Night Vision

Our eyes have to dark-adapt before we can see astronomical objects optimally. Usually, this requires fifteen to twenty minutes (or more) in an environment as dark as the sky you will be viewing. First of all, the pupil needs to dilate to its maximum aperture in order to collect the most light. Another component of night vision is contained in the biochemistry of the eye. A pigment known as rhodopsin is contained in our rod cells and is sensitive to very low light levels. We need to use our rods, as opposed to the color-vision cone cells, in order to see faint, extended objects like nebulae and galaxies. Any source of bright light will saturate the rod cells, destroy the sensitivity of the rhodopsin, and require twenty minutes of further dark adaptation. Rhodopsin is less sensitive to red light than to other wavelengths. This is why astronomers read star charts and make log entries with the help of dim, red lights. Our red-absorbing cone cells allow us to read, while we maintain most of our dim-light sensitivity. Even red light sources, if too bright or aimed at the eye, can cause loss of dark adaptation.

The failure of many novice astronomers to see faint objects or pick out fine detail is due not only to their eyes not being fully dark adapted, but to their eyes being "untrained". When our eyes have not seen an object before, we are not sure what to look for. It takes time and patience to get used to the appearance of an object; only when we have cleared this obstacle can we perceive the finer detail. One must of course guard against creative observing, in which the observer believes he/she sees details which are not actually visible.

Deep-sky objects, for instance, often appear as faint blobs or are invisible to first-time observers. Finding these objects, most of which are far too faint to be visible with the naked eye, can be more rewarding than viewing them once they have been located. There is something satisfying in having "conquered" an object which one has searched for over the course of many nights.


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