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Observing Report: Owl Canyon Campground

April 15, 2018

Last night I got to scratch some long-standing itches. I hadn’t been out for an all-nighter in a long time, hadn’t had a long solo observing session in over a year, and hadn’t been to Owl Canyon since October, 2015.

It wasn’t supposed to be a solo session. London and I had not been camping since our February trip up the coast to see elephant seals with Brian Engh, so we’d been looking forward to getting out into the desert together. But just before we were supposed to leave, London’s allergies started acting up. We basically didn’t get a winter – March was the only month since last spring that temperatures didn’t hit 90F here, and it did get up to the high 80s, so pollen loads have been way high this season. Air quality was predicted to be even worse at Barstow than it was at home, so London decided to stay home and keep Vicki company.

I got out to the campground at 7:00 straight up, had camp set up by 7:20, and then had time to sit and watch the stars come out. I saw Venus first, at 7:37, then Sirius, Procyon, and Castor and Pollux in short order. There are brighter stars farther west, namely Capella, but it was down in the fading sunset glow. I took a break to have a snack, and by the time I was back, Orion and the Pleiades and Hyades were out.

Unfortunately, so were a few bugs. I used to use a Thermacell insect repellent, and it works well in still conditions. But in my experience, if there’s even a hint of a breeze, the protective bubble put up by the Thermacell tends to fall apart. Plus it requires some tending, and reloads aren’t free. About three years ago I discovered this no-DEET eucalyptus-based repellent and I use it every time I go out. It will wear off after a few hours, but it’s easy to reapply. I do squirts on my wrists, back and front of the neck, and ears, and if the bugs are really nasty, on my forehead and the backs of my hands. This stuff works, and I’ve been using it long enough that the smell of it conjures expectations of wild places and dark skies.

I’ve started writing out some goals at the start of each long observing session. Given the number of things I do – teach, serve on committees, mentor current students and interview incoming ones, do research, write, publish, travel, play games, spend time with family and friends – you might think I’d be an organized observer. The truth is that even at my best I am almost hilariously disorganized when it comes to observing projects, or even keeping up interest and momentum in a given thing over the course of an evening. I suppose that’s why I like the Astronomical League’s observing programs so much, and why I dig Messier Marathons: both activities give me some much-needed direction.

Anyway, writing out some observing goals at the start of each session gives me some directions in which to focus, and also provides some alternative paths if I get bored with whatever I’m doing. My goals for last night were:

  1. Enjoy the night sky! As I said above, it had been a long time since I’d had a nice long, unhurried session in which to unwind. Observing is my sanity break.
  2. Check on a few old Binocular Highlight targets. I try to get out and re-observe each thing before I write it up for Sky & Tel, but sometimes life intervenes and I have to roll using my old observing notes. That’s not ideal and it gives me hives. I really like to go back and check on published targets and make sure I haven’t pushed any duds.
  3. Find new Binocular Highlight targets. The beast gets hungry once a month and it has to be fed. And in truth it’s a joy – finding things to write about pushes me into parts of the sky I haven’t explored, and I regularly discover wonderful things that broaden my experience and enjoyment of the night sky.
  4. Mini Messier Marathon. I didn’t get to do a full Marathon this year – I was traveling on the most promising weekend. So I thought I’d scratch that itch by doing a partial Messier run. It’s a good way to hone skills, put equipment through its paces, and re-learn the positions of a few of the more obscure objects.
  5. Binocular double stars. I have been working on this AL observing program since 2013! The trouble is that I tend to forget about it for months at a time. Last year I passed 40 objects on my way to the required 50, so I knew I was within striking distance.

I was rolling with what has become my default setup: the Bresser AR102s and the 7×50 binos that came with it. For eyepieces I used the Edmund 28mm RKE, switching to the 8.8mm ES82 for a few difficult targets. I also had along my trusty Celestron Skymaster 15×70 binos, which came in handy on a few things. Pretty simple: one scope, two eyepieces, and two binos. It was enough.

I started with a run through the Messiers and bright NGCs in Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga, Taurus, Gemini, Orion, Canis Major, and Puppis. These are mostly areas I’ve covered in Sky & Tel articles now, so I can run and gun mostly from memory. I did slow down a bit to check out some of the Trumpler and Collinder clusters, and I popped in the higher-magnification eyepiece to spend some quality time with the Messier clusters in Auriga and Gemini.

I also spent some time chasing artificial satellites. I caught one going almost due west – it passed between the open clusters M46 and M47 while I was comparing them. I chased it for a full four minutes, from Puppis to Monoceros, Orion, Gemini, and Taurus to Auriga, where it flew through through the larger of the two “waves” of stars in the middle of the pentagon and then faded out at the western edge. I can’t really explain that – going west, the satellite should have gotten brighter, not dimmer. It was getting pretty low in the sky at it’s possible I lost it from atmospheric extinction rather it going into shadow, which seems geometrically impossible. I tracked another heading north-northeast in a polar orbit and tracked it for three minutes. At that angle, it crossed into Earth’s shadow very gradually. From the time I first noticed it dimming, it took almost a full minute to disappear.

