Friday, February 15th, will be the 14th anniversary of my first variable star estimate.
R Leo, 9.6, Feb 15, 1999
Over 82,000 observations later, I can still recall a lot of things about my first variable star observation.
I remember I was at my dad’s house in Romeo, Michigan, where the skies were much darker than at my home at the time. I was using a 10” LX50 and finding objects by dialing in the setting circles and star hopping with the finder and a low power eyepiece. I had spent a couple months learning how to polar align, set up and tear down the telescope, and how to find things on star charts and use the telescope at different magnifications. Once I thought I knew my way around the telescope and the sky, I was determined to start variable star observing.
I tried for almost a whole night on the 14th, but I couldn’t figure out how to relate what I was seeing in the eyepiece to what I was seeing on the AAVSO charts. It was very cold that year in February. There were several inches of snow on the ground. I remember because I had lost my favorite pen in the snow in the dark, and spent a half an hour looking for it before giving up for the night, frustrated by my lack of success, the bitter cold and the loss of my pen.
But I was determined, so the next night I drove out to my father’s property, set up the telescope, polar aligned it and began looking for R Leo again. I had been trying to star hop from Regulus, heading west, looking for that little triangle of stars that everyone who observes R Leo comes to know so well. But I couldn’t tell what I was doing wrong or how to fix it, so I decided to try using the setting circles and a new finder chart I had made myself from a planetarium program called Mega Star.
Something I’ve learned over the years since then is this- if you make a mistake while trying to find a new star, and then get lost a second time, move on to another target and come back to it another night, because chances are you’re going to continue making the same mistake over and over. It happens to the best of us. Next time, you’ll wonder why you thought it was so tough the previous night, when armed with a fresh perspective, you land right on it.
That is what happened to me. Once I dropped the star hopping strategy and just dialed it in, I landed almost smack dab on top of it. I had probably slewed past it a dozen times the night before, but couldn’t tell how big the triangle I was looking for was going to be in my eyepiece or finder. When I was pointing right at it, undistracted, it hit me like a ton of bricks. There it was! And I was sure that was R Leo right there, because it was obviously redder than the other stars. I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud. I was relieved. “Hey, I can do this,” I said to myself.
A lot of things in my life have changed since that fateful night. The AAVSO has had an enormous impact on my life, more than I ever could have imagined standing in the snow that night in 1999.
It was years later that I learned several of my friends and legendary observer, Leslie Peltier, started their VSO careers observing R Leo. I go back and visit her now and then, just because R Leo will always have a special place in my heart. Some night this month the clouds have to part, so I can go back and relive a special moment in my memory one more time, with my oldest variable star friend.