Archive for the ‘AL Deep Sky Binocular Club’ Category

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Blingitty bling bling bling

August 28, 2010

Back in May I logged my final Messier object, thus completing the requirements for the Hononary Messier certificate from the Astronomical League (you can get the regular Messier certificate for observing 70 of 110 Messier objects). Although you can submit your observations to the AL yourself, it is recommended to have the AL representative of your club look at your logbook and send a letter to the AL to the effect that your observations are satisfactory. The PVAA doesn’t have a regular AL liaison but the then president, Ron Hoekwater, was willing to vet my logbook. He also suggested that I hang on to the certificate so that he could present it to me at the next meeting.

The problem was, I didn’t attend the next meeting, because in June I was crazy busy with teaching. And I didn’t attend the meeting after that, because in July I was in Uruguay. So tonight’s meeting was the first that I’d attended in three months.

And in those three months I went to Uruguay and finished the observations for the Southern Sky Binocular Club…

…and the Southern Sky Telescopic Club.

And when I got back, I logged the final object for the Deep Sky Binocular Club, which I’d been working on since January.

So the certificates and pins have been slowly piling up. In fact, the bling for the Southern Sky Telescopic club arrived in the mail just this afternoon. At tonight’s meeting Ron presented all four to me, and asked me to say a few words to the members about the AL observing clubs and about observing the southern skies from Uruguay.

In other PVAA-related horn-tooting, after missing the month of July my series counting down the world’s largest telescopes resumed in this month’s Nightwatch. This link should be good for the next three months, after which it will be available at the archive site.

Last night I actually got  out for an hour and bagged three targets for the Urban Club, so that club has 66 down and either 34 or 44 to go. Anyway, it was an enjoyable hour of stargazing.

Back on January 1 I resolved to finish the Messier Club, the Galileo Club, and the Lunar II Club this year. The Messiers are done, but I haven’t worked on either Galileo or Lunar II since January. The fact is, I’ve been having too much fun with other observing projects. And I’m okay with that. The real goal of making that resolution was to finish three clubs this year; I just figured that Galileo and Lunar II would be the easiest since I had already started Galileo and had just come off Lunar I successfully. In the actual event, I sort of fell in love with deep sky observing, especially with binoculars, and that’s been the direction of my observing this year. In fact, I think it is now probably impossible for me to finish the Galileo Club this  year, because I won’t be able to track Venus through enough of its cycle before the end of the year, and I also think I missed something for Jupiter. But on the other hand, I’ve finished five observing clubs this year (in order: Binocular Messier, Messier, Southern Sky Bino, Southern Sky Telescopic, Deep Sky Bino) and I’m on track to finish Urban at least by the end of the year, so I’m going to declare the spirit of the resolution fulfilled even if the letter is not. That’s usually how people rationalize this stuff, right? Just move the goalposts and declare that whatever you did instead was the actual goal. 🙂

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Mt Wilson: even better the second time around

June 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!

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While I was out…

June 1, 2010

May turned out to be a pretty eventful month for me, astronomically-speaking.

As noted in my oath-breaking last post, I bought one of the Sky-Watcher scopes that is on crazy sale at Amazon right now. I got the 130N-EQ2, a Newtonian reflector on an equatorial mount. I’m not a big fan of EQ mounts. Yeah, they let you track the sky by moving the scope slowly on one axis instead of two, but for that convenience you get to pay quite a bit more than you would for an alt-az mount (normally, that is; right now at Amazon you get the whole kit-n-kaboodle for about what the eyepieces regularly cost), and you get to lug around a lot more weight, too. YMMV, but I like to lug optics, not machinery, and I don’t mind nudging the scope every couple of minutes. So I sold the EQ mount on the Cloudy Nights classifieds (bringing the net cost of the scope down to a ridiculous $40) and used some scrap wood from the garage to build a Dobsonian mount. That project is still ongoing; it’s about halfway painted right now. More construction details soon.

Back in April, I started writing a series of articles on the world’s largest telescopes for Nightwatch, the newsletter of the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, and the first one came out in the May newsletter (that link will be good for about three months, after which you’ll be able to find the article on the Nightwatch archive page).

Finally, and most excitingly for me, at 4:30 in the morning on May 25 I found and logged my final Messier object. The quest is complete! And one of my astronomical resolutions for 2010 is fulfilled. Two more to go…

What does June hold? Well, on the 12th the PVAA is going back to Mount Wilson. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that–last year they got clouded out in June and had to reschedule for the fall (which worked out well for me). Venus, Mars, and Saturn are all well-placed right after dark, and Jupiter is up before dawn. There’s a minor comet to chase if you’ve got optics and reasonably dark skies. And I’m about 10 objects away from finishing my observations for the AL Deep Sky Binocular Club.

So, lots to do and see. My posting will probably be hit-and-miss this month also; I’m going on vacation for the next week and when I get back, I have to knuckle under and get to work on some lectures. If you need ways to entertain yourself, the advice given here still holds. Clear skies!

