With eclipse coming, there’s never been a better time to get into amateur astronomy

The Art of Nerding Out

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“Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.” – Plato

The total eclipse coming to east Idaho on Aug. 21 — something that hasn’t happened here since 1979 — is a great excuse to get into astronomy.

Astronomy, or the study of stars, planets and other celestial bodies, is a field brimming with fascinating possibilities. Not only is it a way to learn about the universe around us, but it is also a search for the origin of time, space and everything we know. The study of the stars can be a lifelong pursuit that brings fulfillment and expands one’s mind.

An interest in astronomy can spark to life in many ways. Consider how astronomy student Patrick Kennedy’s love of the stars ignited. As a child, Kennedy had a cheap telescope purchased at a department store. He says, “I somehow caught Jupiter and its moons one night, and it blew my mind.”

Later in life, Kennedy stumbled across some black hole physics lectures on the internet. The fascination deepened and led to his study of astronomy in college.

“Studying was always a joy.”

For Bernard Finnigan, a former high school astronomy teacher, love of the stars was a component of his general fascination with the world around him. “In my case”, Finnigan says, “I was genuinely interested in everything.”

He says that science fiction also played a role. “Planets and stars and comets are bright, visually exciting stuff for a boy born and raised on ‘Star Wars’. This is actual reality, the real world. Studying was always a joy.”

For amateur astronomers, curiosity and an interest in the heavens aren’t the only character traits needed for studying the stars.

Finnigan lists a couple more.

“You can’t be afraid of getting up early, for one thing,” he says, as many astronomical phenomena are most observable in the wee hours of the morning.

He also mentions that astronomy can be an isolating, solitary pursuit. “Early morning and late night viewings can be isolating,” he says. “But honestly, doing astronomy on your own can be an advantage. There’s no one to flake out on you at the last moment.”

Consistency, Kennedy says, is another trait required for an astronomer. If you aren’t consistently looking at the sky, who knows what you’ll miss?

“I have a tabletop telescope and a stargazing app, so I’m out about four nights a week just looking at different objects in the sky,” he says.

It may take dedication and work, but the rewards can be cosmic. Kennedy remembers stumbling across Jupiter and its moons as a kid and the excitement he felt. He also notes the first time he saw Saturn and its rings clearly. Such experiences have laid a foundation for his pursuit of a college education in astronomy.

“I love a good meteor shower,” Finnigan says. “I can take my family up in the mountains, lie on my back, and just count the shooting stars. Each and every one one makes you feel like you’re watching the universe move, right before your eyes.”

If that sounds appealing to you, you don’t actually need much to go stargazing. There are a number skymaps and related apps that can help you identify objects in the night sky. Finnigan recommends SkEYE. The app allows users to point their phones at the sky, mapping out what they see onscreen.

Screenshot from SkEYE app.

From there, amatuer astronomers can invest in telescopes and other accessories, like computerized trackers. And if you need help or more information, you can contact groups like the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society. They can help you embark on your cosmic journey.

As for the ultimate reward, Finnigan sums it up.

“It’s peeling away a layer of reality to see what’s beneath,” he says. “It’s empowering, confidence-building and not only lets you feel smarter, but actually DOES, in fact, make you smarter.”

And who wouldn’t want to be smarter?

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