Archive for the ‘Camping’ Category

h1

Small, medium, large – observing near and far in the last two weeks

June 4, 2016

Matt at Delicate Arch IMG_2984

Preface – Running with the Red Queen

I’ve just finished maybe the busiest spring of my life. January and February were largely sunk into day-job work – time-consuming, but necessary, interesting, and in fact rewarding. Then the last three months have been taken up with travel and public lectures.

  • In March I went to Oklahoma for 10 days of paleontological research in field and lab, and I gave a talk at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History titled, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?”
  • In April I did a two-day trip to Mesa, Arizona, for more paleo work. No talk on that trip, but I did participate in the “Beer and Bones” outreach at the Arizona Museum of Natural History.
  • In early May I was in Utah for another 10 days of paleo research, and I gave a talk at the Prehistoric Museum in Price on, “Why elephants are so small”. My colleague Mike Taylor and I took one day off from dashing through museums to tour Arches National Park, which is where Mike took the photo at the top of the post.
  • Last weekend I was up at RTMC, where I gave a Beginner’s Corner talk on, “The scale of the cosmos”.

I’m not complaining – far from it. It’s been exhilarating, and the collaborative work I have rolling in Oklahoma and Utah will hopefully be paying off for years. And planning and executing all of the work has been satisfying. Particularly the RTMC talk, which deserves a whole post of its own. And ultimately this is all stuff that I chose to do, and if I could do it all over again, I would.

BUT there have been consequences. Most frustratingly, I haven’t had enough uninterrupted time to get anything written up for publication – not the sizable backlog of old projects I need to get finished up, and not the immense pile of new things I’ve learned this year. I haven’t gotten out to observe as much as I’d like, and I’ve barely blogged at all.

And it’s not over. In two weeks I leave for a week of paleo fieldwork in Oklahoma, then I’m back for a week, then I’m off to Utah for about 10 more days of digging up dinosaurs. In between I’ll teaching in the summer human anatomy course at WesternU.

But I’ve had a nice little pulse of observing in the last couple of weeks – two weekends ago up at Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo, last weekend at RTMC above Big Bear, and this week at Santa Cruz Island off the coast. No time for separate observing reports, so I’m combining them all into one.

Observing Report 1 (Medium): The Planets and Moon from Arroyo Grande

I was fortunate to be part of a great, tightly-knit cohort of grad students at Berkeley. Of the people I was closest to, some are still in and around the Bay Area and some of us have been sucked into the gravity well of the LA metro area. Occasionally we get together somewhere halfway in between, either up in the Sierras or near the coast. I usually take a telescope, because almost everywhere is darker than where I live, and when I’m traveling by car there’s simply no reason not to.

IMG_9452

This year we met up for a couple of days and nights in Arroyo Grande. We hiked in the hills, went down to Morro Bay to watch ocean wildlife and buy seafood, played poker, and generally got caught up on work, family, hobbies, and life. Our first night was wonderfully clear. I had along the trusty C80ED, which has become my most-used scope. It’s mechanically rugged, optically damn near perfect, and compact enough to not require much time or thought when it comes to transportation and setup. On Saturday, May 21, we spent some time with Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn were as they always are: beautiful and surprising in their immanence. I cannot look through the telescope at either of them without being forcefully reminded that they are as real as I am, that as I go about my days full of busyness and drama, they are always out there, hundreds of millions of miles away, go about their own business whether I or anyone else pay them any attention or not. One of my friends had never seen the rings of Saturn with his own eyes, so that was an added bonus.

Mars was the real treat. Using the Meade 5mm 100-degree EP and a Barlow I was able to crank up the magnification to 240x. The dark dagger of Syrtis Major and the white gleam of the north polar cap were both obvious. It is always arresting to see details on this world that has loomed so large in the human imagination, from ancient mythology to science fiction to current and future exploration.

The next night we sat out on the patio, eating oysters and watching the sun set. I didn’t have any of my own binoculars along, but a friend had brought a couple, and after it got dark we watched the still-mostly-full moon rise through the trees on the ridgeline to the east.

It was all shallow sky stuff (solar system, that is), but it was all spectacular, and I’m glad we did it.