I caught a few shooting stars over the course of the evening. One zipped through my eyepiece field, but the other three that I saw were all naked-eye visible. The last once, well after midnight, left a brief glowing trail in the sky.

By 10:45 I had logged 30+ DSOs and I was getting restless. I had no enthusiasm for the springtime galaxies. Instead, I hauled out my Bino Double Star logbook, which has been out with me on most observing sessions since the fall of 2013, although I’d only used it on seven previous nights and almost always from the driveway at home. I switched over to bino doubles and they drove my observing for the rest of the night. I did look at plenty of other things while tracking down the doubles, including a couple of new asterisms and some potential fodder for the Bino Highlight column.

I usually have a rule about not logging new double stars from dark sites. Doubles are one of the few classes of celestial objects that usually look just as good from town, so if log them from dark sites I’m theoretically wasting my dark-sky time and simultaneously depriving myself of driveway observing targets. But heck, I was getting close to closing out the project requirements and I needed a change of pace.

I also wanted to get another win on the board. I’d completed nine AL observing programs before, but most of them were in 2009 and 2010, and I hadn’t completed a new program since finishing the Urban Observing program back in 2013. Hard to believe that after knocking out nine clubs in my first five years as an AL member, I didn’t finish any more in the next five.

It was an interesting early-morning run. Scattered clouds started moving in about 1:00 AM, and by 2:45 I was playing tag with sucker holes. Fortunately the clouds were moving fast across Cygnus, Delphinus, Equuleus, and Pegasus, and I managed to get four objects in the half hour between 3:40 and 4:10. That brought my total to 52, a couple more than are required. BUT! I’d forgotten about the requirement to observe at least five of the doubles on the list with naked eyes, and compare to the binocular view. So I’m not quite done after all.

After getting those last four bino double stars, I thought I was finished for the evening. I’d had a great, cathartic run, logged dozens and dozens of DSOs, including a handful of new objects, and finished the instrumental observations for my tenth Astro League observing project. Then I saw that Jupiter was in the open. The scope was still set up, and I hadn’t paid my respects to the king of planets, so I had a look and made a quick and dirty sketch in my notebook.

Even that was not my final object of the evening. After I’d finished with Jupiter, Cygnus was in the clear, so I went to possibly my favorite target for binoculars and rich-field scopes: the heart asterism around Sadr, at the heart of the Swan. I stared until I felt myself starting to nod off, and checked the time. It was 4:37 AM, precisely nine hours since I’d picked Venus out of the sunset. That felt like fate, so I called it.

My final tally for the night:

  • 3 artificial satellites tracked with the scope
  • 4 meteors, 1 in scope and 3 naked-eye
  • 10 asterisms, 3 of which were new
  • 13 double stars, 11 of which were new
  • 8 nebulae
  • 43 open clusters
  • 7 globular clusters
  • 2 galaxies

I observed a total of 60 deep sky objects, 43 of which were Messiers, and an even 90 objects of all types. Not bad for what felt like a very relaxed – and relaxing – run.

It’s cloudy over SoCal tonight, and that’s a good thing. I need to go rest on my laurels. Catch you in the future.

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5 comments

  1. Ah, great! At last an observing report. Can’t wait to read this. With our 22nd consecutive day of total overcast and, most often, rain, I am in desperate need of a virtual observing session. Eager to see what you came up with.

    Doug

    Sent from my iPad

    >


  2. Very nice Matt! Just curious, did you choose the asterisms from the Astronomer’s League List, or did you randomly pick them from Interstellarum?

    Hope to see you soon!


  3. I like that funny little white telescope you have.a bresser? A good count I was using a funny telescope last night, a Viking 10×42 monocular and got the following tally;globulars 3(m3,m13,m92),galaxies 5(m65,m101,m51,m81,m82),open clusters 9(m44,m45,m67,m34,m36,m37,m38,the double cluster, the coma cluster),planets,Venus and Jupiter.


  4. I like that funny little white telescope you have.a bresser? A good count I was using a funny telescope last night, a Viking 10×42 monocular and got the following tally;globulars 3(m3,m13,m92),galaxies 5(m65,m101,m51,m81,m82),open clusters 9(m44,m45,m67,m34,m36,m37,m38,the double cluster, the coma cluster),planets,Venus and Jupiter.


  5. Terry – neither! I discovered three new ones. Well, I think I did. Need to check them against existing lists. If they are new, they’ll be coming to a Binocular Highlight column near you in the not-too-distant future.

    Kevan – yep, the scope is a Bresser AR102s. I’ve blogged about it here a lot, click this link for more.

    Pretty good count for a little monocular – well done!



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