My dad had a steady job and a career path, but his heart was really in his workshop at home. There he built marionettes and rod puppets, made drinkable (usually) wine, had an electric potter’s wheel and kiln, and once even built a television set from parts sent by a company called Heathkit.
The thing I recall Dad putting the most elbow grease into creating was an 8-inch mirror for a reflector telescope that he built and then placed in our backyard on clear nights. I don’t know how many hours he spent grinding and polishing that mirror, but he must have been disappointed when none of my siblings nor I became astronomers.
Still, he imparted enough of his own fascination and awe that, at very least, I’ve always wanted to know more about the denizens of our night sky — the fixed stars, moving planets and other mysteries of our galaxy.
So when I found an old refractor telescope by the road some months ago, I picked it up and even ordered a new zoom eyepiece for it. After all, I’ve got some grandkids to influence and a dilettante Dad to emulate.
But while I’ve now been able to show off the full moon and some closeup looks at high branches on a tall white pine, I’ve been drawing a blank as to what sights in the sky at night might impress the little ones.
Fortunately, I know a guy.
Dave McDonald is a director of the New Hampshire Astronomical Society, the senior educator at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center and teaches astronomy at Belmont High School. He’s also VP of the N.H. Total Solar Eclipse Task Force, which is preparing the state for the learning (and economic) opportunities of the rare total eclipse scheduled to track right across our state on April 8, 2024.
That’s not as far off as it sounds. Meanwhile, here are some of McDonald’s favorite summer skygazing suggestions:
- July 13 will be a super moon. The moon will be its closest to Earth while full and will appear its largest and brightest for 2022.
- Late night July 28 and early morning July 29 will feature the Delta Aquariid meteor shower while the moon is close to its new phase, creating dark skies for a good show.
- Summer’s premier meteor shower, the Perseids, will peak the late night of August 12 and early morning of August 13. Earth will pass through the debris trail of comet Swift-Tuttle. A near-full moon will brighten the sky, but the Perseids are often so bright there should be plenty to see.
Since most of those spectacles are clear to the naked eye, I asked him, “Why should I bother with a telescope?”
“A telescope brings out the detail and enhances the color,” says McDonald. “No one forgets the first time they see Saturn through a telescope. The rings just pop. The star Albeiro — at the bottom of the Northern Cross or the head of Cygnus the swan — is actually a stunning blue-gold pair. A telescope reveals that the star in the middle of the handle of the Big Dipper is really three stars. And you can watch the moons of Jupiter change their positions from night to night.”
So what should we know about the eclipse?
“It is time to make reservations,” McDonald says. “Space is going fast. The ‘whole world’ will be descending upon Coös County where the eclipse will be total.” He stresses that Granite Staters shouldn’t be satisfied with the coverage that the southern part of the state will experience. “Trust me,” he says. “It is nothing like being at 100% totality — 99% totality is only 1% of the totality experience. Get up north!”
He recommends that school boards start working on setting the date as a non-school day so students and families can go up and enjoy this (for many) once-in-a-lifetime experience.
McDonald says New Hampshire offers many places with dark skies and beautiful settings for astrophotography up in the mountains, and once you get the “night-sky bug,” you can always find out what the stars are up to on his show, “The Sky This Month with Dave McDonald,” on YouTube and on Concord Community TV.