A tour of Big Bear Solar Observatory

October 13, 2015

BBSO from up high

The gleaming white domes of the Big Bear Solar Observatory sit at the end of a causeway that projects from the north shore of Big Bear Lake – they draw the eye from almost any point in Big Bear Valley. And as I mentioned in my last post, the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers got to visit the BBSO on Friday, October 9.

BBSO causeway

We were greeted at the gate by Claude Plymate, Chief Observer and Telescope Engineer at BBSO, and Teresa Bippert-Plymate, who is not only a professional solar astronomer but also the president of the Big Bear Valley Astronomical Society. As pros who are also enthusiastic amateur observers, Claude and Teresa did a great job of pitching the tour with just the right balance of necessary background, technical detail, and the hands-on practicality of managing big scopes and the complicated hardware and software necessary to run them.


The first thing you come to on the causeway is a big white storage container with a coelostat (sun-tracking mirror) – this is one of the six Global Oscillations Network Group (GONG) installations spaced roughly equally around the world. The GONG telescopes track the sun around the clock for helioseismology research, mapping the acoustic pressure waves that propagate around and through the sun.

PVAA group outside BBSO domes

The smaller dome just short of the end of the causeway holds two telescopes on a common mount. One is a 10cm full-disc hydrogen-alpha solar telescope, the other is a second smallish refractor for Project Earthshine, which tracks the Earth’s albedo by measuring the intensity of the earthshine that falls on the moon’s unlit side.

London with BBSO New Solar Telescope

The observatory’s ‘big gun’ is the 1.6-meter New Solar Telescope, an off-axis Gregorian. One-point-six meters is 63 inches, which means this scope has a slightly larger aperture than the famous 60-inch reflector on Mount Wilson (which I’ve been fortunate to visit – see here and here). Here’s the light path of the NST (an unmodified version of this image is at the bottom of the post):

BBSO New Solar Telescope light path

And here’s a view on the right side of the scope showing the mask that rejects the light from most of the sun (which bounces onto the back wall of the dome, landing at about the same intensity as natural sunlight). The mask has a small hole which allows light from a small part of the sun to pass through to the chain of lenses and mirrors that bounce the beam to the research instruments on the next floor down.

BBSO New Solar Telescope right side optics

It took me a while to wrap my head around how this works. If the mask rejects most of the sun’s light, doesn’t that mean that most of the telescope’s 1.6-meter aperture is wasted? The answer is no – the mask functions as a field stop, not an aperture stop. If I put a mask across the front of my 10″ Dob and let only a 4″ beam of light through, that’s an aperture stop – it effectively turns a 10″ f/4.7 obstructed system into a 4″ f/12 unobstructed system (which may be desirable for sharp planetary and lunar views, where light-gathering is not so important). But imagine I left the front of the scope uncovered and instead masked down the field stop at the bottom of one of my eyepieces, so that I could only see a tiny hole in the center. If I put the scope on Jupiter, I’d see Jupiter in the center of the field but nothing else – I’d be getting the full benefit of the 10″ mirror’s light-gathering and resolution on Jupiter, but rejecting the light from the surrounding starfield, which would reflect off the mask at the bottom of the eyepiece. That’s more or less what happens with the New Solar Telescope, only “the rest of the field” is the rest of the sun, and the small area that the scope focuses on is not a planet but a small patch of the sun’s surface. But that patch can be imaged with the full benefit of the 1.6-meter primary mirror’s angular resolution.

BBSO burnt light shield

Now, a 1.6-meter mirror focusing the light from the full disc of the sun onto an area about 3cm across is a hell of a lot of energy. That beam could fry electronics, melt metal, and start fires if it got off-course. There are multiple redundant systems to prevent that from happening – the dome can close, the primary mirror has a cover that can activate quickly, and if all else fails a 1/16″ steel plate slides into position in front of the field stop. A few years ago – before Claude’s tenure as Chief Observer! – there were not so many safeguards in place. The software that allows the telescope to track the sun briefly got confused by some passing clouds, and the scope stopped tracking properly. That allowed the concentrated beam of sunlight to slide off-target. The steel plate did its job and slid into place, and the scope melted two holes in it in the space of about 30 seconds. The folks at the observatory keep the melted metal plate as a visible reminder that they are in a very real sense playing with fire.

