Friday, December 28, 2012

Inspire Your Sci-Fi With These Four Night-Sky Ideas

Kitt Peak National Observatory
It's been quite a while since I've been on a professional observing run at a telescope.  When not writing spec-fic, I've been focused on astronomy educational opportunities.  So it is both fun and refreshing to once again find myself at a telescope actually doing some science.  (Well, I would be doing science instead of writing a blog post if it hadn't been snowing just two hours ago.  We're still waiting to see if the sky clears and the humidity comes down enough to open.)

Getting out under the stars can be a great way to inspire some writing.  With the constant encroachment of city lights and the general pace of life, we don't often take the time to put ourselves under a dark sky, let alone at the eyepiece of a telescope.  If you are looking for some inspiration for your next science fiction story, here's a list of things you can do to get your muse in motion.

1.  Attend a Star Party.  Astronomy clubs love to have visitors come to their open public events.  Amateur astronomers are often very enthusiastic and know a great deal about their telescopes and what they observe with them.  Even if you consider yourself an expert at astronomy it can be very motivating to mingle with amateurs and the public.  Conversations you have might spark your writing creativity or give you a new spin on an old idea.  To find a club you might try Sky and Telescope, the Night Sky Network, or the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

2.  Grab Your Binoculars.  Many people have a pair of binoculars they use for bird watching, sightseeing, and such.  Any pair of binoculars, however big or small, can be turned to the night sky.  It is amazing how much more is available to see with a little help.  Check out the moon in particular, then go on a hunt through the constellations and see if you can find things you never noticed before.  A web search on "free sky chart" or "free sky map" will give you a number of options for a reference for your personal tour.  

3.  Watch for Astronomical Events.  Every year there are eclipses, meteor showers, comets, and more that can be seen with little or no equipment.  Many of these events are highly predictable, so you can plan far in advance to be at a good location.  To find a list of events for 2013 you might try Sea and Sky, something like the Farmer's Almanac, or the exhaustive Astropixels.  Most importantly, keep an eye out for the coming of two potentially amazing comets in 2013!  Try the Planetary Society or this article at the Alamagordo Daily News for more info.  One of these events might find its way into your next story.

4.  Go to a Planetarium Show.  It isn't always possible to get to a dark sky.  The next best thing is a good planetarium.  Find a show that talks about the stars, constellations, and observing at night.  Sit back in a nice warm room and comfy chair as an expert guides you around the heavens.  Let your mind wander, if you like, and see what worlds real or imagined, demand your attention.  Some lists of planetaria can be found at the International Planetarium Society, or the always useful Wikipedia.

Side-note.  You may know that with science funding in its current state, some of the most amazing and productive astronomy telescopes on the planet may be shutting down over the next few years.  The Kitt Peak National Observatory (where I am right now) is expected to divest several of  its telescopes, which puts the future of the Observatory as a whole in question.  Several smaller, mid-sized, and older telescopes are being divested in favor of a small number of larger, newer ones.  This in itself is not unexpected, but as an educator, it is my personal concern that changes like this will make it harder for certain groups to get observing time - like graduate students, early career astronomers, astronomers from non-traditional backgrounds and minority institutions, and those with smaller programs. You can read more at Universe Today here, the NOAO site here, and the AZ Daily Star here.  I'm hoping some of these telescopes will be picked up by, say, consortia of small universities or science institutes, large amateur groups, and overseas astronomy agencies, rather than actually being shut down permanently.  Righto, enough of that serious stuff. 

Now, back to seeing how the weather is doing ... hmm.  Snow is stuck to the dome, and the humidity hasn't budged.  It's going to be a long night, I think ...

Image Credit:  NOAO Education Programs


Amy said...

Ugh, I'm so sad to hear that these telescopes are being divested! I hope someone picks them up.

I love the start party idea, and thanks for the links to places to keep track of astronomical events! I never know when something is coming up until it happens. :-)

J.A. Grier said...

Star parties are always a good option - and clubs are usually so thrilled to have visitors! Glad the lists of events will be useful for you. I'm going to mark down the major meteorite showers right now.
Fictional Planet