by Dee Dwyer
Elsie Ferguson of Seaforth is a retired nurse and an avid Scrabble player who takes her two Shih Tzus on daily beach walks. In the 1970s when she was sailing on a schooner, she became interested in the night sky.
Recently she completed the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s (RASC) observing program designed for beginning amateur astronomers called Explore the Universe. It can be found online at the society’s website: www.rasc.ca. The RASC, a national organization, was founded over 150 years ago and has centres across Canada including one in Halifax.
On a sunny January afternoon, I sat with her, over tea, the dogs asleep on their cushions, and talked about tips she would give to those interested in finding out more about the moon and planets and stars.
“The Eastern Shore is an ideal area to enjoy star gazing,” she says. “There are not a lot of bright lights from the city so it’s easier to find objects in the sky. Make it easy on yourself on starting by finding three objects in the night sky. You don’t need fancy equipment, not even binoculars, not at first. Just familiarize yourself with the constellations.”
Elsie tells me that the stars rise in the east and set in the west. ”You can download and print maps of the night sky for free (www.skymaps.com). You are better off at first without a telescope because you wouldn’t find the whole constellation in the narrow scope of the viewfinder.”
Instead she suggests learning the names and locations of different constellations and bright stars. When you are ready for binoculars or telescopes, you can find galaxies and star clusters. She shows me that astronomy comes with a new vocabulary of stars named after characters from Greek mythology, while other stars have Arabic names.
“But make it easy --and fun! Start by matching your map with constellations. In winter you can find Orion and the bright star Sirius in the sky facing south, and the Big Dipper, the North Star, and Cassiopeia facing north.”
She mentions that you can easily see the International Space Station. Just sign up on the website SpottheStation.nasa.gov, and NASA will let you know by email or text message when the station is visible over your area.
She shows me some of the books and maps she has acquired: Terence Dickinson’s book Night Watch is a classic. You can download Smart phone apps, Stellarium, and Sky Safari. Elsie mentions that the RASC also has online programs including the Insider’s Guide to the Galaxy and Explore the Moon as part of its online astronomy programs that have been popular during COVID The RASC also has an annual event at Smiley’s Provincial Park, the Nova East Star Party where members gather to star watch and trade information. (This event is not taking place during Covid.)
RASC membership also includes monthly meetings with guest speakers on Zoom (during Covid) or otherwise at Saint Mary’s University, where there is an observatory for public viewing. The meetings provide information on what to look for in the night sky in the coming month.
We next had a look at Elsie’s eight-inch reflector telescope, which is larger than I expected. Hers, she explained, has is Dobsonian mount popular with amateur astronomers, with a set of eye pieces with different magnifications. Elsie highlights that regular binoculars are a great instrument for exploring the night sky for both novice and experienced amateur astronomers
Astronomy can become highly technical, almost a full-time occupation for some. But the beauty of astronomy is that you can explore whatever you want--and better appreciate the vast wonders that are out there.