BBSO sunspot image

This sunspot is a bit larger than our planet.

Our last stop on the tour was the telescope control room, where another professional astronomer was driving the scope and taking data. There was a minor mechanical hiccup at one point and Claude had to swing into action, running back and forth from the control room to the instrument room to get everything back on track. It was amazing to see live images coming in in real time. I’ve been fortunate to tour a lot of observatories but never while they were working. At one point Claude and the other astronomer put the scope on a sunspot group which was just swimming in atmospheric distortion. Once the computer had enough data to engage the adaptive optics, they switched on the AO and the view instantly settled down to nearly rock-solid, like it was painted on the monitor.

BBSO New Solar Telescope

The NST is currently the largest, best-equipped solar telescope in the history of humankind, and it is producing the sharpest images of the sun ever taken. BBSO joins Mount Wilson and Palomar in continuing the long, proud history of world-class astronomy in southern California. And it’s 65 miles from my house. Many thanks to Claude and Teresa for being such gracious hosts and letting us see their beautiful machines in action.


Observing report: Deep and dark in Big Bear

October 12, 2015

Big Bear Lake

This past weekend I was up in Big Bear for a few days’ vacation. The proximate reason was the PVAA tour of the Big Bear Solar Observatory on Friday, Oct. 9 – more on that in another post. London and I went up Thursday evening with Steve Sittig, who runs the Hefner Observatory at the Webb Schools here in Claremont. Thursday evening Steve took us out to one of his favorite dark-sky observing sites a few miles east of Big Bear. (I didn’t get any pictures from the observing site, so you’re getting pictures of London and me hiking instead.)

We had hoped to get an early start but a succession of minor things kept us from getting set up and going until about 10:15 PM. By that time astronomical twilight was long over. There was a noticeable light dome from the LA metro area but it only badly affected the last 15-20 degrees above the local horizon, and only in the southwest.

Oh, speaking of the ‘local horizon’ – the site is in a shallow bowl with low hills fairly close on three sides and a bit more distant on the fourth. We could occasionally see lights from vehicles on a bend in the road about a mile off, but other than that, no artificial lights were visible from the site. None. The altitude is around 6700 feet.

The combined effect of this was that the sky was dark right down to the horizon. There was none of the usual near-horizon crud that obscures objects for the first 10 or so degrees after they rise. The seeing was worse near the horizon but the transparency was still excellent. We looked at Orion virtually as soon as it was up, and although we really had to pour on the magnification to split the Trapezium, the nebulosity was already very extensive.

A word about gear. Steve had his ETX 125, a 5-inch f/15 Mak on a motorized base with a hand controller. London had his Orion 20×50 compact spotting scope – I have been regularly kicking myself for not snapping up one of those for myself while they were still available. I had my C80ED refractor on the SkyWatcher AZ4 mount (= Orion VersaGo II), as well as my trusty old Celestron UpClose 10×50 binos. The choice of the C80ED was driven by two things: my space on the drive up was limited, so it was either the C80ED or the Apex 127 (which would have basically duplicated Steve’s rig), and I knew I’d want to do some wide field, low power observing, which is the one thing the Apex 127 can’t do.

For eyepieces, I spent most of the night using the 24mm ES68, which in the C80ED gives 25x and a sprawling 2.7-degree field. When I needed more power – which is much less often than I had anticipated – I bumped up to the 14mm and 8.8mm ES82s (43x, 1.9-degree field, and 68x, 1.2-degree field), and on a couple of tough double stars, the 6mm Expanse and 2x Shorty barlow. Unusually for me, I didn’t even mount a finder. With a 2.7-degree field, I can usually get the scope on target just by sighting down the tube. On those occasions when I needed more accuracy, I could lay my green laser pointer into a couple of shallow v-shaped notches on the tube ring and just move the scope until the laser was pointing where I wanted to go.

