Recently, I set an alarm for the wee hours to go outside for some early morning planetary viewing. And, kind of like a cat — for whom anything done once can become an immediate routine — my body made this a repeatable habit for the rest of the week. Without an alarm, I awoke at roughly the same time in the dark so I could again look at Jupiter and Mars in the pre-dawn sky.
While other people might find this clockwork insomnia annoying, I think it’s great. Even when confined to more reasonable hours, stargazing can — and should — become a habit.
Habits, strung together through days and across years, are how we spend our lives. Good habits — like brushing your teeth or changing the batteries in your smoke detector — help free our minds for deeper thinking. However, not every habit is positive or constructive. Take “revenge bedtime” or mindless overeating, for instance.
I would never classify amateur astronomy as a bad habit, but sometimes I wonder if your first telescope or pocket constellations guide should come with a warning label.
CAUTION! Amateur astronomy can result in loss of sleep, ever increasing aperture fever, and a perpetually depleted bank account. Also be on the lookout for excitement, discovery, and a sense of wonder that lingers into the daylight hours.
Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:
- You have more telescopes than immediate family members.
- You find yourself framing everything in terms of “field of view.”
- Your pets — and maybe your human children — are named after celestial objects.
- Your accessories — from your phone case and water bottle to your Doc Martens shoelaces — are “space-themed.”
- Time you could spend with (non-astronomy) family and friends is instead invested in perusing the CloudyNights forums and checking the Nikon refurbished products page.
- You have a persistent tendency to turn the most mundane conversation into an opportunity to talk about astronomy.
Okay, maybe that last one is just me.
A few weeks ago, I ran into my mother and her friend at a Covid vaccine and booster clinic. Her friend asked a benign question about my plans for viewing the coming Harvest Moon. I swear I didn’t intend to launch into my enthusiastic tour guide spiel, but within seconds I was explaining how to spot Saturn in relation to the Moon, what time to set an early morning alarm to enjoy winter constellations on the rise, and how Mars was almost perfectly placed to give Taurus a second, red-orange eye. And I name-dropped Aldebaran.
When I paused to take a breath, my mother and her friend blinked at me from behind their N95 masks. Mom thanked me for the information, since she’s often awake overnight. Her friend laughed and said that sounded nice, but there was no way she was getting up that early for anything.
Is my astronomy habit helpful? Maybe not if I’m trying to avoid raccoons or weird looks from the neighbors. Case in point: I used to sit on the front lawn after dinner to enjoy the twilight and spot the evening’s first stars. And every night the same wiseacre strolled by cracking jokes about not wanting to become ensnared in my “hippie sorcery.”
Oh, if only.
My astronomy habit is simple: As the skies grow dark, I feel an itch to head outside, if for only a few minutes. And there are other routines built around my stargazing practice. I check the Clear Outside app every day. I consult Stellarium to see what’s coming up in the sky. And I refresh the Nikon refurbished products page for a pair of 12×50 binoculars I’ve had my eye on.
These activities are a boon to my wellbeing. Researching telescopes and developing observation plans gives me a sense of purpose apart from my work. Organizing my viewing sessions around the phases of the Moon puts me in a gentle rhythm that helps me mark time. And regularly communing with the celestial sights — even if they’re the same constellations and deep-sky objects over and over again — offers a healthy break from the cares of the world.
My sense of awe is built in. Wonder is a feature, not a glitch.
I have an astronomy habit. I’ve acquired a taste for celestial photons. Maybe it doesn’t appeal to everybody, but it suits me fine. If loving the stars is wrong, I don’t ever want to be right.