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Observing Report: Afton Canyon, again

April 26, 2015

Afton Canyon April 2015 1 - Wedel camp

I’m now posting observing reports in reverse order. The last post was about the PVAA star party on April 18, this one is about an informal gathering at Afton Canyon the week before. I got an email from Ron Hoekwater saying that he, Laura Jaoui, and Craig Matthews would be heading out to Afton on Saturday, April 11. London and I were already planning on camping somewhere that weekend, and the high desert promised to be cooler and darker overnight than the Salton Sea or points south, so we jumped.

Afton Canyon April 2015 3 - waiting for dinner

I was excited to get back. The only other time I’d been to Afton, in the fall of 2010, I had one of the most memorable nights of stargazing of my life. That time the road down to the campsite was in horrible shape so we camped up on the rim. This time the road was passable and we got a campsite right across from Ron, Laura, and Craig. Craig had his 12-inch Meade Lightbridge dob, and London and I brought our XT dobs and a couple of smaller scopes.

Afton Canyon April 2015 6 - Ron's Obsession

Ron brought his new 25-inch Obsession. More about that in a bit.

The early evening was fairly miserable. We were camped only a little over 100 yards from the Mojave River and the mosquitoes were ghastly. I had a ThermaCell on, but for once it seemed to do no good. Possibly because of the breeze – there was a very light breeze, not enough to keep the bugs off, but possibly enough to disrupt any benefit from the ThermaCell, even though I tried to keep it upwind. Fortunately, Craig had some DEET wipes to share, and the wind came up after dark, just enough to keep us mostly bug-free for the rest of the evening.

Afton Canyon April 2015 4 - campfire sparks

London and I set up camp and cooked dinner (hot dogs and brauts) and then started picking out some of the best and brightest things in the sky. I didn’t do much dedicated observing of my own – too busy helping London and sneaking peeks through Ron’s 25-inch. After London sacked out, I abandoned my scope entirely, and spend the next three hours observing with Ron. He was very generous with the scope and even let me drive it to new objects a couple of times. It was the first time I’d gotten to actually use such a big scope for more than quick peeks at star parties.

It was pretty freaking spectacular. We looked at M81, M82, M51 and NGC 5195, M104, M97, M108, M5, M13, M57, M4, NGC 6144, NGC 4565, NGC 4559, an Abell galaxy cluster in or near Serpens Caput (I’ve forgotten the designation, but there were a LOT of galaxies in the field), NGC 4361, and Epsilon Lyrae. We caught the outer spiral arms of M81, the bridge of gas between M51 and NGC 5195, to-the-core resolution on the big globular clusters…amazing things. Unfortunately, the lousy seeing kept us from resolving the central star in the Ring Nebula. The Owl Nebula actually looked like an owl. My favorite view of the night was of M51 – the spiral arms weren’t just there, they were sharp and detailed, like a slightly fuzzy photo of the galaxy. Wonderful night.

Peggy Sue's Diner-saurs - London with sauropod

On the way home the next day, London and I saw dinosaurs, but you’ll have to head over to SV-POW! for the rest of that story.

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Observing Report: PVAA star party on Mount Baldy

April 22, 2015

PVAA Mt Baldy Star Party 2015-04-15 panorama

Last Saturday a bunch of us from the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, plus a few folks from neighboring clubs, got together at Cow Canyon Saddle on Mount Baldy for the monthly PVAA star party. Here’s a panorama of the whole group while we were setting up before sunset. It’s worth clicking on to scan around the full-size image. I wasn’t holding a camera on a tilt, the parking lot really does slope down significantly from northeast (right) to southwest (left).

PVAA Mt Baldy Star Party 2015-04-15 west end group

I spent most of the early evening with these folks at the southwest end of things. From left to right here we have Cori Charles, our local outreach coordinator for the Planetary Society; my son, London, with his XT4.5; Gary Thompson, our club treasurer – his powder-blue 8-in Dob is mostly hidden behind London; Rob Record of the Riverside Astronomical Society with his C6 SCT; and Terry Nakazono with his StarBlast 4.5EQ. My Celestron C80ED is in the right foreground, and with Venus in the photo near the bottom of this post.

PVAA Mt Baldy Star Party 2015-04-15 Kassandra and Kevin Garcia

Here are Kassandra and Kevin Garcia with their 8-inch SCT – they treated all of us to a steady stream of wonderful views.

