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My Top Astronomical Experience of 2011 - Completed Life List

MMcBride's picture

Asking an amateur astronomer to express in words their top astronomical event is akin to pointing out the astronomical singularity of the big bang, where and precisely when did it occur across this immensely beautiful universe? Really does it matter – isn’t it just important to know that it did? I had a year full of top astronomical events, firsts and bests moments ever; is that not the beauty of our hobby, one that is full of challenges, opportunities, personal discoveries and triumphs? The awesomeness of our universe begs us not to expect anything less from this living, breathing and ever changing soup of creation than the awe and wonder we find just simply being out amongst the stars. Still, I must choose between the moments but how, but, what? Glad the year was already picked for us, as I would be stuck in an endless loop of emotional wonder and amazement with no escape.

The year started out with a personal big bang when I received an invitation to assist a private observatory in the testing of their remote imaging equipment. How could it be possible for a person like me, living in northern Ontario, self educated in the hobby (the epitome of amateur), be invited to help test equipment at a private observatory in San Pedro Valley (by the way that’s the name of it, some of the guest photos are mine) where I had just visited 2 months prior in Arizona (that visit is a story for another day)? It is where I started my first lessons in serious astro imaging. Now I am assisting in testing out software and hardware remotely before they began to offer that service to the general public.  Can you see that happening to you? I certainly never saw that one coming. I mean as a child I always dreamt of living and working at Kitt Peak, shivering at an eyepiece staring into the blackness of space making new discoveries (okay I have just dated myself, just a little) but since I never chose astronomy as my profession that dream has quietly faded into the fabric of the memories of my life. Yet as incredibly wonderful and such an honored opportunity as that was, it is not my top astronomical event but really a very close second. 

The first place spot of top astronomical events for me did not start this year or even last year but started in the same year as the Viking probes landed on Mars. Almost a month to the day I started this journey, Jack Horkheimer, aka the Star Hustler, debuted on public TV; of course I’m not just going to give you the year, after all we astronomers do like the hunt.  At that time I was not even old enough to hold a driver’s license; see I was really, really young when I started. It was at that time when I began to see all 110 of Charles Messier’s deep sky objects, a challenge that some have attempted to see in a single night has taken me a lifetime to accomplish! Though life and time have happened in between the beginning of seeing the first M-object and the last, the quiet but passionate waters would not let me rest until I did see them all. The 25-year break from the journey did not hamper my desires, just only postponed them for a while.  And although it has taken me another six years from when I first picked-up from where I left off, I was not going to give up on this dream.

A journey that started with M 57 and a logbook entry that had all the passion of a young teenage boy (absolutely none) that spoke of only scientific fact had ended with M 77 as a man who has a lifetime of experiences and with far more profundity then when he began.  The final entry in this logbook reads “What an amazing galaxy to close this quest that started so many years ago! I can only imagine what this will look like from a dark site. I can see the bar with an obvious bulge in the center with even brightness of stars dispersed around the bar. Wow, wow wow! What a way to finish with a bang”.  The pure satisfaction and pride at finally completing this challenge could never be fully expressed in words but the joy will last a lifetime.

Though this first and best can never be repeated and just like the New Year is beginning I am already planning and looking forward to setting new challenges and yet another year of firsts, with anticipation, eagerness and even a smidgen of childlike awe but now I am just a bit more philosophical about it all – what a rewarding hobby!  

When I first started out