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Holiday Telescope Gift-giving Advice

Looking up from different parts of Earth means we don’t always see stars the same way as our brothers and sisters elsewhere on the orb, but all cultures stand breathless beneath these heavenly bodies and weave star stories filled with heroes, royalty, and beasts. Stargazing is far more than just astronomy. Skywatching results in folklore, a window into our collective hopes, fears, and dreams. Planets carve paths through our heavens over weeks and months. Galaxies appear as snapshots to our mortal eyes, great swirls hovering among diamonds scattered across the black velvet of night. Our heavens bind us together and these bonds should never be so neglected as they are today.

If you yearn to bring this wonder to your families, ponder for a moment if you could empower the poorest of us in this season of giving. Swirling and glowing clouds of light and dust thousands or millions of light-years away can provide inspiration to any who behold them. A donation to Astronomers Without Borders’ Share the Sky provides cosmic perspective to those in greatest need of inspiration and hope. Help others see the skies the way that Henrietta Swan Levitt, Andrew Grey, and Derrick Pitts have and these others will someday discover things to lift us all.

Now that you have considered charity for others, ponder bringing these gifts to your own family and friends. Get a start on selecting what telescopes to buy your loved ones using this handy guide.


1) Telescopes are for skywatching. That means you should think beyond the glass and metal telescope and think about what it represents!

Subscribe to a great sky-watching podcast, like Sky Tour.  At home, point your computer to www.heavens-above.com. On the go? Use your mobile device and dial up Heavens Above or download the android app: Heavens Above. On your Apple device, perhaps Star Chart is what you’ve needed all your life.

Really have the cosmic itch? See a star show at your local planetarium! (Make sure to ask which one is about constellations, though.) Go to your local skywatching sessions. Planetarium staff and telescope owners are friendly, polite, and love answering questions about the heavens.

NOTE: If you aren’t very interested in #1, you shouldn’t buy anything yet.

2) Want to buy something? What is your budget?

If a telescope is new and costs less than $200, it is likely plastic junk that will be hard to aim, hard to see through, and it will frustrate you into never using it again. If this is your budget, you have two options: binoculars or Craig’s List (or estate sales or other informal sales markets).

Ready to spend more? $400 is likely to get you a solid, satisfying piece of equipment along with good eyepieces and a case. Most will have a hand-paddle with buttons that will allow you to point the scope and align it to the sky easily. So which kind to buy?

I like these guides:

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/types-of-telescopes/    and

https://moreheadplanetarium.org/news/releases/thinking-about-buying-a-telescope

3) Now think about logistics, like telescope weight and bulk.

(The Celestron CPC-8 and the author hoping you aren’t thinking “weight” and “bulk”)

In that picture, I look really happy, right? But that 85-lb telescope plus eyepieces case, stepstool, and power pack to keep it running…it means I can’t just grab this all the time. And taking it camping? Only if my vehicle can pull right up to the observing site.

The scope I’ve had for 20 years, however, is the one below and I take it out ten times as often. It’s just easy, light, and while it doesn’t collect as much light or give me as many heavenly bodies to look at, it’s more than enough to see the Moon and planets and a few things I really want to show my friends. (You can’t see the smile in this photo, but it’s there.)

Meade ETX90

(The Meade ETX-90 projecting the Sun just before the August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse)

4) Where can you get your scope and eyepieces, tripod, and other accessories?

Pick up a copy of Astronomy Magazine or Sky & Telescope from your local bookstore’s magazine stands and flip through the ads. There are a lot of choices.

I own a device from each of the “big three” telescope manufacturers and I love them all. Don’t make me choose!

Celestron          Meade         Orion

…but, High Point Scientific has always given me balanced perspective regardless of the label on the telescope.