London Big Bear hike

Within moments of hopping out of the car, we could see loads of detail in the Milky Way with our naked eyes. The Double Cluster and the Andromeda Galaxy were both easy as well. Later on, we also spotted the excellent open clusters M35 and NGC 752 without optical aid. I logged the seeing as 4/5 and transparency as 5/5.

Our first few observations were “best in class” objects – the Pleiades, the Double Cluster and Stock 2. At low magnification under dark skies, the Double Cluster looks not so much like a pair of isolated objects, but rather a couple of thickenings or condensations in an incredibly rich Milky Way starfield. So it was that evening. Seeing that far above the horizon was rock steady and even at low mag, the C80 focused the stars down to tiny pinpoints of brilliant light. One of the clusters has a pair of red giants near its center – these were visibly brighter and more yellow than the rest of the cluster stars, even at 25x.

After that I turned west to catch M13 before it got too low. Going up to 68x revealed tantalizing hints of resolution – not bad for an 80mm scope.

M57, the Ring Nebula, was an arresting sight. At 25x, I could get both of the ‘corner’ stars that mark that end of the Lyra parallelogram, with M57 as a small but crisp circle of nebulosity floating in inky dark space. Although we also looked at the nebula with more magnification, I found that lowest-power view delightful. It reminded me of spotting the Ring at 12.5x in the TravelScope 70 three years ago – the view that first infected me with refractoritis.

We didn’t try to split Epsilon Lyrae until a bit later, when it was lower in the sky. The seeing there was only so-so and I had to push the scope to 200x, using the barlowed 6mm Expanse, to get a clean split, although both pairs were visible elongated at much lower magnification.

We stayed out long enough to catch the leading edge of the Big Dipper rising. One of the best views in that part of the sky is the galaxies M81 and M82 in the same field of view. They are close enough to be nicely framed in the same field even in the 8.8mm ES82. At that magnification (68x), M82 was starting to show tantalizing hints of structure.

London and Matt hiking above Big Bear Lake

The most memorable observations of the night were of the Auriga Messier clusters and the other Local Group spiral galaxies. Auriga clusters first – M38, M36, and M37 (from west to east, in the order that they rise) are seasonal favorites and fun to compare. We swept them up easily in binoculars and then scrutinized them in the scopes at progressively higher powers. I had a good laugh at M36 – at the orientation we saw it in this weekend, it looked like a short, fat stick figure, the bobble-head version of the Stock 2 stick-man. But M37 was my favorite, just an incredibly dense swarm of tiny pinpoint stars.

Fairly early in the evening we had a look at the Triangulum galaxy, M33. I was tracing out the constellation Triangulum with the GLP when we noticed a naked-eye glow that turned out to be the fine open cluster NGC 752. Neither of us could make out M33 with our naked eyes but it was dead easy in binoculars, and at 25x in the C80ED it showed considerable structure in averted vision, including what both of us independently took to be one of the spiral arms. Incredible.

We closed the session with another great view of a local galaxy. All through the three-hour session we’d been saying that we’d look at Andromeda, and then one thing or another would capture our attention and we’d get sucked into some other part of the sky. We finally got around to M31 and its companion galaxies a little after 1:00 AM. By that point they were basically at the zenith. Even with the tripod extended as high as it would go, we had to kneel to look in the eyepiece. But when we did, the view was astounding. M31 stretched all the way across the field, with only the very outer edges clipped by the eyepiece’s field stop. The little companion galaxies M32 and M110 were dead easy, of course, but what amazed me was that we could both see structure and detail with the main galaxy. I’d never seen those dust lanes in anything smaller than a 5-inch scope.

We knocked off after three solid hours of observing, exhausted but giddy. It was one of those transcendent nights that makes my heart sing, and also makes it really hard to go back to observing from suburbia. The most surprising thing for me was how much observing I got done with the 24mm ES68. “Small telescope at low power” does not scream satisfying deep sky observing, but under sufficiently dark, clear skies, I rarely needed anything else. I’m already looking forward to the next run.