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Observing report: Between the clouds

February 9, 2010

We’ve been having lots of cloudy and rainy weather here in the LA basin, so when a clear night comes along I try to take full advantage. Last night was clear, so I grabbed my 15x70s and went out to see the clusters between Cassiopeia and Perseus.

I made a New Year’s resolution to get through the Messier list this year. Right after I started on that project, I found out that some people–including Jay Reynolds Freeman–had done the whole list with 50mm binoculars. I hadn’t ever taken on a binocular observing project, so I decided to do the AL Binocular Messier Club at the same time. Plus, I would have felt like a wuss knowing that people had done the list with 50mm bins and I hadn’t even tried with my 15x70s. 🙂

The first week of January was pretty clear here and I got through almost all of the Messier objects that can be easily seen from my suburban skies at convenient hours. No M76 or M78 yet, at least not with the binoculars (M78 did fall to my 6-inch Dob). It was enough to get me hooked on the challenge and pleasure of tracking down faint fuzzies with binoculars, so I decided to start the Deep Sky Binocular Club, too.

I started that club a few weeks ago with what western objects I could get, before they get too close to the sun, or more depressing yet, too far down into the LA light dome (I’m at the far eastern edge of LA county). Then I went on through Orion, Lepus, Puppis, Gemini, Auriga, Taurus, and so on. A couple of weeks ago I was looking at my tally and realized that I’d gotten so busy with the southern stretches of the winter Milky Way that I’d forgotten about the circumpolar constellations! Which is a shame, Cassiopeia was the first constellation I learned when I got into amateur astronomy in earnest, and was a frequent stop on my earliest observing runs. And the stretch from Cassiopeia to Perseus is huge for the Deep Sky Binocular Club, with about a quarter of the objects on the list. I didn’t realize that until I’d gotten through most of the rest of the evening sky and was wondering why my tally wasn’t higher. Then I “discovered” how crucial Cass and Perseus are.

Then it started raining. A LOT.

As I compose this, it is raining. But last night was clear so I went cluster-hunting. I live in a back house with a big open parking area between it and the front house. This affords a decent bowl from which to observe without too much interference from local lighting. I usually wear a dark hooded sweatshirt and pull the hood up over my face so only my eyes are showing. With patience and good dark adaptation I’ve seen some things that I would have thought impossible in these skies, including the M galaxies around Canes Venatici and the Crab Nebula.

I didn’t start off with the Cass clusters. I wanted another crack at M78, and while I was waiting for my eyes to settle into observing mode I swept up M42 and M43, M35, and the Auriga M clusters. All very pretty, but they didn’t help M78 appear out of the murk. Sometimes right after a rain the transparency is just shocking, but sometimes there are mixed clouds and haze that really put the hurt on the faint fuzzies. Last night was one of those nights. M78 will have to wait for darker skies (maybe this weekend).

So I switched over to Cassiopeia and its neighbors. I started with the Double Cluster, which I’d seen umpteen times before but never logged for the Deep Sky Bino Club. And I was off and running. Here are the rest of my notes for the evening:

Tr 2 – Two chains of faint stars intersect to form the shape of a flying wing. Delicately beautiful.

Stock 2 – Extremely large, vase-shaped assemblage of faint stars. IMHO, rivals Double Cluster in binoculars, although its appearance is very different.

Markarian 6 – Dense patch of light, no granularity, makes a nice contrast with nearby Mel 15.

Melotte 15 – Larger and sparser than nearby Mark 6, but with more bright stars. Reminds me of a hybrid of the Double Cluster clusters.

NGC 663 – Obvious and granular even in these skies, brighter than nearby NGCs and even M103.

Kemble’s Cascade – Lovely curving chain of stars of varying brightnesses, anchored by NGC 1502 on one end and a counter-curving arc of bright stars on the other. Bright stars plus cascade make extended S shape.

Stock 23 – Jumps right out even in the surrounding rich starfield. Dominated by four bright stars in a flattened kite shape.

Cr 463 – Large aggregation of faint stars, smaller and dimmer than Stock 2, in a nice trapezoidal asterism not far from the pole.

All of these bizarre designations are explained in the official AL Deep Sky Bino Club list, and all of the listed objects are easy to find in the Pocket Sky Atlas.

I’d also tried for NGCs 129, 436, 457, and 7789, but didn’t pick them up. I think it was partly sky conditions–Cass was getting down into the LA murk–and partly observer conditions. I usually refuse to give up on something unless I have really put in the effort, maybe half an hour of laying flat on my back with every surrounding glint of light blocked out and lots of searching with averted vision. But last night I was cold and tired, and didn’t spend more than 4 or 5 minutes on any one thing.

Still, I ended the night with 10 more objects knocked off the Deep Sky Bino Club. The clouds can do whatever they want today, I’ve got a little victory energy to run on.