4) Want a more comprehensive guide of equipment? A thorough overview of how to select a telescope or set of binoculars, as well as what to do once you own it is written by a man who owns dozens of telescopes and reviews them professionally: Ed Ting. Check out his site http://www.scopereviews.com/begin.html

5) Last words of advice that might seem random, but you can thank me for them later:

  • Bug spray can destroy your optics. Don’t spray bug repellent near your eyepieces, telescope, finder scope, or filter sets. Don’t wipe your hands (or allow others to) on your telescopic equipment if you have bug spray oil on them.
  • Have kids and adults hold the footstool handle when looking through the eyepiece. If not, they a) could lose balance, and b) could grab your telescope and misalign it (or worse).
  • Fall, Winter, or Spring: Layers. And fingerless gloves. And hats. And blankets. And hot chocolate or coffee (off to the side, of course).
  • Cut off the mouth of a red balloon and put the remaining balloon snugly over your flashlights. Red light doesn’t harm your night vision, but other colors will!

and most importantly…

  • Skywatching is best done with friends and family. Sharing this experience means, among other things, not being terrified of accidentally falling upward into the sky and floating away into lonely and empty space by yourself. But it mostly means enjoying time pondering philosophy, science, art, and folklore with your own special community.

Questions? Praise? Corrections? Please leave a comment below!

Good luck, Happy Holidays, and may all your skies be filled with stars!

Quite Thankful

On this Thanksgiving, I say thank you to…

Dad and Mom, for carving out time for me and providing opportunities in music, martial arts, and the sciences. I would link to a picture of you wearing superhero outfits, but I’ll just point everyone to the image above and let them guess.

Dr. Brenda Scott, DPhil (Oxon), for providing a light for me to follow and loving me always.

Jonathan Keohane, for teaching me astronomy and physics in high school, then telling me about “this job I know where you can teach astronomy.”

Dorothy Findlen, for teaching me high school English. You helped me realize my deep love of storytelling and writing. And that I shouldn’t use sentence fragments. Like now.

Juanita Woods, for telling me in August 1991 that I should check the open jobs at Morehead Planetarium.

Jim Horn for being mentor, friend, and inspiration for chasing grand dreams. Your knowledge of Morehead Planetarium is a deep ocean and I am forever in your debt for letting me swim in those waters.

CJ Jenzano, for letting me into your life and loving me as if we’ve known each other for decades. I will write books with tales of your father and yourself embedded within, but only because of your patience, good humor, and kindness.

Todd Boyette, for seeing my inspiration and encouraging me to chase my dream of writing about Morehead Planetarium & Science Center’s past, present, and future.

Amy Sayle, for your years of friendship, your honest assessments of my writing, and sharing with me your own brilliant work. My first novel would never have happened were it not for your kind encouragement and your critical eye.

Kate Neece, for your love and support, especially when I am least deserving.

Don Hall, Jeff Hill, Holden Thorp, Richard McColman, Mickey Jo Sorrell, Jonathan Frederick, Owen Phairis, Austin and Beth Guiles, Carolyn Wallace, Adam Phelps, Michael Rowlett, Greg Parker, Rick Scott (no, not that one), Drew Gilmore, Veronica Yoshida, Eleanor Allen, Russ Collett, Bineyam Tafesse, Rinna Hoffman, Greg Campbell, Amit Lal, Derek Campbell, Leena Amarnath, Brian Pickett, Erin Payne, and David Pressley–for sharing your best work, your stories, your support, and inspiration with me.

My friends, too many to name, but you know who you are.

Nancy, Thomas, Sarah, and Rebecca.

Honorable Work

Advice I recently got during a writers’ conference: keep your day job. Many successful mid-level writers, ones you’ve heard of but who don’t get the biggest high-dollar deals, they have jobs to pay the bills.

Two things about that: 1) I’m hopeful that readers will love what I write, but I’m in this for the love of writing, not out of an expectation of fame and riches; and, 2) I love my day job, so even if I get the million-dollar deals, I can’t see myself quitting.

I am a computer programmer at Gilead, a company focused on discovering and manufacturing life-saving and life-improving medications. My data processing work provides a tiny link in the chain of tasks from the moment of chemical compound discovery to the moment when the medicine is placed on drug store shelves. A really tiny link, but one that ensures patient safety and focuses on how to help sick people. I consider it interesting, compelling, and honorable work.

Above are pictures of me on my November visit to Gilead.

Astronauts in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Carol “CJ” Jenzano grew up in the 1960s in a house where astronauts showed up whenever they felt like it. Those elite NASA astronauts could come to Morehead Planetarium & Science Center on a call-ahead basis to receive stellar identification training. Showing up at the planetarium director’s house beforehand was a perk that the astronauts loved. And CJ? She was the planetarium director’s daughter.