Observing Report 2 (Large): Going Deep at RTMC

Last weekend I was up at RTMC, finally. I’ve been wanting to go since I got to SoCal, but in the past it’s fallen on the same week as our university graduation and I’ve been too wiped out. I didn’t make it up for the whole weekend. We went up as a family to stay Saturday and Sunday nights. I went up to RTMC early Sunday morning to look around, give my talk, and hang out. Ron Hoekwater, Laura Jaoui, Jim Bridgewater, Ludd Trozpek, and Alex McConahay of the PVAA were all there and we spent some time catching talks and jawing about skies and scopes. I also chatted with some folks from farther afield, including Arizona and NorCal.

IMG_9523

I took off in the afternoon to spend time with London and Vicki, then went back up after dinner. All I had along were my Celestron 10x50s (yes, those), but Ron had his 25-inch Obsession dob, and he was content to use it as the centerpiece of a group observing session. We looked at the planets, or at least Jim Bridgewater and I did – Ron had checked them out the previous night and didn’t want to blow out his dark adaptation. That was a smart call, as the Obsession gathers a LOT of light and the planets were almost blown out. We could have put in a filter, but ehh, we had other things to be getting on with.

We started with globular clusters. M3, M5, M53, NGC 3053, and one or two other distant NGC globs. The close ones were explosions of stars that filled the eyepiece. The distant ones shimmered out of the black like the lights of distant cities. Then we moved on to galaxies. M81 and M82 were bigger, brighter, and more detailed than I had ever seen them. M51 was just stunning – the spiral arms were so well-defined that it looked like Lord Rosse’s sketch.

M51 sketch by Lord Rosse

As nice as those were, the Virgo galaxy cluster was better. There were so many galaxies that identifying them was a pain – there were so many little NGCs in between the familiar Messier galaxies that my usual identification strategies kept getting derailed. It was kind of embarrassing, actually – I did just write an article about this stuff. But also incredible. NGC 4435 and 4438 – the pair of galaxies known as “The Eyes” – were so big, bright, and widely separated that I didn’t realize I was looking at them until the third or fourth pass.

We finished up on planetary nebulae. The seeing was good but not perfect – the central star in the Ring Nebula was visible about a quarter of the time. The Cat’s Eye, NGC 6543, was a fat green S with a prominent central star – it looked like it had been carved out of jade.

An evening under dark skies with a giant scope is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you get to see so many unfamiliar objects, and so many details in familiar objects, that are beyond the reach of smaller scopes. A curse because by the end of the session you may find yourself thinking, “Sheesh, why do I even bother with my little 3-, 5-, and 10-inch scopes?”

Fortunately another observing experience, one that would remind me of the joys of small-aperture observing, was right around the corner.

Observing Report 3 (Small): A Binocular Tour of the Spring Sky

My son, London, is finishing up fifth grade at Oakmont Outdoor School, one of the half-dozen or so different elementary schools in the Claremont Unified School District. We were fortunate when we moved to Claremont to land just a couple of blocks from Oakmont – we would have been happy to land within walking distance of any of the schools, but if we’d had our choice we would have picked Oakmont anyway, since we wanted to raise London with as much exposure to the outdoors as we could.

Oakmont’s slogan is, “Learning in the world’s biomes”. The major activities of each grade are organized around a particular biome, and so is the end-of-year field trip. In third grade, the kids went to Sea World. Last year it was the desert by Palm Springs for a 2-day, 1-night trip. This year it was Santa Cruz Island, in Channel Islands National Park, for a 3-day, 2-night trip. Parent chaperones are needed and I’ve been fortunate to get to go every year.

IMG_9598

The island was amazing. We saw dolphins, sea lions, and petrels on the boat ride out – I took the photo above from the prow of the ship – more sea lions, seals, pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and red pelagic crabs at the shore, and dwarf island foxes, ravens, and the occasional hawk inland. On the final evening, June 2, we hiked up to the top of the cliffs to watch the sun set over the Pacific, which was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d see something even more beautiful just a few hours later.

I had binoculars along – Bushnell 10×40 roofs that I got specifically for daytime use, and which I had used a lot on the trip already to watch wildlife. When we got back to camp, a few of the teachers and hung back and started talking about the planets, bright stars, and constellations. I started pointing out a few of the brighter targets and passing around the binoculars, and we ended up having an impromptu binocular star party. (The kids and a fair number of the adults were all exhausted from a full day of hiking, and sensibly went to bed.)

