Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Star Cat

orange tabby cat
Among my hobbies is astronomy. This is part of why we bought a house way out in the Sierra foothills. The altitude and distance from any cities gave me clear skies for my hobby. You could walk out in the back yard and see the Lagoon and Trifid nebulas just by looking up to the south at the right time of year. It was a great place to take a telescope out at night and enjoy the sights in the sky.

Of course, being way out in the boonies has a downside, too. We shared our yard with any number of animals. Skunks, rattlesnakes, bears, and mountain lions were all in the area and any of them would be enough to ruin a night's observing session. Still, I usually made sure I made plenty of noise when I set up and then again every so often to try to convince any critters around to keep their distance so that we wouldn't end up surprising each other.

One night I was out, seeing if the atmosphere had cleared enough from the effects of Mount Pinatubo's eruption to start observing galaxies again. The ash from the volcano had been in the upper atmosphere for over a year. It had enough of an effect on what I saw that I'd given up observing galaxies, except for the brightest ones, since a couple of weeks after the eruption. It was finicky work, particular since my telescope was of a quality that was only marginal for viewing dimmer galaxies in the first place.

I was trying to see if I could make out any distinguishing features in the fuzzy gray patch of a particular galaxy when I heard something moving nearby. I stopped looking through the scope and looked into the darkness around me to see if I could make anything out.

Nothing.

I made some sounds and listened. Still nothing. I went back to my scope.

Trying to see detail in something that is barely brighter than the background glow of the sky around it is hard work. There are a number of tricks, though. Among them is looking a bit to one side of the object itself. It's called "averted vision." The center of your field of view is best suited to seeing bright things in the daytime. Just a bit off the center of your field of view, however, is where you are most sensitive to minor variations in brightness, since this is where there is the density of rods on your retina. It takes time and patience. I stood stock still at the scope, with the telescope's drive motor keeping the galaxy in place, trying to see whether I could make out any spiral arms and dark lanes between them in the galaxy I had in the scope. It seemed like there might be something I could make out, but it was hard to be sure.

Suddenly something hit me in the back of the leg. I about jumped out of my skin. I trotted a few steps from the telescope, and fumbled for a red LED light in my pocket. I didn't hear anything, and couldn't see anything. I made some noise. Still nothing. I got the red LED light, and shined it back toward the scope. It didn't show much. It was better for reading maps than seeing anything around you. I kept trying to see with it, though, shining it in different directions.

Suddenly something pressed against the back of my legs.

Outside, I was stock still. Inside, I jumped up about eight feet. I realized that it felt familiar. I put a hand down, and felt a familiar furry back press up into my hand.

"Oh, Menelaus! It's just you!"

Menelaus was an orange tabby who had just joined us a few months before. Normally he slept through the night, but I guess having me out with my telescope was too much fun to miss.

I pet him for a while and talked to him. Then I went back to my telescope and made sure the galaxy was still being tracked by the scope before I spent some more time with him. Then I went back to observing. He pressed against the back of my legs again, and I pet him some more, then he trotted off, and I went back to observing.

While I was observing, I heard a sound in the darkness. Coming at me from one side, and approaching closer quickly, I heard a trilling sound.

"Tri-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill!" said Menelaus as he ran by in the dark.

Then, from another direction, "Tri-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill-ill!"

I called to him and told him he was a cute boy. He ran by me, trilling all the way, about another half dozen times.

Then he walked up to one side of me, said "Prrt?" and sat down at one leg of the scope's base. I pet him for a short while, then he stayed there as I went back to observing one object after another. Every time I moved the scope from one part of the sky to another, he'd stand up, get some pets, then go back and lay down.

I realized that he made a pretty good indicator of whether there was anything else around, and it was nice to take a "cat break" every now and then during observing. Though I had to make sure to keep the cat hair off my optics.

A couple more times that night he ran off and went dashing by me, from one side to another, from random directions in the dark, trilling as he ran.

On later nights it became a routine for us. I'd set up the scope, he'd run around past me, dashing past and trilling as he ran. He'd come sit near me at other time, and be ready for pets whenever I was moving the scope or changing eyepieces. Occasionally he'd bump me in the calves if he felt I was giving the sky a bit too much attention.

A few times something else did wander across the yard. When this happened he'd press against my legs and make an unhappy sound. He'd stay with me while I clapped my hands and called out to scare it off. I could tell when it was gone when he'd relax again, going back to his spot at the base of the scope, or when he'd start to patrol around me and the telescope, making sure the coast was clear.

He became my constant companion at my observing sessions, and I started calling him my "star cat." The trilling and dashing in the dark never got old.

Menelaus himself has gotten a lot older, though. He's gone into retirement and become a house cat now. We spend a lot of time together, but when I'm out late in the dark with my telescope I still get a smile from the memories of him dashing around and trilling for me.
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