Mt Wilson: even better the second time aroundJune 14, 2010
About a dozen of us from the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers spent Saturday night observing with the 60-inch telescope up on Mount Wilson. A really excellent night on the mountain is a Goldilocks affair–you need enough of a marine layer to cover up the lights of LA, but the fog has to stay low enough not to swamp the observatory itself. The PVAA visited Mount Wilson last summer, but got fogged out. That worked out okay for me, because they rescheduled for the fall and I found out about the trip in time to go along.
Saturday night the marine layer was looking pretty good when we got there. Unfortunately, it cleared out before midnight, so the sky was too bright for us to do any serious galaxy observing. But we saw quite a few planetary nebulae and globular clusters, which punch through the light pollution better than most galaxies.
We saw a lot of burnt trees on the way in, from last fall’s Station Fire, which at one point threatened the observatory. The trees by the gate had some light charring down near the bottoms of their trunks, but they hadn’t burned very high or very hot, and I suspect that the fire evidence I saw there was caused by backfires set by the firefighters who saved the observatory.
The 60-inch telescope, largest in the world from 1908 to 1917, is as impressive as ever.
Our first target was Saturn. Although the seeing settled down later in the evening, right after dark the sky was pretty turbulent and that cut down on the amount of detail we could see. Also, and to my immense irritation, I couldn’t get my camera to focus with the optical zoom engaged, so I couldn’t increase the object size on the CCD as much as I would have liked. This photo doesn’t really do the view justice–in fact, it’s not much better than I’ve done with my 10-inch scope from my driveway (proof here). Remember that this is a sad comment on the state of the just-past-sunset atmosphere and my finicky camera, and not a slight on the telescope, which is capable of much better!
But things did get better as the evening progressed and we saw tons of cool stuff. Several other people were experimenting with their own digital cameras and that inspired me to try some things I haven’t done before, like photographing double stars. Here is Albireo, a summer favorite that is easily split by even small telescopes.
We started with Saturn and ended with Jupiter; the King of the Planets was climbing in the east as the sky started to brighten before dawn. If you haven’t looked at Jupiter in a while, the Red Spot is actually red again, and the normally-brown South Equatorial Belt has faded almost completely. This is a big switch from the past year or two, when the “Red” Spot has mostly been visible as a white notch in the SEB. It was far and away the best look at the GRS that I’d ever gotten.
The highlight of the evening for me was seeing M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, and M5, another excellent summer glob, back to back. M13 is probably in most deep sky observers’ top ten, but some people like M5 better, and I’m in that camp. M5 isn’t quite as big or bright, although it comes very close, but it has a much more compact core and the outer stars are arranged in loops and swirls rather than radiating chains. To my eyes, M5 looks like an explosion of stars, in progress. It’s good in my ten-inch scope. It’s phenomenal in the 60-inch.
Last fall we went on a weeknight and I had to leave early, around 3:00 AM or so, to get up to teach the next morning. We also had a considerably larger group, so we didn’t get through as many objects per unit time. Obviously going with a big group is better for the club, but it was nice to have a more intimate group and a shorter line at the eyepiece. I had a heck of a good time, and I plan on going back up every chance I get. If it’s within your means, you should do likewise.
Many thanks to our host and telescope operator for another tremendous evening!
Update: I’m kind of a doofus. If you were wondering why this post is included in the binocular category, it’s because I took my 15×70 bins with me and did some deep-sky observing out of the opening in the dome, while waiting in line for the eyepiece. I bagged four targets for the AL Deep Sky Binocular club, which leaves me with only six more needed to complete that list. But I forgot to mention all of this when I first posted!