IMG_9987

What followed was one of the best and most memorable observing sessions of my life. The only permanent residents of Santa Cruz Island are a couple of National Park employees, and they turn their lights off after dark. We got a little light pollution on the eastern horizon from Ventura and Oxnard, some 20 miles distant, but for the most part the sky was darkAfton Canyon dark, Hovatter Road dark – what I typically refer to as stupid dark.

We roamed all over the sky, looking at targets large and small, near and far, bright and dim. I didn’t keep track as we were going, but I wrote down a list yesterday morning on the boat ride back to the mainland (we went through a fog bank and only saw a handful of dolphins, so I had plenty of time).

In the northern sky:

  • Polaris and the Engagement Ring asterism
  • Mizar and Alcor
  • M51 – yes, it was visible in the 10×40 bins
  • The 3 Leaps of the Gazelle

In the western sky:

  • M44, the Beehive – easily visible to the naked eye, and just stunning in the binos
  • Leo
  • Coma Berenices star cluster
  • Virgo/Coma galaxies – identifications were tough, but a few were visible

In the eastern sky, Lyra had just cleared the trees when we started observing (at 9:15 or so), and all of Cygnus was above the trees when we finally shut down at 12:45 AM. In addition to tracing out the constellations, along the way we looked at:

  • Epsilon Lyrae, the Double-Double star
  • Albireo
  • Alpha Vulpeculae (the subject of my Binocular Highlight column in the ### issue of Sky & Telescope)
  • Brocchi’s Coathanger (Collinder 399)
  • Sagitta (just traced the constellation)
  • M27, the Dumbbell Nebula
  • Sadr and its surrounding ring of stars in the heart of Cygnus
  • NGC 7000, the North American Nebula – this and the Northern Coalsack were easily visible to the naked eye once Cygnus has risen out of the near-horizon LP

…and we just cruised the Milky Way from Cygnus to Cepheus, not singling out individual objects but just taking in the rich star fields.

But the southern sky was the best. Looking south from Santa Cruz Island, there’s only open ocean, broken here and there by other, distant islands and ultimately by Antarctica. It reminded me of looking south from Punta del Este in Uruguay, only I was in a valley instead of on a beach. The ridgeline to the south did cut off a bit of the sky, but we were still able to see all of Scorpio, including the False Comet, made up of NGC 6231 and Trumpler 24, which was one of the highlights.

It was trippy watching the Milky Way rise. I usually look at the summer Milky Way when it is higher overhead. I usually have to do that, because the objects aren’t visible in the near-horizon haze. But from Santa Cruz Island, things were not only bright but obvious as soon as they cleared the ridgeline to the south. It’s almost pointless to list them – we saw every Messier object in the “steam from the teapot”, from M7 and M6 in the south to M11 in the north, plus a lot of NGCs, plus star clouds and dark nebulae almost beyond counting. They were all great through the binoculars – M7 was a special treat, like a globular cluster on a diet – but honestly the best views of the night were naked-eye.

I realized that I am just never out observing the Milky Way at this time of year. My regular desert observing spots are all too hot in the summer, and when I do go there is often at least some light pollution to the south (El Centro from the Salton Sea, Barstow from Owl Canyon, etc.). I do most of my deep and dark observing in October and November, when the southern Milky Way is setting, not rising.

So I was completely unprepared for how much detail would be visible to the naked eye. When the Milky Way rose, it didn’t look like a band of light, it looked like a galaxy. I searched through a lot of photographs of the rising Milky Way to find one that approximated the naked-eye view, and this is the closest I got:

I am not exaggerating – the bright and dark areas were that defined. The Great Rift was visible from Cygnus to the horizon, and its southern border was notched by distinct deep sky objects from Aquila onward. The Scutum Star Cloud, M16, M17, M24, M23, M8, M6, M7, NGC 6281, and the False Comet were all easily visible to the naked eye as a chain of luminous patches against the dark dust lane of our own galaxy. In fact, I noted NGC 6281 with my naked eyes first, thought, “What the heck is that?”, and had to look it up. We also caught M4, M22, M23, and M25 in the bins, plus a bundle of dark nebulae that I’d never noted before and didn’t bother keeping track of.

