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TRIED & TRUE : Stargazers Glimpse Poetry in Motion

April 29, 1993|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a frequent contributor to The Times Orange County Edition.

Stargazing with an amateur telescope is no cinch. You try getting the universe to stand still.

The cosmos is really highballing out there and, with a proper scope, you're zooming right along with it--spinning, wheeling, slingshotting your way through the void, much too fast to get a fix on anything without twirling the knobs as frantically as if you were trying to take a photo with an Etch-A-Sketch.

It almost makes you want to reach for the Dramamine.

It's not like sitting out on a grassy hillside with your sweetie, staring into space, finding the Big Dipper, taking a few minutes out to smooch and looking back to find the Dipper dipped a little lower in the sky. When you start fooling with relative planetary motion through the eye of a telescope in the back yard, you can find yourself addressing the universe in an irritated tone, growling "Come back here!" every minute or so.

I was looking forward to seeing things with rings around them, maybe a comet or two, a supernova in progress, or at least the Starship Enterprise in dry dock. After all, I was going to be playing with a pretty nifty telescope, my dad's stubby-yet-powerful Questra Celestral. And I was going to be playing with it in my dad's yard in Palm Desert, where the air is relatively smog-free and the stars at night are big and bright, no matter what Texas says.

I had monkeyed around with that telescope before, but always in the daytime. I'd been delighted to find that I could spy on the people in the lodge at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway on Mt. San Jacinto, more than 25 miles away. I'd also found that if you touch the telescope itself, even lightly, the image in the eyepiece will shake violently. It helped to home in on what you wanted to see, and then simply stand there staring with your hands clasped behind your back.

During my drive out to the desert on the appointed day, I became concerned that the west wind blowing into town was kicking up too much sand and dust, and that by the time darkness fell it would be like trying to see the stars through an oil slick. When evening came, however, and the eastern sky began to darken, the sky was agreeably clear and a single bright star already had appeared, along with a tiny sliver of moon in the west. We fetched out the Celestral and aimed it at the star.

And immediately turned into The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

Cosmic Truth No. 1: That little bitty telescope attached to the main telescope tube will help you line up the big scope. It's like a telescopic sight on a rifle. It even has cross hairs in it. Get the heavenly body in the cross hairs and it should be in the field of vision of the big scope. All you have to do is focus.

Cosmic Truth No. 2: Cosmic Truth No. 1 is a big fib. If you're going to look at something a few thousand light years away, you have to look straight at it, and if the little sight is off even the tiniest bit you'll end up staring into The Big Black and spinning the focus ring in frustration.

My dad and I took turns bobbing and weaving around the tripod, squinting and twisting knobs and generally jerking the scope around the heavens like there was a fish on the other end. Nothing worked.

Finally, instead of lining up with something so far away, I decided to try something a little closer to home: the peak of the roof, which appeared to fall directly under the star. Then, I reasoned, I simply could turn the vertical knob a few times and the star would heave into view and to hell with the little scope.

It worked.

A quick focus and there it was, exactly like I'd seen it without the telescope only . . . slightly larger. And that was it: a pulsating white ball of gas, slightly magnified.

I tried it with a handful of other bright stars. Same result. Then, just as I was beginning to get a good fix on each of them, they began to move out of the field of vision! The Earth, turning under my feet at about 900 m.p.h., was forcing me to twiddle the horizontal and vertical knobs on the tripod frantically just to keep up with the galloping heavens. Plus, the wind had kicked up again and was buffeting the tripod, turning my stargazing into an immense game of interstellar Ping-Pong and bringing me to . . .

Cosmic Truth No. 3: You don't so much gaze at stars as pounce on them.

The moon, of course, is different. It hung low in the western sky like a big ripe tomato. Only a thin crescent was illuminated by the sun but the sky was clear enough to reveal the outline of the rest of the satellite. It took only a few seconds to find in the lens.

And that was the reward for the evening. The telescope brought this closest of all heavenly bodies right into my shirt pocket. The illuminated sliver was brilliantly white and well-defined, and even the rest revealed darker and lighter blotches where huge craters and lunar seas marked the surface.

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