Amateur astronomy is often overlooked as a hobby and that is a mistake. Astronomy literally opens up the universe in ways other activities never can. It connects us with friends, family, and shared stories of the sky dating back to the beginnings of civilization. And it’s cheap. You can get a solid entry-level telescope and see craters on the moon, rings around Saturn, moons around Jupiter, star clusters, and nebulas for only a few hundred dollars. …

And some reasons to care about Martian exploration

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A rover selfie from the Glen Etiv drill site in late 2019, over 7 years since Curiosity landed on Mars (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

I’ve been training to drive the Mars rover Curiosity since last fall, and June 1st was my first day on the job. Learning to drive a Mars rover is an intensive process. We can’t just joystick it around, the distance between Earth and Mars means that round trip communication times can be over 40 minutes. We have to learn a language that the rover understands along with the specialized software used to assemble sets of instructions. We only talk to the rover once a day, and we may only hear from it a couple times every 24 hours. …

Griffith Observatory © 2020, originally published in the Griffith Observer, February, 2020

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The 12" Zeiss telescope at Griffith Observatory is prepared for a night of observing. (photo: author)

May 14th, 1935 was not a normal day in Los Angeles. It was finally opening day at Griffith Observatory. For years locals had watched the large concrete and steel structure slowly take shape on the south slope of Mt. Hollywood. Patrons could now enjoy planetarium shows for the affordable sum of 25¢, view images of the sun collected from the coelostat, and study exhibits on geology, astronomy, chemistry, and mathematics[1].

To many visitors that first week, the prime attraction must have been the imposing 12”[1] diameter Zeiss refracting telescope in the copper-clad East dome. Eager patrons had to wait until May 17th for stubborn clouds to clear and telescope viewing to open for the first time. The scene 84 years ago may have been similar to a typical night at the observatory today; relaxed men and women form a line outside the telescope dome while restless children mill about. Chatter is light and easy as a cool spring breeze pushes in from the south, the direction of a burgeoning City of Los Angeles. A hush comes over visitors as they enter the telescope dome. A child climbs a few steps of stairs, dutifully closes one eye, and peeks through the telescope. Hesitantly at first, but then eagerly! …

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Tracks on Mars left by Opportunity. (Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech)

A little over a year ago, I had the good fortune to join the team of scientists and engineers responsible for driving the Curiosity rover on Mars. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Mars rovers. There’s a lot to know after all. Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance are a few of the most complex and robust robots ever built. Fortunately, the toolset needed to drive one is actually fairly straightforward to understand, and now is the perfect time to learn! On February 18th Perseverance will land on Mars and drive away shortly thereafter. …

This article was first published in print in the September 2020 issue of Horological Times, the publication of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute.

Humans have long been fascinated by mechanical automata. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths and master craftsman of Olympus, created a large humanoid automaton named Talos to guard Crete. The Greeks themselves produced the Antikythera Mechanism, the earliest known example of a mechanical computer. In the 15th century Leonardo da Vinci became famous for his various automatic devices. But it wasn’t until World War II that mechanical computing devices reached a zenith with the advent of mechanical fire control computers before the transistor was invented in the 1950’s. Accordingly, modern spacecraft feature a dizzying array of computers, controllers, sensors, and other electrical components. …

And a lesson in having a truly remarkable existence

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Shipwreck divers are a unique breed. They willingly venture hundreds of feet underwater with limited air supplies, penetrate inside structurally unstable wrecks that offer no promise of easy escape, and risk death by decompression sickness (i.e. their blood basically boiling) if they ascend to the surface too fast. John Chatterton is one of the best wreck divers there is, and his life provides lessons for even those of us with less extreme hobbies.

Chatterton’s story is told in the riveting book Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. In 1991 Chatterton was part of an elite team of divers who discovered a sunken German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. The divers figured they would identify the vessel relatively quickly through markings, recovery of an artifact, or historical research. It would not be nearly that easy though. Normal identifying features were missing or corroded away. …

And how to avoid the mistakes of our past.

In 1980 the Hubble Space Telescope was still a decade away from launch, the first Mars rover wouldn’t land on the red planet for another 17 years, and Carl Sagan published a book called Cosmos. Any ordinary science book of the time would be well out of date within a few years, but Cosmos is no ordinary book. It went on to become one of the most successful science books of all time and it's easy to tell why. Sagan, a preeminent astronomer and planetary scientist, is also an expert communicator and storyteller. …

There are plenty of excellent reasons to own a telescope, and even an inexpensive one will provide great views of the moon and planets from the most light polluted skies (trust me, I live in Los Angeles!). Shopping for telescopes presents a myriad of options and features for a newcommer, but fortunately by following a few simple suggestions your first telescope will be one that you enjoy using over and over again to view the night sky.

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My favorite view through a telescope is oftentimes a dense field of stars. (Credit: Ungaro)

TL;DR: Get a reflector style telescope that is 4"-6" in diameter with a manual azimuth-elevation mount. A telescope of that size will only run you couple hundred dollars and is plenty big enough to see craters and mountains on the moon, details on Jupiter and Saturn, and some star clusters and galaxies even from a light-polluted city. …

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It’s not every day that we find ourselves making life or death decisions. I’ve fortunately never been lost at sea, stranded on an island, or in a deep dark forest with no way out. Regardless, studying these scenarios can teach us about our actions during more mundane day-to-day situations.


Evan Hilgemann

Mechanical engineer by day. Telescope operator by night. Occasional speaker, writer, and educator. Join the adventure!

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