Longtime S&T contributor Tony Flanders (now retired but still writing occasionally) is active on Cloudy Nights, and his sig file reads:

First and foremost observing love: naked eye.
Second, binoculars.
Last but not least, telescopes.
And I sometimes dabble with cameras.

Until fairly recently I would have listed my own preferences in reverse order, from telescopes to binos to naked eye. That may sound odd for a “bino guy”, which I guess I am since all of my ‘professional’ astro-writing has been binocular-based. But it’s true – as much as I love binoculars, I would have picked a telescope first. But I am – gradually, belatedly – waking up. In some ways, it would have been great to have a scope, any scope, along on the island trip. I’m sure that even the C80ED would have taken us crazy deep, considering what we could see with a pair of low-end 40mm roof-prism bins. But it would also have come between us and the sky, and I would have spent more time futzing with eyepieces and less time just looking up.

This was a surprising and welcome realization, coming so shortly on the heels of a frankly astonishing session with Ron’s 25-inch dob at RTMC. I was worried that big-telescope observing might spoil me, but that fear turned out to be unfounded. All I need to be happy is a dark sky. If I have some people to share it with, even better. Anything more is just cake at the end of an already long buffet.

Let’s eat.

h1

Observing report: Dark nights at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

February 18, 2016

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 6 - crescent moon

Back in November, 2014, London and I visited the Palomar observatory and then went camping at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. At the end of my Palomar post, I teased, “Next up: crazy-dark skies at Anza-Borrego. Stay tuned.”

Obviously, that never happened. I find that with my observing reports, I need to get them done and out quickly or they never happen.

I was back at ABDSP this past weekend and I got in some very enjoyable stargazing, so now I’m going to try to kill two birds with one stone.

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 1 - camp Wedel

When London and I stayed there together back in 2014, we camped at the Palm Canyon campground, which is basically the headquarters campground of the park. It’s a nice developed campground down on the desert floor, right next to the town of Borrego Springs. The state park is a pretty isolated patch of SoCal, in terms of light pollution, and Borrego Springs is the only International Dark Sky Community in California. There are no stoplights in town (there is one roundabout, and enough stop signs), and all of the businesses use low (but sufficient!) outdoor lighting, and mostly turn the lights off when they’re not needed. As a result, I can see more stars in town in Borrego Springs than I can in some rural areas elsewhere. Happily, the locals are aware of how much of a draw the dark skies are, and they actively promote Borrego Springs as a place to come stargaze (for example).

So the skies are pretty dark even in town, and once you get outside of the town they get very dark. One of the highlights of the November 2014 trip for me was getting my first really good look at NGC 2371 and 2372, two halves of a planetary nebula in northern Gemini. Always before the nebula had just looked like a dim blob, but that night I could see both halves very clearly as separate arcs of nebulosity.

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 4 - finder

London was rolling that night with his XT4.5, which he’d just gotten a couple of weeks earlier for his 10th birthday. In the gift shop at Palomar he spent some of his birthday money to get a planisphere and a constellation guide. At the campground he drove his scope by himself, and found Andromeda, the Double Cluster, the Pleiades, and Orion without any help from me. It was a milestone observing session for him.

I spent a lot of time in Orion that night myself. Orion always looks pretty good – the total object – but under very dark skies it looks amazing. There was so much detail in the nebula, swirls and knots of gas and fine gradations in the sheets of light that you just don’t see in even minimally light-polluted skies. I got a special treat around midnight – I saw a satellite drifting through the field of view as I nudged the scope along to follow the nebula.

To be visible that long after dark, a satellite has to be far enough above Earth to not fall into the planet’s shadow, so I knew right away that this was a geosynchronous satellite. I stopped pushing the scope and sure enough, the satellite just sat there, rock solid, while the nebula and starfield drifted past. I’d seen exactly one of these before – Steve Coe had shown one to Darrell Spencer and me at my first All-Arizona Star Party back in 2010 – but this was my first time catching one on my own. What’s particularly cool about geosynchronous satellites is that you don’t have to do anything to track them. Just leave your scope pointed in the same place and they’ll be visible until you decide to look at something else. So you can swap eyepieces without worrying about losing the object, you can take a break to get a snack and go to the bathroom – I did all of these things – and when you come back, the satellite will still be there, serenely sitting as Earth’s rotation carries the background stars past in an endless parade.