Guest post: Whys and hows of astronomical sketching, by Doug Rennie

October 11, 2015

Doug Rennie first opened my eyes to the value of sketching for the visual observer. I’m very happy to host his thoughts on the subject – and his sketch of the Alpha Persei association.

Rennie Alpha Persei association - curved and inverted

Sometime in the late-1990s, I wrote an essay on bibliophila, the love of books, for a literary journal. Thinking back, I recall two quotes I cited in that essay, one from an anonymous French book collector in 1851, the second from renowned literary critic Edmund Wilson – and both relate to the reasons why several years ago I made sketching a regular component of my observing routine.

“Owning a book puts it in your possession,” the Frenchman wrote. “But only reading a book makes it yours.”

For me, the same principle applies to stargazing. Locating and observing a celestial object, be it Messier, NGC, IC, asterism, whatever, produces a visual experience – and another box checked on your Objects Seen list. You now “own” it. Then, too often, you move onto the next one in the catalog, and just as quickly, the one after that. And so on. The impressions and mental images of the object you just minutes ago observed are already dim and vanishing fast in your memory’s rear view mirror.


Not so if you regularly sketch what you observe. Because now you have to slow down, actually study what you see in the FOV, look at it through various eyepieces, seeing it both up close and large and bold – its own entity – and smaller and more subdued and part of a larger celestial context, the latter being what I personally prefer.

Then you put pencil to paper and sketch it.

One star dot at a time. Or perhaps you sketch it twice: Once at high magnification to capture all the detail and maximum star count, a second time pulled back to see both object and surrounding star field, the total celestial tapestry. By the time your sketch is done, you will have spent a half hour, sometimes more, in the company of this one single object. Moreover, you will have a permanent and personal hard copy of what you observed.

In the spirit of that anonymous Frenchman, you will have made the object yours.

The second quote, from Edmund Wilson, is this:

“No two persons read the same book.”

Think about it.

And this, too: Astronomical sketching is exactly the same. No two observers see the same exact object. If you want confirmation, hit a sketching site such as Deep Sky Archive and go to any object, say NGC 6633, and you will see a dozen sketches, often more, by different observers – and no two even look REMOTELY alike. I mean, you would think you were looking at sketches of 12 different objects. Sue French turned me onto this site over a year ago and I thought, Wow this will be great as I would now have a sense of what pattern(s) to look for in future first time searches. Nope.

If anything, more confusing (So, is This what it looks like? Or is it this one? Or . . . maybe . . . this? . . .)

Just as no two persons read the same book, it seems that no two observers see the same object. Even something as “clear cut” an image as, say, the Pleiades will have as many variations as there are observers/sketchers. So one more reason to make every object yours by laying out on paper the testimony of your visual senses for each object you observe on THAT night in THOSE skies with THAT instrument with THAT/THOSE eyepieces.

Now I’ve been observing for just over 3 years, and my background is all humanities, my hard science expertise zero. Or close to it. I am primarily an aesthetic observer who just enjoys drinking in all the beauty up there and, sad to say, pays scant attention to RA and Dec #s, Bortle Scale assessments of my sky that night, recording AFOV and TFOV, etc. I just go out and hunt down what I want to observe, and once I have what I’m after in the EP, I hang around it for a while. Most of the time, but not always, doing a sketch.

I began to sketch almost as soon as I started observing, and my early sketches are, well, “pitiful” would actually be kind. I was going to include one here to illustrate, but in the end could not bring myself to post one. Bad. These things are terrible. Third graders would laugh.

So here’s how I now go about it, and produce some decent-to-me results.

I have an artist’s sketchbook, spiral bound so it lies flat when opened, 8 x 10 inches, hard black cover. Cost under $10. My wife is an artist, so I initially used her drawing pencils, but quickly bought a set of my own at a local artist supply store: 2B, 4B, 6B, 8B, etc. Cheap. I store them in a plastic travel toothbrush case. I also use her recommended eraser, some artists’ gray plastic eraser, “Prismacolo” thing and it works superbly.