I didn’t get pictures of everyone and their scopes. People I missed included Bill Maxey and his Vixen VMC 200L, Brandon Finnegan and his XT8, Frank Nelson, some folks who came while I was out and brought a Celestron FirstScope, and possibly others. And I haven’t mentioned Ed Grobel and Patty Morrison yet…

PVAA Mt Baldy Star Party 2015-04-15 Patty Morrison

Ed and Patty are relatively new to amateur astronomy and to the club, but they are getting up to speed very fast. Here’s Patty looking at Jupiter through their Celestron NexStar 6 Evolution. Yes, that’s a bunny ear you can see on her hat. Ed was wearing a chicken hat, I think. I’m going to ask Patty to make me a dinosaur hat.

Anyway, in the early part of the evening I split my time between socializing, looking through other people’s scopes, and helping London with a few things, although he is pretty independent with the XT4.5. He found the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, and the Beehive (M44) all by himself, and the open cluster M41 and the galaxy pair M81/M82 with just a little help from me. I also got nice views of Jupiter through several scopes, and Brandon Finnegan treated me to great views of the Sombrero Galaxy (M104) and the triple star Beta Monoceros in his XT8.

At around 10:00 I left to run London home, but I was back on the mountain by 11:00. After that, my own scope sat mostly neglected while I cadged looks off everyone else. I spent a lot of time, close to four hours, observing with Ed and Patty and their C6. I probably missed a few things, but a mostly-complete list of objects we looked at includes Comet Lovejoy – still surprisingly bright as it heads north out of the solar system – Jupiter, Saturn, M13, M5, M57, M81/M82, NGC 6543, the Leo Triplet, Epsilon Lyrae, Albireo, Polaris, M51 and NGC 5195, M4, M27, Brocchi’s Coathanger (in the finderscope of the XT4.5), Saturn again, Jupiter again, NGC 4565, and Saturn yet again to conclude.

PVAA Mt Baldy Star Party 2015-04-15 C80ED and Venus

For me, the best views of the night were of globular clusters and Saturn. There was a stretch around 11:30 when most of us still on the field went a little glob-mad. I looked at M13 through both of the C6 SCTs and through Gary’s 8-inch Dob. I was extremely impressed by the 6-inch SCTs. They gave up surprisingly little to the Dob in terms of image brightness and their long focal lengths and comparatively high magnifications meant that everything we looked at had a nice image scale. All of the globs we looked at in Ed’s and Patty’s scope had nicely resolved outer halos, and NGC 6543, the Cat’s Eye Nebula, was distinctly bluish-green in the eyepiece.

Then there was Saturn. Seeing was very good Saturday night and Saturn was just stunning. I have never been able to hold the Cassini Division in direct vision for so long at a time. Occasionally a random gust or roil would smear it out but it was easily visible at least 80% of the time. The disk of the planet showed salmon-colored bands, and we could make out the shadows of the rings on the planet, and of the planet on the rings, so dark and crisp they looked inked in. That’s why we kept going back for more.

After Ed and Patty packed up about 3:00 AM, I wussed out and crawled in the Mazda for a couple of hours of sleep. I had a couple of quick peeks with the XT4.5 after I got up, but by then the sky was starting to get bright. Terry had pushed right through with only a half hour catnap earlier in the evening, adding 7 or 8 new objects to his tally, which now includes over 1000 unique deep-sky objects. We packed up and went down the hill for breakfast. All in all, a great time.

Before the star party, someone wrote to Gary to ask if non-members are welcome at PVAA star parties. The answer is yes, always! If you are within striking distance, come on out and see some things with us. Our star party calendar and directions are available on the PVAA website, http://pvaa.us/. I hope to see you out there.

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Observing Report: Total lunar eclipse on April 4, 2015

April 5, 2015

April 2015 lunar eclipse composite

I stayed up late Friday night to catch the beginning of the lunar eclipse early Saturday morning. The penumbral eclipse started at 3:16 AM local time, and it was still going on when the sun rose. The umbral or ‘total’ eclipse was very brief, just five minutes between 4:58 and 5:03. Just like last October, I got London up to see it. He was kind enough to loan me his 60mm Meade refractor for the event, and he used his XT4.5. The little Meade refractor made photography easier by cutting down the light level without sacrificing contrast. I took all of these photos with my iPhone 5C shooting through a Celestron 8-24mm zoom eyepiece. As usual, I processed and composited the photos in GIMP.

Full moon 2015-04-03

I’m particularly happy with this shot of the full moon. I really need to do a composite image with all of my best full moon shots. One of these days.