IMG_6988

I was back at Anza-Borrego this past weekend for the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual meeting. It was a one-day regional conference held on Saturday, February 13. I gave a talk and I wanted to look presentable, so instead of camping the night before I got a hotel room. But I planned to camp Saturday night, after the conference – there was a banquet after the meeting and I didn’t want to drive home in the middle of the night. Especially if by staying out I could get in some good dark-sky time.

I had originally planned to drive around to one of the Salton Sea campgrounds – Borrego Springs is on the western side of the sea. I preferred to stay in the state park, as it’s 600 feet above sea level instead of 200 feet below, like the seashore campgrounds, and those 800 feet mean thinner air, less humidity, and darker skies. But I figured that with the holiday weekend all of the campsites would be taken.

I was wrong! In the State Park visitor center – which is awesome and has some cool fossils from the park on display – I learned that the many undeveloped campgrounds in the park do not require reservations and that not all of them were likely to fill up. In particular, the ranger recommended Culp Valley Campground, which is about 8 miles west of Borrego Springs and at an elevation of 3000 feet. I drove up Friday night after dinner to hike it out and do a quick binocular tour of the winter best and brightest. One of the fun spin-off benefits of having written the Canis Major and Puppis binocular tour for the December Sky & Telescope is that now I am compelled to run through those objects anytime I am out observing. It only takes a couple of minutes if I’m in a hurry and it’s always rewarding.

The conference on Saturday was great, my talk went well and I had a great time talking to colleagues old and new. After the banquet I drove up to Culp Valley, found a spot, and got settled in. My plan was to go right to bed and get up in the morning for dawn patrol, but – predictably – I was not able to pass up another quick turn around the sky, which evolved into half an hour of fun binocular observing. I did manage to get up at 4:30 for another productive half-hour run. The sky was so dark that I when I got up off my cot and looked to the east, I saw a bright cloud and said to myself, “What the heck is that?” It was the Scutum Star Cloud, and in binoculars it glittered with hundreds of barely resolved stars and the combined glow of thousands more. It wasn’t even that far above the horizon – I can’t wait to see what it looks like from there this summer, when it’s riding high in the south.

IMG_6987

Did I mention that all of the undeveloped campgrounds in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are free to camp in? You don’t need a park pass or a day use fee or anything. Totally, completely, free. I had to have the ranger explain it to me twice. I have nothing against supporting our state and national parks – quite the contrary – I’m just not used to having any of them be free. That said, if you go stay at one I encourage you to stop by the park visitor center and leave a few bucks in the donation box – even undeveloped campgrounds require some upkeep.

h1

Observing report: the compleat stargazing session

October 22, 2012

Saturday night London and I met up with David DeLano at the Salton Sea for an evening observing session. In thinking about how to describe it I decided that it was the compleat observing run–and yes, I mean compleat, meaning total or quintessential, not ‘complete’.

For one thing, we observed almost every class of object out there: artificial satellites, meteors, the moon, a planet and its moons (Jupiter), a comet (Hergenrother), double stars, asterisms, planetary nebulae (the Ring and the Dumbbell), a supernova remnant (Crab Nebula), bright diffuse nebulae (M42 and M43 in Orion), binocular associations (Alpha Persei Association and Hyades), open star clusters near (Pleiades) and far (M35-38, among many others) and very far (NGC 2158), a very dense open cluster (M11, the Wild Duck cluster), a very sparse globular cluster (M71 in Sagitta), a showpiece globular (M13, the Great Glob in Hercules), a non-Messier glob (NGC 288), Local Group galaxies (M31 and M33) and satellite galaxies (M32 and M110), and at least one non-Messier galaxy (NGC 253, the Silver Coin). Okay, so we didn’t track down any asteroids, terrestrial planets, dark nebulae, Milky Way star clouds, or galaxy clusters. Still, I think we did okay for a sunset-to-midnight run, especially considering we had no fixed plan beyond “hang out and look at stuff”.

