Galileo's Way

The English scientist Thomas Harriot did it first, on July 26, 1609. Between a month and several months later (academics quibble over the date), Galileo did it. And today a few dedicated amateur astronomers continue doing it — sketching what they see through the telescope.

Jay Eads, a Kearns teacher, is one of these telescope artists, using eight- and 10-inch diameter Dobsonian ‘scopes, finder charts, sketchpad and tape recorder to locate and reproduce striking and, often, obscure objects in the night sky.

I joined him in the field the night of March 15-16. He, Michael Vanopstall and I were at one of Eads’ favorite sites, dubbed Pit’n’Pole, about nine miles east of Faust, Tooele County. The others were already observing when I arrived. Working next to his vehicle, Eads had set up his folding table and charts and was using his telescope while I tried to get started.

[Jay Eads’ setup. Photo provided by Eads]

I was having an awful time and ended up accidentally dropping the secondary mirror inside my telescope’s tube; but that was another blog, which I filed March 18.

His red light shining, he began to talk. I wondered why Eads was speaking so quietly; I could barely make it out, something about a spiral galaxy. When I asked him what he was saying, he explained he was making sketches and reporting his impressions with a tape recorder at the same time.

He was working on galaxies that are in the Herschel 400 list, which a Cambridge University description of a field guide says is “a list of 400 galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters, picked from over 2,500 deep-sky objects discovered and catalogued by the great eighteenth-century astronomer Sir William Herschel and his sister Caroline. It comprises 231 galaxies, 107 open clusters, 33 globular clusters, 20 planetary nebulae, 2 halves of a single planetary nebula, and 7 bright nebulae…..

“Ideal for astronomers who have tackled the Messier objects, this richly illustrated guide will help the amateur astronomer hone their observing skills.”

In other words, don’t even try the Herschels until you’ve cut your teeth on the Messier objects, which are generally the brightest deep-space beauties we can see from the northern hemisphere. Messier objects can be hard enough to find and study, even with a larger telescope.

Eads observed 15 Herschel objects that night and sketched around seven. He took 20 to 30 minutes with each drawing. I looked through his ‘scope at the fascinating spiral galaxy NGC 2903. In his blog, which is posted on-line, are the details of his observations as well as the sketch he drew then:

“NGC 2903 has a bright inner core that is starlike with averted vision. Dust lanes are evident and there is a strong halo near the core that diffuses out. Two arms are evident. Excellent galaxy to examine, best object seen of the night. Messier overlooked this one in making his catalog though three of the comets he discovered were relatively close to it. At the dark site I could easily discern the puff of smoke in the finder at 9X50.”

[Jay Eads’ sketch of galaxy NGC2903, made the night of March 15-16 at Pit’n’Pole, Tooele County]

Interested in astronomy since he was a boy, Eads got serious about the avocation three years ago. He found a sketching forum on the Cloudy Nights astronomy site on the Internet and realized that drawings were a way that helped people “really get in and see details of the objects,” he said.

He began to make recordings and sketches of his telescopic targets. “My first efforts were miserable.” But with practice he improved until now he produces views that look just like the targets. He has trained his eyes, mind and hand to pick out and show the details of these amazing distant objects.

“I still feel I’ve got avenues for growth,” he said. “And believe me, I’m not an artist.”

Usually astronomical sketches are like negatives, dark pencil rubbings on white paper. Eads goes a step beyond, scanning his pictures onto a computer and then inverting them, so that a misty galaxy shows gray and white against the black background of space.

[Jay Eads’ sketch of NGC6946, nicknamed the Fireworks Galaxy]

According to Eads, “The ultimate goal’s to try to bring out what you’re visually seeing at the eyepiece.”

To see how splendidly he is succeeding, check out his astronomical blog HERE.

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