Previous lunar eclipse reports:

Previous full moons:

 

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PVAA outreach at Oakmont Elementary School

March 26, 2015

Oakmont astronomy outreach - London with telescopes

Our local club, the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, had a public outreach at London’s elementary school this evening. London brought his 60mm Meade refractor, and I brought my C80ED.

Jeff Schroder and his 11-inch refractor

Our little scopes were quite literally overshadowed by Jeff Schroder’s 11-inch refractor, which is mounted to the top of his car. Jeff built this scope by hand, even ground the lenses himself. It’s entirely fitting that he’s the outreach coordinator for the PVAA – not only does he have the coolest scope, he was one of the founding members of the club back in the day.

First quarter moon - C80ED and iPhone 5 - 2015-03-26

Jeff also had a 10-inch Dob along, and Ron Hoekwater brought his Skywatcher 10-inch collapsible Dob. We showed people the moon, Jupiter, Venus, and the Orion Nebula. I got this moon shot with my iPhone with much less futzing around than usual. I don’t really understand how that happened, but I’m not complaining.

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Chasing Comet Lovejoy

February 4, 2015

I’ve been out a few times in the last few weeks, mostly to see comet 2014 Q2/Lovejoy. It’s still nice and bright and it’s an easy catch in binoculars. You can get up-to-date finder charts from Heavens Above.

Our notes from January 17 - Steve's sketch of Jupiter and my sketches of the Trapezium and comet Lovejoy.

Our notes from January 17 – Steve’s sketch of Jupiter and my sketches of the Trapezium and comet Lovejoy.

About three weeks ago now, on January 17, I was up at the Webb Schools observatory with Steve Sittig, who you’ll recall from the virtual star party, last summer’s birthday observing run, and – farther back, in 2010 – comet 103P/Hartley. We were using the equatorially mounted C14 in the Webb Schools’ Hefner Observatory. We started on Orion just to get warmed up, and we could easily see the E and F stars in the Trapezium. After that we went after the comet. It was kind of a comedy of errors. We had problems getting the telescope pointed where we needed it, and neither of us had seen the comet yet so we were a little unsure of where to look. Finally we started scanning around with binoculars and then the comet was an easy catch, and we were able to get the scope on target. I made a couple of sketches a few minutes apart that show the comet moving through the field, but the western sky was getting hazy and pretty soon the comet was lost to us.

Jupiter from Webb - Jan 17 2015 - with labels

Jupiter and the four Galilean moons on January 17, 2015. Click through to see the moons. Photo by Steve Sittig.

After that we turned east to have a look at Jupiter. Steve made a sketch and got some photos with his DSLR mounted to the C14. As is usually the case, the photos do not nearly capture all of the detail that we could see at the eyepiece. We could see many cloud bands at high latitudes, and north and south equatorial belts were highly detailed with ruffled edges and festoons. Io was distinctly yellow at the eyepiece, much more so than the other moons, which ranged from white to a very faint blue. Thanks to Steve for the photos and for the great, if brief, night of stargazing.

Comet Lovejoy 2015-01-24 invert

The next Saturday, January 24, London and I set up telescopes in the driveway and took in some of the best and brightest objects (most of which London found himself!). I sketched the comet a couple of times, to show it moving against the background starfield.

I have another long-delayed observing report, from a trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park late last fall, but that will have to wait for another time.

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Great deals at Sky & Telescope today only!

November 30, 2014

Hey, just a heads up that among all the other Black Friday/Cyber Monday/whatever-we’re-calling-this-season-now discounts out there, the ShopAtSky store at the Sky & Telescope website has some screaming deals. If you use the promo code BLKFRIDAY, you get 30% off storewide and free US shipping. But the promotion ends tonight (Nov. 30), so get on it!

Caldwell Objects cover

Of personal interest to me is that they have new copies of Stephen James O’Meara’s Deep-Sky Companions: The Caldwell Objects. I like all of the Deep-Sky Companions series (see my review of Hidden Treasures here) and I’ve been collecting them one by one, but I didn’t have this one. It’s been out of print or at least hard to find for a while, and used copies have been going for upwards of $60 on Amazon. The book is normally$39.95 at ShopAtSky, currently discounted by 20% to $31.95, then discounted today by an additional 30% if you use the promo code, which brings it down to $22.something. I know some folks aren’t wild about the Caldwell list but there are a lot of great objects in it and if you like O’Meara’s writing, this book is a must-have. There may never be another chance to get new, hardcover copies of this book this cheap, so if you’re remotely interested, do the right thing.

