Since I moved to SoCal and joined the local astronomy clubs, I have done lots of public outreach events and moon and planet parties, but until this past weekend I had never been to a star party. Moon and planet parties are easy; set up your telescope wherever there are people and show them the bright stuff. Light pollution is no problem. Star parties are a different story. If you want to see the faint but beautiful clusters, nebulae, and galaxies, you have to have dark skies.
Both of my local clubs have star parties regularly, but until now there has always been some scheduling conflict or another that kept me from going. But I finally had a shot last Saturday, January 9. The Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers were going to the Salton Sea, a big saline lake out in the desert south of Joshua Tree.
I spent last week planning the trip, making a pack list (which I need to post sometime), and especially figuring out an observing list. The AL Messier Club is my main observing goal this season, and I am freshly armed with Harvard Pennington’s extremely useful Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide, which has finder charts and eyepiece sketches for all 110 Messier objects.
Inspired by Jay Reynolds Freeman, I decided to get as many Messiers as possible with my 15×70 binoculars; those observations would count for both the AL Binocular Messier Club and the regular Messier Club. About 20 or so Messiers are currently too close to the Sun to be observed right now, leaving about 90 viable targets. Knowing how unpredictable observing can be, I decided that my conservative goal would be 20. But I secretly hoped to bag quite a few more, maybe 50 or beyond, which didn’t seem unreasonable if I could just stay up all night. We had some nice clear nights last week, and I was sorely tempted to stay up observing from my yard on a couple of evenings, but I decided to save my energy for the big push Saturday night.
Saturday I got up early, got packed, took care of some household chores, at lunch, and tried to get a short nap before I hit the road. I was too keyed up to sleep, but I at least chilled out a bit. I got on the road at 2:00 so I could get to the State Recreation Area campground, where we were meeting, in time to set up before sunset.
I was uneasy on the drive out. The sky was full of cotton, from horizon to horizon. Not low, scudding clouds, but the high cirrus-like stuff. Low clouds I don’t worry about so much; they come and go so fast that it is almost impossible to predict what is going to happen in 20 minutes or 20 miles away. They also tend to have breaks now and then so you can still get some observing done through the sucker holes. High clouds tend to stick, and the spaces between them are usually filled with enough haze to make observing difficult or impossible. As far as I could see, all of SoCal was under a vast tent of high clouds.
A couple of times I almost turned back, but as Timothy Ferris said of observing in Seeing in the Dark, you can’t catch any fish if you don’t get your line wet. And who knows, sometimes things do clear off.
The Sea and the Stars
I got to the campground and found a handful of other PVAA members setting up. Someone had talked to the park ranger, who said that daytime clouds often cleared off after dark. I set up my gear, scarfed a quick supper, and spent about half an hour watching birds. The Salton Sea is a major mecca for shorebirds and birders alike. There were dozens of night herons and a handful of great horned owls nesting in the trees near our campsite, and down at the shore I saw egrets, pelicans, about a trillion gulls, and little shorebirds of more makes and models than I can identify. Sunset was gorgeous, flaming pink clouds behind purple mountains, all reflecting off the glassy surface of the sea, interrupted only by the wheeling and gliding of hundreds of birds.
But enough of that rot! What about the stars? Well, against all odds, they started coming out. First Jupiter, then Deneb in the northwest, then Capella, Betelgeuse, and Procyon in the west, and so on until all of the seasonal constellations were out. The sky wasn’t perfect–there was a thin high haze that dropped the transparency a bit, and the odd plank of cloud interrupted one or another view from time to time–but in general they were pretty darned good. Looking straight up, I could see the Milky Way easily and the Andromeda galaxy with averted vision, which is my usual test for decently dark skies. I made a couple of sketches for the AL Galileo Club and then started knocking off Messiers.
