first night.  In most excellent fashion I got to repeat it for eight nights.  I've rediscovered my love of visual observing and got to put a lot of smiles on people's faces in the process.  I figure that I met somewhere around 1500 people in those eight nights and counted at least 24 countries represented.  Over and over I heard things like:
  • Is that fake? 
  • Is that real? 
  • It looks like a picture.
  • I've never seen anything like that in my life.
  • I had no idea that you could see those things with your own eye.

Over and over people were amazed and happy that we had come to share the night sky with them.  If I heard thank you once, I heard it a thousand times that week.  On the first and second nights we were priveleged to spend time with an 8 year old named Lauren.  She was so excited the second night that she was jumping up and down while she stood in line.  She soaked up every object that was shown to her and stayed excited for more.  That sort of enthusiasm is infectious.  Over the course of the week I had at least a dozen people who were pretty advanced in their years - seniors if you will - who commented that they'd never seen anything so wonderful in their life and that everyone should see this stuff at least once. 

On Wednesday night I had the privilege of being the speaker for the evening and presented a topic on the distance scale of the universe.  It was well received and one little girl was so enthralled that she hung around afterward to talk some more with me about it and spent much of the evening at the telescope with me asking questions and reconciling her views in the eyepiece with the information from my presentation.  It was just awesome stuff. 

What was in it for me?  Depends on how you measure it.  If you measure it in the things of this world - it was a losing proposition.  I paid money out of my own pocket to haul a travel trailer 300 miles up 7000 feet of elevation gain and gave up a week of my life showing the universe to the public for a few hours each night.  I was reimbursed for none of it.  And if that's the way that you measure....you're missing out on the whole thing.  Because I got so much out of it that I can't wait to waste all that time and money again next year - even if it costs twice as much. I got to:
  • watch people's minds expand at the sight of a universe they never knew was there.
  • see an old woman cry at the sight of Saturn's rings.
  • stoke the imaginations of children who were curious about the sky.
  • watch the sunset in the Grand Canyon eight straight nights for free.
  • laugh, and laugh, and laugh with friends from my astronomy club.
  • spend 9 days with absolutely no technology between me, my family and our surroundings.
  • hike in the Grand Canyon and explore Northern Arizona - for free.
I can't wait now for the next new moon myself so I can get back out and image and observe our universe.  It's like being a newcomer to the hobby all over again, you can't wait to see it all.  And I can't wait for next year so that I can do it all again.  Outreach reminds me of what's important in this life - it's the giving and sharing.  It's being selflessly available to share what you have to offer whenever the opportunity presents itself.  My tendency in life is to be harsh and rigid and it never pays off well.  The outreach opportunities - especially Mt. Lemmon and Grand Canyon Star Party - are the examples that remind me of the true rewards in this world.  If I've learned one thing in this life and this hobby it's that you should give without expecting anything in return wherever possible.  You'll inevitably be rewarded beyond anything you could have imagined.