A few steps in the celestial dance - Ed Brock

With a change of lenses, the rings of Saturn became crystal clear to me.

"Oh, wow, yeah, there they are!" I shouted with pure astonishment.

We were sitting on a pair of Harold's dining room chairs in his back yard, glued to that three-foot metal tube that was our window to the universe.

When I was 13, I owned a small, very weak telescope, through which I still managed to see the colors of Venus and the ice cap of Mars (at least, I think I saw the polar ice cap). But, since that time, I had been afforded few chances to see the sights that almost got Galileo burned at the stake.

Jupiter, king of the planets, and his moons were the clearest sight we had that evening. Under the stronger lens I could see the atmospheric bands clearly, with three smaller dots of light nearby being the moons in their orbits. Another moon stood at a greater distance to the right of my perspective.

"Everything's in motion, man," Harold muttered reverently.

Indeed, they don't call it a dance for nothing. After about a minute, a planet that seems to be in the center of the eyepiece moves out of view. Keeping the scope on target is a fine art I've yet to master.

I was disappointed at one point, however, when Harold pointed the scope toward what he said was a galaxy, but when I looked in the tiny peephole, I couldn't make out anything, though I stared until my head ached. My glasses kept getting in the way.

There's something reassuring about seeing the planets first-hand. Pictures and video can be faked, but you can't deny the condensed light that comes through the telescope's lens array. You look and say, "Ah, they are really there."

Also, stargazing is a hobby that also can give you the opportunity to save the planet, literally. There are an awful lot of big rocks flying around in the solar system, and the professionals need help locating all of them.

One such program is the Near Earth Object observation program sponsored by the Minor Planet Center in the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Try finding them at http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/cfa/ps/mpc.html.

As for me, my old buddy Harold has hooked me on a new addiction. Looks like I'll be selling the house, putting the kid to work early instead of high school and doing whatever else I need to do to build my own observatory.

At least it beats smoking crack.

Ed Brock covers public safety and municipalities for the News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or at ebrock@news-daily.com .