Also, we used almost every class of common astronomical instrument: naked eyes, binoculars, doublet refractors (David’s Galileoscope and my SV50), a triplet refractor (David’s SW100T), a Newtonian reflector (London’s Astroscan), and a catadioptric scope (my Apex 127 Mak), in apertures from two to five inches and focal ratios from f/4 to f/12.

We spent a lot of time just looking up. We used whatever instruments we had to hand, on whatever targets were of interest. We used rich-field scopes on solar system targets and planet killers on the deep sky and located faint nebulae with binoculars. We compared views, compared eyepieces, and compared objects. We found new stuff, checked maps, and got lost–yes, both of us. We explored. We rocked.

I did not log any new Herschel 400 objects. I did have a fantastic time. In the future when I am looking forward to an observing run, my standard will be, “I hope it’s as much fun as that one night at the Salton Sea with David”.

I’ve done a LOT of observing this month, with two Mount Baldy runs and overnight trips to Joshua Tree, the All-Arizona Star Party, and the Salton Sea. Also, I’ve been fortunate to get to observe with three of the 10MA regulars in that time (David DeLano, Terry Nakazono, and Doug Rennie). Partly I’ve been making up for lost time, since it was too darned hot to go camping before October this year, and I was too busy in previous months anyway. It’s going to wind down now for a bit, though–this coming weekend I’m out of town, and three weekends from now we’ll be celebrating London’s 8th birthday.

I’ve been in a reflective mood already, as I passed my fifth anniversary as a stargazer and as I approach my 400th observing session. That really kicked into gear when Richard Sutherland asked me in a comment if I had any big plans for the next five years. I’m not ready to tackle a subject that big just yet, but I have learned a few things in this month of crazy observing:

  1. The moon is not nearly as much of a hindrance to deep-sky observing as I used to think. Yes, it gets a lot darker when the moon goes down–David and I were both struck by this Saturday night. But Doug and I swept up a ton of faint fuzzies in binos and in his SkyScanner despite a moon only about three days from full.
  2. Two inches of aperture will take you crazy deep under dark skies. By using every trick in the book–fanatical dark-adaptation, staying up past midnight (when most folks turn their house lights off), observing at the zenith, waiting until after a rain had swept the crud out of the skies, and mildly hyperventilating–I was once able to spot M1, the Crab Nebula, from my driveway using my 15×70 binos. At the Salton Sea two nights ago, it was dead easy in direct vision in the 10x50s, and in our 50mm finder scopes. M32 and M110 were also dead easy in the Galileoscope, and more difficult but still doable in the binos, with the difficulty mainly down to lower magnification and therefore smaller image scale.
  3. With the right eyepiece, the XT10 is a pretty decent rich-field scope. I got the XT10 back in 2010. It came with a 2″ focuser, but until this summer I had not invested in any 2″ eyepieces; I was loathe to spend any money on an eyepiece that I could only use in one scope. But this summer I caved and bought a 32mm Astro-Tech Titan. With a 70-degree apparent field, it gives a true field of almost two degrees in the XT10–enough to frame the Pleiades, the Double Cluster, the Andromeda Galaxy and both satellites, or the entire sword of Orion. That is an 80% gain in the area of the true field of view over my widest 1.25″ eyepiece. David DeLano also has one for his SW100T and it is a fantastic eyepiece in that scope as well. The 32mm Titan normally runs about $80, and IMHO it’s a steal at that price, but right now it’s on sale for closer to $60. If you have a scope with a 2″ focuser, what are you waiting for?
  4. For regular camping, a scope you can pick up and move around is highly desirable. At both Joshua Tree and the Salton Sea, I was happy to have the Apex 127 along, because I could just pick it up and move it to get away from local lights or trees. I will have to keep this in mind in contemplating future scope purchases. I have to admit that I am interested in the Celestron C8 SCT, partly for historical reasons, partly because it is the biggest scope that will ride comfortably on my SkyWatcher AZ4 mount (= Orion VersaGo II), and partly because it is probably the biggest scope I could just pick up and move around without a second thought. I reckon I’ll have the Apex 127 forever, though, even if I get a C8 someday, for the same reason that I’ll keep the XT10 if I get a bigger dob–for what it does, it’s just about perfect.
  5. Accessories matter. For the first time ever, I have spent more money on accessories than on scopes this year. This summer I went nuts and bought some nice eyepieces, and I just ordered some tube and finder rings and a dovetail for the Apex 127 and SV50. Observing is a lot easier when stuff Just Works, and most telescopes Just Work better with better accessories–sturdier mounts, better diagonals and eyepieces, more convenient finders, and so on.
  6. My interests are changing. I’ve only done a handful of comet sketches, but I’m digging them. I’m getting kinda excited about the idea of sketching deep-sky objects. I’m also getting more interested in trying to understand the 3D structure of what’s out there. Before this past month, I hadn’t done any serious binocular astronomy in over a year, and it’s really been great to get back to that. I have no idea where I’m going yet, but it is probably going to involve a lot more than tracking down the next hundred LTGs*.

