Cloudy Night Astronomy

Jack Kramer

Especially during the colder months, it seems there is a better than average chance of our being beset by clouds. So what are you going to do if you get antsy to pursue your hobby of astronomy? Do you fondle your telescope and eyepieces? Do you go to a window every little while to check for sucker holes? You're not alone!

If you can't get out under a clear night sky, here are a few other pursuits that all relate to astronomy:

Equipment Don't just stare longingly at those optics...clean them! While it's not a good idea to clean mirrors and lenses more often than absolutely necessary, do take this opportunity to check their condition. Look at your eyepieces and filters, as well. (We tend to ignore them until they get really filthy.) Also check the collimation of your reflector, and perhaps lubricate your mounting and focuser with a good quality, light-weight grease.

Is there something you've been meaning to do to improve the performance of your instruments? This could be a set of weights to better balance your telescope tube fore and aft. Or perhaps you've wanted to install a better finder. Could you beef up your mounting to minimize some of those annoying shakes?

Also be inventive. Do you need a hands-free red light? Would the addition of tabs make your charts easier to use while observing? You could make a camera mount that attaches to your telescope. Perhaps it's as simple as getting a better case to hold your accessories; inexpensive toolboxes available at home center stores are great for this purpose. Observer's chairs really improve the observing experience. With just a little effort and virtually no skill you can make one yourself; plans are on the Internet (the "Denver Seat" works great).

Talking Astronomy

Sometimes just discussing astronomy with a friend on the phone or in a "virtual" sort of way takes the edge off observing fever. You could join an Internet chat group devoted to observing or instrumentation. There are groups specifically targeted toward different types of observing and certain telescope designs. You can learn a lot from these groups, too. If you don't already belong to LCAS' own Yahoo! chat group, join up now. Or simply pick up the phone and call one of your observing buddies, if for no reason other than to console each other about the weather conditions.

Plan for the Next Clear Night

Okay, so you can't go out tonight, but it won't be cloudy forever. Look over your star atlas and draw up an observing plan. Do you have a goal, such as the Messier list, Herschel 400, or LCAS Observers Challenge? It might be interesting to make an observing list of close double stars in order to get some feel for the resolving power and optical quality of your telescope.

Organize Past Observations

If you've kept notes on your prior observations, are they organized in such a way that you could find out how a particular object looked to you? Maybe this means simply designing a form on which to record your observations, plus getting a binder to store those notes. This process could become even more organized if you have a computer - you could develop an observing database, maybe even with search and sort capability, depending on what software you have.

When I haven't been able to observe for awhile, it's enjoyable to simply look over the notes from past observations. Sometimes we find objects that should be re-observed in order to confirm certain features noted or to take a stab at seeing more detail than previously observed.

New "Stuff"

A stretch of bad weather gives you time to think about "stuff". Your wallet may be imperiled: it is at times like these when many of us start itching to buy some new piece of equipment - telescope, eyepieces, filters, etc. If you've already succumbed and have a new telescope and/or mounting, you might practice setting it up in a dark or semi-dark room in order to minimize fumbling about some night when you finally get out to use it. Also make a check-off list of items you need to take with you to a star party. From personal experience, there's nothing worse than forgetting to bring a critical part.


One thing that astrophotographers often do is to work on reprocessing some old images to maybe tease out just a bit more detail. If your film astrophotos are in the form of prints, you could scan them into your computer and learn the tricks of processing. (This might mean spending a few bucks on image processing software if you don't already have such a program.).

Club Activities

Now might be a good time to work on putting together a program for one of the club meetings, or perhaps working up a program that you could present to a school or scout troop. Are there some images you might need to get or some demonstrations that could be prepared? What else could you do for LCAS? Help is always needed somewhere. And to be really creative, how about writing an article for Night Times? There are loads of topics that would be of interest to your fellow members.

It's a shame to waste a cloudy night!

Published in the January 2005 issue of the NightTimes