My First Variable Star Observation

Friday, February 15th, will be the 14th anniversary of my first variable star estimate.

R Leo, 9.6, Feb 15, 1999

Over 82,000 observations later, I can still recall a lot of things about my first variable star observation.

I remember I was at my dad’s house in Romeo, Michigan, where the skies were much darker than at my home at the time. I was using a 10” LX50 and finding objects by dialing in the setting circles and star hopping with the finder and a low power eyepiece. I had spent a couple months learning how to polar align, set up and tear down the telescope, and how to find things on star charts and use the telescope at different magnifications. Once I thought I knew my way around the telescope and the sky, I was determined to start variable star observing.

I tried for almost a whole night on the 14th, but I couldn’t figure out how to relate what I was seeing in the eyepiece to what I was seeing on the AAVSO charts. It was very cold that year in February. There were several inches of snow on the ground. I remember because I had lost my favorite pen in the snow in the dark, and spent a half an hour looking for it before giving up for the night, frustrated by my lack of success, the bitter cold and the loss of my pen.

But I was determined, so the next night I drove out to my father’s property, set up the telescope, polar aligned it and began looking for R Leo again. I had been trying to star hop from Regulus, heading west, looking for that little triangle of stars that everyone who observes R Leo comes to know so well. But I couldn’t tell what I was doing wrong or how to fix it, so I decided to try using the setting circles and a new finder chart I had made myself from a planetarium program called Mega Star.

Something I’ve learned over the years since then is this- if you make a mistake while trying to find a new star, and then get lost a second time, move on to another target and come back to it another night, because chances are you’re going to continue making the same mistake over and over. It happens to the best of us. Next time, you’ll wonder why you thought it was so tough the previous night, when armed with a fresh perspective, you land right on it.

That is what happened to me. Once I dropped the star hopping strategy and just dialed it in, I landed almost smack dab on top of it. I had probably slewed past it a dozen times the night before, but couldn’t tell how big the triangle I was looking for was going to be in my eyepiece or finder. When I was pointing right at it, undistracted, it hit me like a ton of bricks. There it was! And I was sure that was R Leo right there, because it was obviously redder than the other stars. I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud. I was relieved. “Hey, I can do this,” I said to myself.

A lot of things in my life have changed since that fateful night. The AAVSO has had an enormous impact on my life, more than I ever could have imagined standing in the snow that night in 1999.

It was years later that I learned several of my friends and legendary observer, Leslie Peltier, started their VSO careers observing R Leo. I go back and visit her now and then, just because R Leo will always have a special place in my heart. Some night this month the clouds have to part, so I can go back and relive a special moment in my memory one more time, with my oldest variable star friend.

My personal history with R Leo. Blue crosses are my visual observations over the years.


Peter said...

Nice, Mike.

My two cents - "...[I] couldn’t tell how big the triangle I was looking for was going to be in my eyepiece or finder." That, in one sentence, is the key navigational problem for new telescopic VS observers.


Jerry Hubbell said...

Hey Mike, I am one of those who started with R Leo on 6 May 2011. I used my Oberwerk 15x70 binoculars. This is THE instrument for visual variable star observing. Thanks for all you do for the AAVSO, and congratulations on 82,000 observations. Not too many more until 100 Grand!

Jerry Hubbell - HGRA

Gary Nugent said...

I've never been able to get excited about variable stars. A couple of the guys in my local astronomy club are big into it and regularly contribute their observations to the AAVSO (one even married an AAVSO employee!). Yes, I know it's an area of astronomy where amateurs can contribute real science to the field. I like the grandeur of the night sky and the swirls of stars and gas it contains. So. Mike, what inspired your interest in variables and why have you stuck with it over so many years?

Big Mike said...

Hi Gary,
I think the main thing is that I enjoy the things in the night sky that are dynamic. I like to see the Universe changing and evolving in real time in front of my eyes- Mars rotating on its axis, belts and festoons on Jupiter changing shape and colors, the Galilean satellites orbiting the gas giant, eclipses, occultations and variable stars. After you've seen the really showy deep sky objects you can either embark on a journey to eek out fainter and fainter wisps of ghostly gray nebulae or galaxies with ever larger telescopes, or you can settle in to viewing the same twenty objects and showing them to your buddies over and over again, or you can get into the expensive and potentially maddening pursuit of imaging. OR- you can learn about variable stars and how amateurs can contribute to science by submitting careful observations to AAVSO or another organization like it. Me, I always knew variable stars would be the end game for me once i knew my way around the sky and a telescope. I was inspired by all those Patrick Moore books I read from the public library as a kid.
What do I keep doing it? Most of us start doing it to contribute to science, but the ones who stay with it stay because, believe it or not, it's FUN! It's also addictive, as Leslie Peltier noted in 'Starlight Nights'--"I feel it my duty to warn any others who may show signs of star susceptibility that they approach the observing of variable stars with the utmost caution. It is easy to become an addict and, as usual, the longer the indulgence is continued the more difficult it becomes to make a clean break and go back to a normal life."