Editor's note: A version of this was previously published on the author's website.
Why does amateur astronomy hold so many of us in its grasp?
The enterprise is often difficult, the nights cold, failures frequent and equipment expensive. For astro-imagers, the difficulties and discomforts and, especially, the expense, are multiplied. At the end of the night, if all went well, our computers hold raw images that must be compiled into finished views — one or maybe even three — that are no match for those of other amateurs with deeper pockets, let alone pictures of the same objects produced by space telescopes and professional observatories.
Then what's the attraction?
A deeper reality, not easily observed, underlies every aspect of our lives. We walk and don't worry about the force of gravity that keeps us anchored. We breathe and take for granted the biological reactions that remove oxygen molecules from the air and circulate them in our red blood cells, and we barely consider how the body actually uses that oxygen.
Just as the microscope displays minuscule life forms and unimaginably tinier objects, the telescope extends our understanding of the largest environments. It's an instrument that multiplies our vision, which is the sense we depend upon most to comprehend the world.
Ours is a planet like others, rotating on its axis and revolving around a star in space. We rarely recognize ourselves as creatures on such a world. Instead, we know what's around us: forests, oceans, farms, mountains and cities, clouds, cats, service stations and groceries. At night, we might stare up at some of the other stars. Still, we usually forget the nearly endless cosmos that includes Earth.
It's one thing to imagine we're part of a vast universe. It's another to feel with a shiver, to actually see it ourselves. Some do it through scientific studies, such as timing the periods of eclipsing binary stars, while some do it by taking photographs and others by gazing in wonder.
If an ordinary person has enough determination, he or she can set up a telescope at dusk, wait until full darkness, and then look directly into a galaxy encompassing billions of stars and even more planets. A minute place in the arch above looks like an ordinary patch of black night — but point a telescope just there and the black door opens to the gazer, becoming a real galaxy with a definite form. My favorite thoughts when admiring such a structure millions of light-years away are that I am confident it hosts civilizations; that, although I can't make out their dwellings I am looking right toward them. I have a pinpoint view of their neighborhoods.
Unblemished nature is soaked with beauty. But we live in a chaotic, human-made environment, with its distractions and ugly constructions. I'm sickened by trash-cluttered freeway underpasses, irritated by others' lights burning into my bedroom window at night, driven to despair by the demanding babble of TV. When I'm at the eyepiece or watching an astronomical view come onto my laptop's screen, I am comforted to know that this part of the natural environment is intact. It cannot be damaged in any way by humans. No matter who may wish to exploit it, the Orion Nebula will never carry billboards.
An astronomer is thrilled during those rare periods when it's possible to witness an event unfolding in space.
Jupiter is visible to the naked eye as a point much like a star, though it doesn't twinkle; with a modest pair of binoculars its four largest moons also appear. An occasion I'll never forget was on July 23, 2009, when I photographed the king of solar system planets a few days after an Australian astronomer discovered that it had been struck by a comet.
Baby, my telescope, magnified the point of light into a dramatic disk with cloud bands, baylike formations and the shadow of its moon Callisto. Also barely showing was the scar from the comet strike.
A feeling of peace settles over me when in the desert taking astronomical pictures. Not only am I bringing in a view of a glorious part of creation, but usually I'm in a spot with little human damage. As twilight is replaced by darkness, I peer at silhouettes of mountains, watch the colors fade from low clouds, listen to a family of coyotes. That's rewarding.
The scenes through the telescope are the most enjoyable part, of course. Nothing drives home to me the profundity, mystery and beauty of nature better than seeing with my own eyes and capturing with my own camera something alien, an underlying reality that seems far removed from everyday life.