* Little Turd Galaxies.

The most exciting development in the past month? The morning after the All-Arizona Star Party, Jimmy Ray said that London was pointing his Astroscan around with sufficient skill that he could probably earn a certificate at next spring’s All-Arizona Messier Marathon (certificates start at 50 objects). I had not even considered this possibility, but I discussed it with London on the drive home. Actually being able to find stuff with his telescope the past two weekends has been very empowering for him, and he wants to give it a shot, so we’ll probably start practicing in the coming weeks and months. Fingers firmly crossed!

h1

Observing report: back in the saddle

October 9, 2011

Last weekend London and I finally went camping again, and I finally got the scope back out under reasonably dark skies. My  last serious outing had been to Joshua Tree at the beginning of May. There are several reasons for the long hiatus.

  • The first is simply heat. We do most of our camping in the spring and the fall because it’s just too darn hot in the summer, at least at our preferred desert destinations. Yeah, we could go up into the mountains and fight everyone else trying to do the same, but I’ve never felt any strong motivation to do so. A big part of going camping, for us, is to get away from crowds of people, which is one of the many reasons we like the desert.
  • The second is teaching. My day job is teaching gross anatomy at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona. The anatomy courses run from mid-June to the end of October, and during this stretch I usually have little time or mental energy for anything besides anatomy.
  • The third is research. My appointment at WesternU is half teaching, half research. Usually I do almost nothing research-related during teaching time; I have from November through June to worry about dinosaurs. But this year a couple of big research-related events intervened and kept my head in the research arena even during teaching time. The first was a paleontology and anatomy conference in England in September, which I attended and spoke at. The second, and far more intense and important, is that at the beginning of August I took on my first graduate student. Which has been a lot of fun, but has also eaten up the spare cycles that I would normally devote to astronomy.

So, to sum up, the heat has kept me out of the desert, teaching has had its usual effect of monopolizing my attention, and research has scavenged what little teaching left over.

Until last weekend, anyway, when I was overtaken by one of those too-rare bouts of clarity in which I say to myself, “Why on Earth am I overthinking this? Camping is fun and easy, and packing the car takes less than an hour. We should just go.” And so we went.

Despite the earlier bad news, the Salton Sea State Rec Area is still open, at least for now. Don’t know if that’s because the state backed down of full closure, some community group stepped up to keep it open, or no-one’s gotten around to actually stringing a chain across the entrance (I jest; the lights and water were on, and there was a camp host present). That’s pretty much my default destination: it’s close, reasonably dark, has good horizons, is paved all the way in, and has lots of room for London to roam in relative safety with little supervision (i.e., flat, no cliffs to tumble over, and the water is too nasty to contemplate any sort of activity that might lead to drowning).

We got there right at sunset and quickly set up camp. Which basically means setting out the telescope, camp furniture, water, and food, moving all the other gear into the front seats, and making our beds in the back of the Mazda. I like to have all of this squared away before dark; come 3:00 AM I want to be able to climb into an already-made bed and just crash, and not futz around with making any further arrangements. I also got a fire going, and pretty soon we were roasting hot dogs and the making s’mores, our usual camp fare.

The young crescent moon was setting across the water, and as darkness fell the bats came out and started zipping through camp like little silent stealth fighters. London and I dig this; the bats are fun to watch and it’s nice to know that they’re around and keeping us bug-free.