I have a scraggly small lined notebook that I use at the telescope and record in it a very rough first draft, focusing on accurate positions and spatial relationships among the stars, and taking care to use different size “dots” for individual stars commensurate with their brightness/dimness and size. I do a fair amount of erasing to get this draft, which is REALLY ragged, as accurate a reflection as possible of what I see.

I first do the outermost stars in all 4 directions just to make sure that I get the entire image I want in, then sketch in the anchor/biggest/brightest stars to get the main pattern. Once this is done, I work outward from there, one quarter section at a time. Seems to work.

The next day, I transfer the image into my sketchbook, now taking time to create perfectly round dots for every star and, often, using one of those plastic architect’s templates (3 bucks at Office Depot) for the larger stars, insuring that I get perfectly round dots for each. On the smaller stars, this is generally not a problem. See the attached sketch of the Alpha Persei Association. The two largest star sizes were done with the template.

Rennie Alpha Persei association - curved

A soft 2B pencil works best for most stars, but for the really tiny dim ones, of which there are generally quite a few, I go to a 2H or HB harder lead pencil which creates a lighter gray hue. When I have completed the entire sketch, I then take a very soft/dark 6B pencil, freshly sharpened and pointy, to go over the larger and darker stars to set them off, as they are through the eyepiece in “real time”, more dramatically from the background stars.

For open clusters, by far my favorite object to observe, I much prefer the look I get through one of my refractors (Explore Scientific AR102, Stellarvue SV80ED, Orion ST80) vs either of my Dobs, the largest of which is a StarBlast 6. With a Celestron 8-24mm zoom eyepiece in place for the first observation, I can go in and out, seeing the object large and up close with maximum stars, then widest field possible which puts the object at the center and gives it more context, and various degrees of both in between. Once I find the sweet spot, to me the ideal meld of object and context, I can go to one of my fixed focal length eyepieces, often an ES 16mm or Agena flat field 19mm. Some objects, such as the Double Cluster, look best in my ES 24mm/82 afov.

That’s it. Nothing more to see here. And, as you can deduce from the foregoing, sketching is NOT all that difficult. I mean, c’mon, it’s not particle physics. So if you’ve not already included sketching as a regular part of your observing, why not give it a test drive next time out?


Sketching NGC 6633

October 7, 2015

Wedel NGC 6633 2015-10-06 - inverted and cropped

As long-time readers will recall, I have been bully on the idea of sketching DSOs for a long time. I have been inspired by the careful observations and sketches of Doug Rennie and Terry Nakazono in particular. So I made up a blank observing form (which is now up on the sidebar here), printed out some copies, and decided to finally give it a shot. I was going to do M57 first, and kick off my much-discussed, long-delayed Suburban Messier project. But I’d just been emailing with Doug and he’d recommended NGC 6633 as a rewarding open cluster for visual observation, and as I was flipping around in my Pocket Sky Atlas I noticed that it was well-placed high in the southeastern sky.

I was rolling with the XT10. I figured that whatever target I went for, I’d want to capture as many background stars as possible, and the XT10 has much better light grasp and angular resolution than anything else I own.

I started at moderate magnification with the 8-24mm zoom but kept backing out to try to get more context for the cluster, and I ended up with my trusty old 32mm Plossl. The transparency here was appalling. The sky looked clear, in that there was no naked-eye-visible haze or clouds, but it was very humid, and all of that water vapor in the air was bouncing back the city lights like crazy. The sky was about as bright as I have seen it without actual clouds up there. Here’s a measure of how humid it was – all of my exposed stuff dewed up! I don’t think that has ever happened to me here in Claremont.

Wedel NGC 6633 2015-10-06

As far as my method – I was using a 0.5mm mechanical pencil and a click eraser. I started out by trying to frame the field of view with some bright ‘anchor’ stars and then interpolate between them to flesh things out. This proved frustrating – inevitably I’d get one region ‘starred in’ to my satisfaction and then see that its geometry was off compared to a neighboring section. So I did a fair amount of erasing and repositioning. On the first pass I was mainly trying to get the positions of the stars correct.

