First Stargazing

Telescope detail revealing eyepiece assembly

I’d wanted a telescope for a really long time.

I guess I should say, I’d wanted a real telescope for a very long time. I had one as a kid, one of those small telescopes that leap to mind when you hear the word “telescope”: a long tube on a tripod tapering to an eyepiece on one end. I tried to use it, but I had no guidance. I don’t know much about that telescope’s provenance—at that time, I was content to know it came from Santa Claus—but it wasn’t the highest quality. The experience never worked out for me. All I saw through it were bright, blurry dots streaking briefly in and out of view.

Not long ago, I got really curious about what would be possible if I bought a new telescope today. It turns out, this is a huge hobby with a lot of writing about it online, and I had to spend weeks reading up before I knew what I wanted. I finally got something called an “Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope.” All my reading had led me to the conclusion that I wanted to set aside all other considerations in favor of the most power for the dollar. In terms of telescopes, that came down to things like focal length and aperture, so I didn’t get cool things like a tracking computer.

I thought it was going to take several days to arrive, but it came the next morning after I ordered it, and I wasn’t prepared for the ridiculous size. All that I said about aperture and focal length? That’s all size, and this thing is a bit silly in that regard. The telescope tube came whole, looking like a bathroom trashcan that grew up to stand nearly as tall as a person and with a large makeup mirror in the bottom. I spent maybe an hour putting the base together, on which I mounted the tube like a cannon.

I was pretty jazzed about using it right away, but I had to find a place and wait till nightfall. I asked around and looked online, and several sources mentioned a place called Stub Stewart State Park. My friend Shawna ended up coming with me, and it was just as well no one else joined me that night because the telescope tube alone occupied my entire backseat.

We headed out of town around eleven at night on the very same day I got it. I’d never been to this park, and even though it’s only about forty minutes out of town, the roads out that way dwindle quickly in size, and the darkness made it feel very remote and a touch creepy. So I was surprised when I ended up at a large parking area filled with cars in the darkness. It was actually a bit crowded, though so dark and moonless that I never did end up seeing another human. The spot was popular enough for astronomers that the bathrooms were lit with red bulbs, making the only visible edifice seem hellish.

Shawna helped me drag my telescope out to an area that seemed clear enough. I had done some research to figure out what things I might’ve wanted to look at, and it turns out all those things had set below the horizon by midnight, so I had no idea what to do from that point. I only had one eyepiece with me, a twenty-five millimeter eyepiece which gave me forty-eight-times magnification. Regardless of what all that magnification may have been suited for, that’s all I had to work with.

The sky, even without any aid, was striking. Without a moon or any light for miles, the Milky Way could be seen clearly spreading across the entire sky. Once our eyes adjusted, the sky was full, and it would’ve been worth the trip for that view alone.

I was really anxious to try out the telescope because I didn’t even know if it’d work or not—my childhood telescope had been a complete disappointment. I took out my phone and used an app to see what was around, and pretty soon I saw Saturn sitting some degrees above the horizon. Taking my phone down, I saw some fuzzy stars in roughly the same direction and had to figure out which one of these dots might’ve been Saturn. I made a guess and worked on aiming the telescope that way.

My aim was off at first, so I slid my telescope around till a bright yellowish blur was in view. While unfocused, it was like a fat, bright dot, but I noticed it had a bit of an oval shape, and that oval became more pronounced as I focused. When it finally became crisp, I noticed the oval had gaps in it. I was actually seeing rings, around Saturn.

It was an unimpressive speck and dazzling sight at the same time. What had first been a tiny dot as anonymous as the rest was now familiar and improbable at the same time, like spotting a celebrity. The magnification rendered it quite small, little more than a bulge with a ring-like shape around it, but it was hard to look away. I let Shawna look, to share it but also confirm that the thing I was seeing was actually Saturn: I had trouble believing I’d found it.

If I’d been alone and had thought to bring a chair, I probably would’ve just sat there and looked at it for a while, but we were getting cold and uncomfortable, and I wanted to see if I could find anything else. I instantly thought of the Andromeda Galaxy, so I pulled out the Sky Guide app and found it high up in the sky in the other direction. When I put the app out of view, up in the sky, I could see stars, but I couldn’t see Andromeda (which wasn’t surprising).

I didn’t really have a choice, so I put my telescope in the neighborhood where it was supposed to be and just started scanning around. This took considerably longer without a clear dot at least to aim for, but eventually a very large oval smear came into view. I tried focusing on it, but it didn’t improve much. I didn’t figure it out at the time, but here was another situation where my eyepiece was inappropriate, this time because it magnified too much. I was seeing only most of the middle portion, and finer details had been dimmed by the magnification.

So Andromeda was even less impressive a sight than Saturn, and somehow even more. Featureless as it seemed, it filled the field of view. Seeing another galaxy was more meaningful to me than seeing a planet or a star. Coming from so far away, Andromeda’s light is not just ancient but primordial. We on Earth can visit Saturn with probes, but we’ll never touch Andromeda. I thought of Edwin Hubble, spotting a Cepheid variable star there and knowing for the first time what an immense chasm of time and space lay between that “island universe” and us. Andromeda taught us just how large the universe could be, and I remembered this as I looked at it.

Before we left, we took a last look at Saturn—I couldn’t resist. Then Shawna and I started on the trip home, by this time very early Sunday morning. We shared an exhilaration from the experience. I know I have to do this again soon, and I don’t doubt Shawna will be willing to join me.