Getting Started in Astronomy: 12 Essential Items for the Field

The right accessories can make a night under the stars much more enjoyable.

All images by David Dickinson.

The figurative stars have truly aligned. The skies are clear, life’s obligations are met, and it’s time to head out to that favorite dark 1sky observing site. Perhaps you’re planning a simple night’s worth of visual observing and looking forward to checking that elusive 14th magnitude galaxy off of your life-list… or maybe you’re down for a night of serious deep-sky astrophotography.

What to bring?

Certainly, you’ll want to have everything available within reach in the field. If you’re driving out an hour or so, there’s no turning back… and you’ll need lots more than a telescope and camera. What follows is our tried-and-true, in the field checklist. This works for star parties and public events as well, to assure you’ll never forget that small but crucial piece of gear.

Author David Dickinson has never been accused of being unprepared for a night under the stars.

Knee pads: Observing calls for lots of knee-grinding, as you star hop to the next target. Sports or painter’s knee pads work great in the field. Another option is a hiking or gardener’s mat that can be thrown strategically wherever needed.

Dew shield: Fogged up or frosted optics usually spell the end of an observing session. Sophisticated heater systems do exist to combat dew formation, or you could take the low-tech approach of simply wrapping a thin piece of foam around the aperture of the telescope. This insulates the optics, extending your observing time. If a power source is available, a hair dryer at the lowest setting can also be applied to remove dew.

Filters: Light pollution and oxygen OIII filters have come a long way in recent years. One of our favorite filters for visual observing is a variable polarizing filter, handy for stopping down bright objects such as the moon or planets to reveal detail.

Warm clothes: It can get cold towards early morning. Plus, astronomy involves hours of standing still, allowing for extremities to get cold in a hurry. Dress warm, in layers. Finger-less gloves that convert into mittens are also great to preserve warmth and dexterity.

Repellent: Nighttime means mosquitoes, which love to prey on observers. Mosquitoes zero in on body heat and mammals exhaling carbon dioxide. In general, we’ve found ‘natural’ branded repellents such as citronella (while pleasant smelling) do not work in the field. The best stuff contains high levels of DEET. Beware, though, to keep your hands and fingertips washed free of DEET, as it’s not only corrosive to plastic (!) but is also harmful to optical coatings.

Extra batteries: Be sure to have a spare set of batteries for every device you’re bringing in the field, make sure they’re fully charged, and keep them someplace warm (like a coat pocket). Cold temperatures can drain batteries in a hurry.

Short wave radio: Timing an occultation? For U.S. observers, an AM shortwave radio tuned to WWV Radio out of Fort Collins, Colorado (on 5, 10, 15 and 20 MHz) will call out an audio time-hack, allowing you to keep an eye on the target while adding a time-signal to a video recording.

Multi-plier: Multi tools such as those made Gerber Gear or Leatherman are handy for quick repairs in the field.

Green laser pointer: Laser points are extremely useful for public outreach, to show the public around the sky. Be forewarned, however, that green laser pointers aren’t toys, and can blind someone at close range. Never aim them at a person or reflective surface, and never point them at a car or aircraft; users have been arrested for doing so. Also, be advised that several commercially available 5-milliwatt lasers have tested at much higher than advertised output. I keep my laser pointer on a short leash, and NEVER hand it off to someone else.

Red flashlight: A red light preserves your night adaptation, while allowing you to find your way in the dark and red star maps.  Your best bet is a red headlamp, allowing for hands-free use.

Beach cart: Sometimes, a public event might mean hauling gear to a viewing site. The answer: a collapsible beach cart or wagon. This allows you to put ‘wheels under your gear,’ even if you need to ‘off-road’ a bit to get to where you need to be.

Getting off the road, or reaching an observing site where cars aren’t allowed, can mean a lot of hauling equipment for the unprepared.

Folding table, chair and step ladder: Finally, a folding card table is handy, especially if you’re planning on bringing your laptop in the field. Likewise, a small step ladder is handy, and can serve as both a chair and a way to help the public up to the eyepiece in the dark.

We all only get so many clear nights under the stars: Don’t forget any of these crucial pieces of gear on your next night out.

 

About David Dickinson

David is a freelance science writer, frequent contributor to Sky & Telescope and Universe Today, author of several astronomy books and long-time amateur astronomer. He lives with his wife Myscha in Norfolk, Virginia.

Related posts