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Editor’s Report: Desert Island Stargazer

Aside from food, water and shelter, what are the basic essentials?

Editor's report lead artAh, the curiously appealing prospect of being stranded on the proverbial desert island with only the necessary basics. As an avid stargazer, my list of “essentials” would naturally include a few astronomy supplies. I drifted into this topic one evening recently while thumbing through the 2019 edition of The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Observer’s Handbook. Each time I get my hands on a new edition, I marvel again at its usefulness. I thought that if I had to choose just a single reference, this would be it. And that led to my desert island daydreaming. What other astronomy goodies would rank as must-haves?

The Observer’s Handbook is a first-rate compendium, but I think I’d like a couple of additional books. At the top of my list would be a star atlas so that I could do some deep sky hunting. Even if I could take a computer with me (and I can’t, since there’s no power on my desert island), I’d still want a printed atlas—I find it much quicker and more efficient than any on-screen representation. My pick would be Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. It’s hard to beat for portability and clarity. Sure, there are deeper, more detailed charts out there, but since I won’t have a monster Dobsonian on the island, this atlas is ideal.

Naturally, a red flashlight is another must-have. To be honest, I’ve always found the traditional astro-lights a bit of a pain. I almost always use both hands when setting up equipment or working with charts, so having to hold onto a light makes these basic tasks awkward. That’s why I’ve recently switched to a headlamp. Because it’s not designed specifically for stargazers, it typically has a red light that’s too bright and a dark adaption-killing white-light setting. I get around both problems by taping a layer or two of red construction paper over the LED array. The light-absorbing paper not only effectively dims the red LED to an acceptable level but also ensures that the white light shines dull red if I accidentally switch it on.

What about optics? I really enjoy binocular astronomy, so I’m not going anywhere without at least one pair. But which one? If I had to pick from my current collection, I’d select my rather ancient image-stabilized Canon 15×45s. The views are sharp and detail rich thanks to excellent optics and the 15× magnification. Alas, the Canon binoculars require batteries, which means I’d have to bring along a hefty supply of AA cells. If that breaks the rules (assuming there are rules to this desert island fantasy), then I think my Nikon Aculon 10×50s would make the trip with me. The Aculons are a good, lightweight workhorse binocular. (We reviewed them in the July/August 2018 issue of SkyNews.)

Of course, survival would be nigh impossible without a scope of some kind. Being a telescope maker, I could attempt to build one (perhaps using an old magnifying glass and some coconut shells), but lacking the resourcefulness of the profes­sor on Gilligan’s Island, I’d bring along a basic instrument instead. Again, the lack of electricity influences the choice—there’ll be no computerized GoTo scope on this adventure. I’d probably opt for a classic point-and-go Dobsonian. An 8-inch f/6 would be a great all-rounder. It has plenty of aperture for chasing down a generous number of faint fuzzies while retaining some semblance of portability. But maybe something smaller would adhere to the desert island premise more faithfully. I might just bring my (also ancient) Astroscan 4-inch. Scopes don’t get much more basic than this little red reflector. Its generous three-degree wide field of view is ideal for sweeping the Milky Way, and it can handle a modest amount of magnification on those nights when I want to do some Moon gazing or check in on the planets.

So a couple of books, decent binoculars and a small scope are all the basic essentials I’d need to keep me happy. What about you? Could you make do with less? What would you choose? Leave a comment below and let us know what would make your desert island list.

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