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Stargazers flee light pollution to reach for stars (2)

By Tan Weiyun   (Shanghai Daily)

09:00, October 17, 2012

Wu, a 39-year-old Beijing local, is armed with a beginner's telescope and tripod, camera and attached compute.

"These are just the basics for an amateur, some fanatics splurge and spend thousands of yuan on equipment," Wu tells Shanghai Daily in an interview.

Wu made his first primitive telescope in high school with a magnifying glass and sheet of paper. "It worked very well. I could see the moon clearly," he says.

Throughout school he was passionate about astronomy, but when he moved to Shanghai in 1993 for a job, he was frustrated.

"Shanghai is always cloudy and busy. I couldn't find a place where I could watch the stars," he says.

Last year he visited the observatory in Songjiang and that reignited his interested in the heavens. He bought basic equipment and found fellow stargazers through the Internet.

Every month or two, they drive for hours and pitch tents in the remote countryside where the skies are clear.

Wu's recent trip to Tianhuangping was a small victory because he was the only one in his group to photograph M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, the spiral galaxy nearest to the Milky Way.

"The sky was very cloudy that night and we could only see the galaxy for around 20 minutes, so I had to hurry," Wu recalls.

While everyone was adjusting their telescopes and computers, Wu skipped all the preparation and aimed directly for the galaxy, snapping photos. Though the result was a bit fuzzy, "it was better than nothing," he says with pride.

Good picture taking requires a series of complicated procedures and meticulous adjustments of telescopes linked to computers. "The celestial objects you observe are moving at an extremely slow speed that the naked eye cannot notice, so it's very important to follow and track its slow motion for hours within the minimum deviation," Wu says.

The common practice is to aim the polar axis of the telescope at the North Star. The main lens is focused on the celestial object, while a smaller eyepiece, which is linked to a computer, is aimed at a certain fixed star. "Keep the fixed star always in the center of the small eyepiece controlled by the computer and you'll track the object accurately," Wu says.

He usually takes around 25 shots, each requiring a long exposure of around two minutes. "That's to say it takes at least an hour," he says.

Usually it takes a whole night to capture the desired images. "You might think it's boring and tiring because all night is spent waiting and waiting. But once you see the stunning view in deep space through the telescope, it's all worth it," he says.

On a clear night this season if an observer looks east at around midnight, he or she can see a big shining star, Jupiter. At around 3am, once can see Venus with a simple telescope.

"Observation like this is quite easy for a beginner," Wu says. "Once you get interested in astronomy, you will marvel at the vast universe and feel how tiny we humans are."

Celestial zealot

Luo Fangyang built a do-it-yourself telescope with a 203mm eyepiece capable of seeing craters on the moon, Saturn's rings, Jupiter's bands of color, the constellation Orion and various deep-sky objects. He says it wasn't hard to assemble because the techniques and principles are very simple.

Luo, a 40-year-old office worker at a chemical company, is a celestial zealot. He follows each eclipse visible in China, positions himself for the best observations, takes photos, paints pictures, and writes poetry and songs about the heavens.

The visit of Halley's Comet (it calls on Earth every 75 to 76 years) in 1986 captured the imagination of eighth-grader Luo from Taicang in Jiangsu Province. That year his parents gave him a 50mm telescope and on cold, clear nights he watched the moon and stars. "Of course, I could see nothing with such a simple telescope," he recalls.

But the vast universe drew him in. In 1987, Liu saw his first annular eclipse of the sun, in which the moon covered all but a ring of fire. He viewed it through a pair of sunglasses and a basin of black ink water. He was exhilarated.

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