The Jenzanos never tipped anyone off that astronauts were in town. CJ and her brother were sworn to secrecy. Neil Armstrong was in town maybe, or John Glenn? Any of the others? Nope – don’t say a word, kids, and you can stay up and listen to us adults talk.

Astronauts sipped sodas, made small talk, and ate homemade dinners with the Jenzanos if they came in the night before training. Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard even went bowling with Tony and Myrtle (whom everyone called “Jay”) in what is now the Trader Joe’s at Eastgate Mall.

Not only did astronauts enjoy good food and good company, they luxuriated in what was a fame-free experience. Only after they were gone would Tony Jenzano spill the beans that these American heroes, these famous men on the covers of Time and Life, had come to town. The only notice anyone in Chapel Hill got was if a customer ordering a chocolate malt at Sutton’s Drug Store or a pizza at The Rathskeller looked a lot like Wally Schirra or Buzz Aldrin.

So how did this happen?

CJ’s dad was Tony Jenzano, the photogenic electronics expert who took over Morehead Planetarium in 1951 when the first director left after just two years. The outgoing director said two things as he left: “Make Tony the next director” and “I hate small towns.”

TonyJenzano_1971_courtesy_CJ_cropped

(Anthony F. Jenzano c. 1971, courtesy Carol Jenzano)

Nine years later, Tony Jenzano dreamed up and pitched to NASA a training program critical to astronaut survival: knowing star positions through planetarium training. Teaching astronauts to point their spacecraft using star positions would mean the difference between thrusting the right direction or the wrong direction. It would also mean the difference between pointing a heat shield correctly or incinerating instead. Bad alignment in either case would threaten success of the mission and survival of the astronauts aboard.

After looking at Jenzano’s proposal and comparing various institutions, NASA agreed: Morehead Planetarium was the most qualified institution to do the job. Morehead had top-of-the-line equipment, imminently qualified trainers, and a centralized location. While two other planetariums eventually also won the right to train astronauts, Morehead blazed the trail and won annual contracts from 1960 to 1975.

The training worked. Knowing the stars made it possible for astronauts to confirm alignment of their spacecraft. All missions had these alignments, and they were as critical to survival as oxygen tanks and carbon dioxide scrubbers. Would you want to enter Earth’s atmosphere with your heat shield pointing the wrong way?

So when CJ answered the door over the years as a young teenager, then as a college student, which steely-eyed missile man would be behind it? To CJ and her brother, it didn’t matter much why these heroes left TV screens and glossy magazine pages to come to Morehead Planetarium and visit the Jenzanos. It only mattered that they did come to visit them and to dwell under North Carolina skies.

___________________

To find out which astronaut teased CJ about her first crush on another astronaut, or to learn about the first time Morehead’s training saved astronaut lives during crisis, come back soon. The photograph below is from an event held to celebrate Morehead Planetarium & Science Center’s plans for expansion, an event honoring the legacy of Captain James Lovell who trained at Morehead eight times for his four missions.

cropped-cjjenzano_captlovell_mneece2.png

April 6, 2017. Left to Right: Carol “CJ” Jenzano, Captain James Lovell, and Michael G. Neece.
Taken during Morehead Planetarium & Science Center’s TakeUpSpace Event celebrating the upcoming renovation.

Astronaut Dick Gordon has died

In March of 1964, Dick Gordon first set foot in Morehead Planetarium for training, coming back six other times over the next four years. He worked with trainers in Morehead’s dome and classrooms, learning how to align his spacecraft with the stars. This training aided him in piloting Gemini 11 and eventually circling the Moon as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 12.

The fourth manned craft to go to the Moon and only the second to land, Apollo 12 was struck twice by lightning shortly after blast-off. Systems went haywire. Alan Bean heard ground control ask them to “set SCE to AUX” and he did so (thereby resetting critical systems). Before leaving orbit, however, it was left to Dick Gordon to realign the spacecraft, a task he accomplished using his Morehead training related to star identification.

Losing this American hero is especially sad for me. Peace to all who knew him and love to his family.

NPR Article about Dick Gordon