Departments March/April 2020

Starry Night

By Todd Thalimer | STC Member

I vividly remember the night that I first gazed into the heavens through a telescope. It was a cool spring evening in 1986 in Southern California. I had been eyeing my neighbor’s giant Newtonian reflector telescope for a long time and was excited when he asked me to come over one evening and have a look. I was a teenager, and I was in love with all things “space.” I often begged my parents to take me to the library so that I could check out books about the Saturn V rocket and anything by Arthur C. Clarke.

As knowledgeable as I was about space, nothing prepared me for the experience of looking through a telescope for the first time. My eyes quickly adapted, and I saw a field of stars illuminate the background. Then my heart skipped a beat as I saw it: Halley’s Comet! I had seen lots of celestial objects in books, but actually seeing one with my own eyes made me weak. I was so excited that I vowed to one day have my own telescope.

It wasn’t until a decade later that I was able to afford my first telescope. I saved every cent to buy one of the first computerized telescopes for the amateur home astronomer. This type of equipment made it easy for anyone to align a few stars and have the entire universe available. When I looked through my own telescope for the first time, I felt like I was back in 1986, again. I couldn’t believe how pictures do not compare to seeing objects, live, through a telescope. I was gazing at Saturn, and the rings looked so crisp and bright.

As I advanced in the hobby of astronomy, my equipment got much more complex. I threw a get-together every year in my driveway—commonly called a star party (Figure 1)—where my friends would gather for the evening, and we’d look through the telescope. I had space-themed cocktails, trivia, and a food contest. My favorite part was having someone look through a telescope for the first time, and as I had done as a teen, feel the sense of wonder. It starts with a sigh as they see what’s in the eyepiece. Then there’s usually a gasp. They’ll look at me as if to say, “That can’t be real!” That never gets old.

Over the years, I turned my love of astronomy into the technical field of astrophotography.  It’s a lot more than just hooking up a camera to a telescope and snapping a quick photo. The learning curve is steep and daunting, but I wanted to see those nebulae and galaxies that the human eye is incapable of resolving. Years later, I have accomplished my dream of capturing those pictures I saw on the sides of the telescope boxes—the images that seemed achievable to someone new to the hobby but are actually difficult to get. My holy grail picture was a good shot of the Horsehead Nebula (Figure 2), which I finally got after many evenings of careful work.

As my admiration for the heavens grew, so did my love of talking about the subject. I have used my technical communication skills to reach a much larger audience. I’ve been honored to speak about all sorts of subjects at schools, libraries, universities, and to social groups. My ability to take a complex topic and distill it to an easy-to-understand concept for anyone from the third grade on up has thrilled me. Still, the most rewarding thing for me is inspiring young kids that look through a telescope for the first time, hearing them gasp, and knowing that I’ve given them the gift of a much larger universe.

 

TODD THALIMER (todd.thalimer@gmail.com) has been a technical communicator ever since his report on The History of NASA in seventh grade. As a software engineer for 20 years, he was often the proponent for documentation on every project. Several years ago, he dedicated his career to becoming a full-time technical communicator. He resides in Parker, Colorado with his daughter—who dreams of being an astronaut—and a very understanding wife, who keeps the bed warm until it’s time to come in for the night. Todd also runs a successful outreach group for his observatory on Facebook.

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