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Looking up … way up

Celestial bodies provide an endless supply of uplifting moments for astronomy buffs

By: Victoria Paterson

  |  Posted: Sunday, Dec 08, 2013 06:00 am

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  • STARGAZERS – Murray Paulson and Sharon Tansey demonstrate their telescopes in Paulson's St. Albert backyard. The two are both avid amateur astronomers.
    STARGAZERS – Murray Paulson and Sharon Tansey demonstrate their telescopes in Paulson's St. Albert backyard. The two are both avid amateur astronomers.
    APRIL BARTLETT/St. Albert Gazette
  • GALAXY NEXT DOOR - Galaxy M31  better known as the Andromeda galaxy  is the closest neighbouring galaxy to the Milky Way.
    GALAXY NEXT DOOR - Galaxy M31 better known as the Andromeda galaxy is the closest neighbouring galaxy to the Milky Way.
  • SHINING BRIGHT  Our solar system's centrepiece, the sun.
    SHINING BRIGHT Our solar system's centrepiece, the sun.
  • OTHER OBJECTS  The moon and Venus captured in the sky together.
    OTHER OBJECTS The moon and Venus captured in the sky together.

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Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

For more information on the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in Edmonton, or even just a starting place for information on stargazing in the area, check out their website, edmontonrasc.com.

If you ever have trouble finding Sharon Tansey, you might try checking for her under the night sky.

The St. Albert resident has had a lifelong love affair with the heavens that started with simply looking up.

"I was born interested in the sky. My earliest memory was at a place that we moved from when I was five-and-a-half. So my mother found me outside in the front yard one night at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at the sky, and I can remember her saying 'Oh, here she is,'" Tansey said.

It would be years before Tansey would look through a telescope and awhile longer before she realized that "an ordinary, everyday human being" can look through one on a regular basis.

Since that realization, she's joined astronomy clubs – she's currently a member of the Edmonton branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada – and built her own telescope under the guidance of Murray Paulson.

Paulson is another St. Albert resident who belongs to the club. Scrolling through the vivid photos of Mars, eclipses and galaxies that he keeps on his phone, it's not hard to see why amateur astronomers fall in love with the sky.

Paulson used special telescope attachments to take these photos and many more. He's read everything he could find about astronomy, and built three telescopes before he was 18.

"I was fascinated about astronomy since I was nine years old," he said.

Getting started

For a new amateur astronomer, it's often best to start with the basics before spending money on a telescope.

"You can start out with nothing. That's actually the best place to start is looking at the sky and saying 'Oh my God, that's Saturn, or that's Mercury, being able to recognize planets and constellations," Tansey said. "Then pick up your bird binoculars. Then after that you pick up sky binoculars that are more powerful. Then you can get into telescopes and all sorts of stuff."

Joining a club like the astronomical society – something both Tansey and Paulson recommend – has different advantages, and one of them is the opportunity to try other members' equipment. This will help you decide what you want for yourself.

Paulson suggests setting a budget – and knowing what kind of astronomical objects you want to observe – before buying a telescope.

But joining a club has another advantage – it's a way to get to know the people you could end up standing with in dark, remote areas.

That sometimes feels safer than trying to find a random place on your own on the side of a road, Paulson said. The club operates a dark sky site east of Edmonton for viewing, and Tansey said members welcome newcomers.

"Everybody loves newbies 'cause they can show off their knowledge," she said.

However, if you can't make it out to join the club, there are options ranging from heading out to sheltered rural neighbourhoods to see the aurora borealis or setting up in your own backyard. Even with the light pollution that's pervasive in a city setting, things like the moon and planets are possible to see.

"I like the planets better from the city because when you get a dark site they're very bright and sort of overwhelm your eyes, kind of like a headlight coming at you," Tansey said.

Anywhere you feel safe is a good place to get in some stargazing, Paulson said.

When it comes to figuring out what to look at, there's a host of easy-to-find research options out there. These include the astronomical club, an Edmonton-area astronomy email list that newcomers are welcome to join, books, magazines and computer programs.

Perhaps the most essential resource, however, is a star chart, which can lead you on a voyage across the stars.

"A good star chart … they're like roadmaps only they're sky maps, so you pick out a star you recognize," Tansey said.

"There's just so much to see there. I use the star-hopping method where you start at one place and then you follow your map somewhere, and along the way you'll find double stars that are different colours that you don't see with your naked eye, a really cool yellow star, cute little patterns and what not. Eventually you get to where you were going and you can see a galaxy," Tansey said.

"And the light emitted by that galaxy has left it millions upon millions of years ago," Paulson added.

Knowledge is power

Globular clusters, planetary nebulas and more await when using a telescope with enough power. The more one knows ahead of time about various celestial phenomenon, the more astounding it can be to look at some of these objects, Paulson noted.

"If you don't know anything about it at all, these could be pinpoints in a window blind. But if you realize these stars are half a galaxy away, and that this star is a hundred times as big as our sun and it could go supernova any minute, all of a sudden that puts a place to it," he said. "You think about that, how humbling that is, the sense of the scale of the universe."

Be it solar eclipses, meteor showers or even just looking for a favourite constellation, there's something for almost everyone in the skies above, at almost any time of year, Paulson and Tansey say.

But a profound love of astronomy can also lead some of its enthusiasts to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of a good view. A particular fondness for solar eclipses has prompted Paulson to travel internationally, with a portable telescope often accompanying him.

"I've seen eclipses on four or five continents," he said, describing solar eclipses as addicting.

"This is one of the most incredible, deceptive things. You look at the picture and go 'It's a black hole with fuzz around it,' but when you're there, it's like the difference of looking at a picture of love and actually being in love. It bowls you over," Paulson said.

"I saw my very first eclipse and I realized that, after it was over, I was sobbing."


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