Then while I was still at the eyepiece I went back and ‘brightened’ up some of the stars by drawing over them with slightly larger circles. I tried to sort them into about five bins, from the bright star south of the cluster, through the brightest anchor stars, the major cluster members, the minor cluster members, to the barely-theres.

Finally, when I brought the drawing inside I touched up a few stars that were noticeably out-of-round.

So the drawing you see here is the ‘rough’ drawing, but with about three layers of revision layered on top. I don’t know if this is good practice or not, it’s just what I did this time, pretty much making everything up as I went along.

As for the cluster, NGC 6633 has a fairly recent nickname: the ‘Italy cluster’. Here’s a diagram from this blog, with my sketch inverted and rotated to match:

NGC 6633 comparo

I can buy it. I wouldn’t have ever picked out that by myself, but I can see the shape in my drawing, and I didn’t know it was there when I was drawing it.

So, I have rather mixed feelings about all of this. While I was doing the sketch, all I could think about was how difficult it was, and how badly I was screwing it up. But I’m fairly happy with the result – it is at least recognizable as NGC 6633 – and I know that I know that cluster and the surrounding starfield a lot better now. Probably better than I know any other single object. I can’t think of another time that I invested so much time and energy on a single observing target.

Maybe this is the beginning of wisdom.


Irregular Mission: You call this stargazing?

October 2, 2015

Why aren’t we looking at stars, again?

When I was a kid, I wanted a telescope. I was enchanted by the romantic idea of sitting out under the night sky (which I didn’t really know, but loved) with a telescope (which I loved, but didn’t know). But I couldn’t afford a telescope, and I hadn’t learned how much stargazing you can do with binoculars (tons, in fact). And actually, had a telescope come into my possession, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I figured astronomers just, er, pointed their telescopes at stars.

I mean, stars are the basic units of matter accumulation in the universe, and they’re primarily what you see what you look up into the night sky. If you’re in a sufficiently dark place, you may also see the Milky Way, and a couple of dozen of the brighter clusters and nebulae, and there are a handful of double stars you can split with the naked eye. And the moon and planets may be out, too. But mostly what you can see with the naked eye are an awful lot of individual stars. So ever since I got into amateur astronomy eight years ago, it has greatly amused me that amateur astronomers spend almost all of their time looking at everything but individual stars.

Now, most of those not-individual-star thingies are still related to individual stars in some way. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek breakdown:

  • Double and multiple stars: teeny groups of stars
  • Open clusters: small groups of stars
  • Globular clusters: big groups of stars
  • Galaxies: huge groups of stars
  • Galaxy clusters: groups of huge groups of stars
  • Stellar nurseries: baby stars
  • Planetary nebulae: dying stars
  • Supernova remnants: corpses of stars
  • Bright nebulae: disorganized star dust, lit up by stars
  • Dark nebulae: disorganized star dust, not lit up by stars
  • Planets, moons, asteroids, and comets: organized star dust, lit up by one star
  • The sun: okay, you got me there

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pick one star in the sky, learn a little something about it – how big it is, how bright, how old, how far away – and then go have a look. Doesn’t have to be with binoculars or a telescope, but it can be. Just take a couple of minutes and get acquainted with this actual physical object, a gravitationally-contained fusion bomb blazing away out there in space, shooting intense and continuous beams of photons in all directions for millions or billions of years. As physically real as your own body (which is itself compiled from the fusion-forged dust of long-dead stars), and from the standpoint of the physical universe, a lot more durable, lasting, and important.

Contemplate the unique appearance and attributes of your chosen celestial snowflake.

And then – and only then – look around and see that you are standing in a blizzard – a universe dense beyond counting with stars.


Sinus Iridium

September 24, 2015

Sinus Iridum in Apex 127 2015-09-23

Taken at 7:43 PM PDT last night, from the top of the parking garage in downtown Claremont, using a handheld iPhone 5c shooting afocally through an Orion Apex 127 Mak and a 12.5mm Plossl eyepiece.

In other news, no, I’m not dead. Just been busy with teaching. But I have some exciting astronomy news coming up later this fall, and in the meantime, I’m looking forward to the total lunar eclipse this coming Sunday evening, September 27.


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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