Oh, and if you don’t already have Hidden Treasures, ShopAtSky has it for $19.95 before the 30% promo today, so you can get this book right now for under $15 and with free shipping. That is just astonishing.

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Another visit to the Palomar Observatory

November 28, 2014

Palomar 2014 - London with the dome 1

London had the whole Thanksgiving week out of school, so I took some vacation days to spend it with him. On Monay we went to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to camp and observe – more on that in the next post. We’d never been there before, and in planning our route I noticed that we’d go pretty close to Palomar Mountain. I asked London if he’d like to visit the observatory again, and he jumped at the chance. Our only previous visit, in September of 2012, had left a big impression on him.

Palomar 2014 - 18-inch model

The visitor’s center had gotten a major upgrade to its exhibits in the intervening two years. Out in the entrance lobby, a small display case showed this model and photo of the 18-inch Schmidt camera, which was the first operational telescope on Palomar Mountain. It entered service in 1936, a full 12 years before the 200-inch Hale telescope first opened its shutters in 1948. The 18-inch Schmidt had a long run – Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy were using it in 1993 to find and catalog near-Earth objects when they accidentally discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

Palomar 2014 - 18-inch front

The 18-inch Schmidt has since been retired, and now it’s on display in the visitor center. This is a huge upgrade to the exhibits there – when we visited in 2012, all there was to see were the lighted plates along the walls of the room. Now the 18-inch Schmidt sits in a plexiglass island that is surrounded on all sides with photographs, signage, a touch-screen that shows short movies about the history of the observatory, and display cases with equipment used to operate the camera, including the hand-operated press that punched 6-inch circles of film.

Palomar 2014 - 18-inch back

Here’s the back end of the scope. As you can see, it has no eyepiece and no provision for one. Where an amateur Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope has its secondary mirror, the Schmidt camera had a piece of film (and maybe later a CCD?). On top is what looks to be a 6- or possibly 8-inch guidescope, which does have an eyepiece. Until the advent of computerized autoguiders, taking long-exposure photographs meant that an astronomer had to sit at the guidescope for hours, keeping the crosshairs centered on a guide star and tweaking the alignment of the telescope by hand. Sounds thrilling, eh? I wonder how much more productive professional astronomers are as a group, now that they don’t have to spend so many hours guiding telescopes.

Palomar 2014 - Hale dome with book

But of course the real attraction at Palomar Observatory is the 200-inch Hale telescope, which was the world’s largest fully-operational telescope for almost half a century. Astronomy books from before the early 90s talk about the Hale telescope in the same glowing tones reserved for the Hubble Space Telescope today. And for good reason – the 200-inch scope served roughly the same purpose as the HST and the twin Keck telescopes today. Until the space race of the following decades, the construction of the 200-inch telescope was probably the closest thing to a ‘megaproject’ in science and engineering. The story of how the telescope came to be is a decades-long saga of obsession, invention, science, engineering, and politics; if you’re interested in that story, I highly recommend The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope by Ronald Florence. Here’s the 200-inch dome alongside its portrait from London’s Golden Book of Stars and Planets (1985 printing).

Palomar 2014 - London with Hale model

Famously, much of the design of the 200-inch scope came from the mind of amateur astronomer and amateur telescope maker Russell Porter, who built this scale model in the 1930s.

Palomar 2014 - Hale telescope

And here’s the scope itself. We didn’t get to go inside the dome and walk around the scope like we did last time. Those tours only run from April to October. But we were able to look in at the scope from an observation gallery.

Palomar 2014 - Hale concrete mirror blank

Outside the dome is this 200-inch concrete disk, which was used as a mass simulator to make sure the mechanical structure of the telescope worked before the actual mirror was installed. The mass blank has apparently been sitting out in the elements, right across the road from the dome, since 1948. It looks little worse for the wear, and it gives visitors a visceral sense of just how big a 200-inch mirror actually is.

Palomar 2014 - London with the dome 2

One last shot from this visit: London just off the path that leads from the visitor center to the dome. I had to take this one to replicate the picture below, from our last visit in 2012. It’s part of what is apparently now an ongoing series of pictures of London at different ages in front of the same telescope – see him with a replica of Galileo’s telescope here.

London at Palomar Mountain

Next up: crazy-dark skies at Anza-Borrego. Stay tuned.

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