It was a doomed enterprise. The first few were easy, and I took the opportunity to look at a few showpiece objects through other people’s scopes, and show off stuff in mine, but the longer I hunted, the fewer things there were to see. The clouds were creeping back in. Soon the entire western half of the sky was blocked off. Orion was still prominent, but the haze gradually increased until every star looked like a nebula.
We pulled our chairs into a circle and had a good chat, but by 9:00 it was clear that the sky wasn’t getting any better, and according to the weather forecast, it wasn’t going to get any better. We reluctantly packed it in. I had come prepared to spend the night, but I expected to spend it observing. With nothing to hold me there, I hit the road back to Claremont.
Climbing Mount Improbable
It was not a fun drive back. I’d gotten a measly eight Messiers with binoculars, and one more with my 6″ reflector. That was M29, which was pretty far down into the light dome over LA. And speaking of the LA light dome, for the whole drive back I was under it, the evil pink glow of urban sprawl bouncing off a solid deck of cursed clouds. And curse them I did, vigorously and continuously.
I was holding out a secret hope. Sometimes Claremont is totally socked in, but up on Mount Baldy, less than 15 miles from my house, it’s totally clear. I had already planned to stay up all night and I had all my gear, so why not? I’d run up Mount Baldy and just see. I figured it would be completely either/or. Either the clouds would be high enough to go over the mountains, in which case I’d get nothing, or the clouds would stop on the flanks of the mountains, in which case they’d be blocking the city lights and the mountain would be even darker than usual.
Of course, it was the former. Doubly defeated, I drove home. Got in after midnight, stowed about half my gear, and got ready for bed.
Just To Be On The Safe Side…
I was just about to hit the sack when it occurred to me to wonder if I’d locked the car. I’m forgetful, and sometimes don’t, especially if it’s taken me several trips to unload. So I padded out to the driveway to check. The car was locked after all. More importantly, the sky was almost completely clear. In the 20 minutes it had taken me to unload and shut down, the edge of the cloud deck had come east and cleared my neighborhood. There was Orion, Taurus, Canis Major!
Now, I had just rocked through the open clusters of the Big Dog a few nights ago with my reflector, and I knew they’d be easy prey for with the 15×70 binoculars, and I was up anyway, and I needed a win. So I pulled on some sweats, grabbed binoculars, atlas, logbook, and red flashlight, set up a folding chair in the middle of the driveway and got to work.
I quickly knocked off the Pleiades, M45, which would have been an easy catch at the Salton Sea but which I’d passed over in favor of harder targets. I ‘d figured I could pick it up later, any time the sky was clear. There on the driveway at one in the morning turned out to be just the “later” I needed. Then M41, a bright and easy cluster in the heart of Canis Major. Then M44 and M67 in Cancer, and I was off and running.
I didn’t find everything I looked for. The clouds were gone but the normal LA light pollution was still there. The effect of magnification is to spread out the background sky, thus making it darker, so to some extent you can fight light pollution with magnification. This works well with open and globular clusters, which are balls of stars in and around the Milky Way. It doesn’t work as well with nebulae and galaxies–magnification can actually hurt, by spreading out their otherwise concentrated light until it’s lost in the skyglow. And increasing the magnification is not an option with standard binoculars. I bagged every cluster I tried for–which is every one that was up at that hour–but failed to get even a single galaxy. I think that will require another trip up the mountain.
Still, in a little over an hour, I’d bagged a dozen Messiers with the binoculars, including a couple, M40 and M48, that I’d never observed with any instrument. That brought me up to 20 for the evening with binoculars, and 21 total, just past my original goal for the star party. I stayed up a little longer to get M5–big, bright and easy–and even longer for M68, which was devilishly difficult in the LA light pollution, but ultimately doable, and called it a night.
I’ll post directions for finding most of these, along with some tips and tricks for observing them from the city. The biggest hurdle is just getting out and trying. In the end, I had a great night and a lot of fun. I enjoyed the company of my fellow astronomers at the Salton Sea, and it was nice to go to bed, finally, full of victory energy and not just hatred for the clouds.