London’s astro-enthusiasm waxes and wanes, much like my own. On some nights all he wants to do is lay out and watch for satellites and shooting stars, and other times he wants to do his own things. Last Saturday he climbed into his nest in the back of the car and played on his Leapster for about an hour (the most time he had spent playing with it in weeks), while I spent some quality time taking in the young crescent moon. I had the wrong camera along. Whereas my decade-old Nikon Coolpix 4500 is endlessly user-adjustable when it comes to settings, my newer Coolpix L19 has no way to manually set the exposure time, so it’s worse than useless when it comes to digiscoping. And the 4500 was back in my office. So no moon shots this time around.

After a while London was ready for some Daddy time so he crawled into my lap and we took turns telling stories until he got sleepy. Sometimes he’ll actually go to sleep in my lap, which is nice, because I know the days for that are growing short. But this time he recognized when he was sufficiently tired, took me to the restroom for his nighttime ablutions, climbed into his nest in the back of the car, and fell asleep almost immediately.

Unlike my outings this spring, this time I wasn’t attempting a Marathon or working on a big observing project. I just wanted to plink around the sky and reacquaint myself with the craft of observing. As usual, I split my time between telescope and binoculars.

This is a great time of year for observing: the summer constellations are still up right after sunset, and by just after midnight the winter constellations are rising. I started with the Great Glob (M13), the Ring Nebula (M57), the Wild Duck Cluster (M11), and Albireo, one of the finest double stars in the sky. By then Jupiter was high enough to be out of the near-horizon roil and showed about half a dozen dark cloud belts in the XT10, and some finer storm detail. After Jupiter I moved on to some autumn favorites: the Pleiades (M45), Andromeda galaxy (M31) and its satellites (M32, M110), and the Double Cluster (NGC 869/884). I could see some hints of the dust lanes in the Andromeda galaxy, but nothing like I saw last fall at Afton Canyon; the Salton Sea is dark but not that dark.

Those were all telescopic observations, and they had  carried me around the sky to the north, where the winter Milky Way was rising. I flopped into the lounge chair, grabbed the 15x70s, and laid back for some binocular stargazing. Cassiopeia in particular is a fantastic area to explore with binoculars; there are so many star clusters that the trick is not usually finding them, but figuring out which among the dozens you’re looking at. I thought about grabbing the atlas and sorting through it all.

Instead, I fell asleep.

I woke up about an hour later, at half past midnight. Normally, I would have called it a night, but during my reverie Orion had strode over the eastern horizon. Now this was too good to pass up. I went back to the scope and spent some time looking at the Great Nebula in Orion (M42/M43), the Crab Nebula (M1), the trio of Messier clusters in Auriga (M36, M37, and M38), and another cluster near Auriga (NGC 2281). I went back to the Pleiades, and got my best-ever view of the Merope Nebula, one of the many faint wisps of nebulosity that surround this bright young cluster. (In retrospect, the clarity with which I saw the Merope Nebula should have sent me scrambling back to the Andromeda galaxy to look again for dust lanes–the sky had evidently improved in the intervening two hours.)

Pleiades by Rob Gendler, borrowed from APOD

Then it was back to the lounge chair and binoculars to revisit all of these targets and more. And eventually, back to sleep under the stars. I did wake up later on and crawl into the car for some deeper sleep, but falling asleep under the splendor of the Milky Way was one of my favorite experiences in astronomy.

I was away too long. I can’t wait to go back out and do it again.

h1

Camping and stargazing with a child

May 13, 2011

This started out as a comment, in reply to a question from Saint Aardvark on what it’s like camping and stargazing with a 5-year-old along. It grew in the telling, so I’m making it a stand-alone post. If you have ideas, tips, or tricks for making time outdoors with children easier, please share them in the comments!

I started taking London with me to dark-sky sites last summer, when he was about five and a half. Between July and November we went to Owl Canyon, Joshua Tree Lake, Afton Canyon, and the All-Arizona Star Party, so we basically built out from nearby destinations to farther ones. The hardest part for him initially was the long drive. We always pack him a backpack full of books and magazines. I also have a couple of kid-friendly CDs in the car, and I keep a full-size pillow within his reach so he can lay his head down and take a nap while we’re driving.

Once we get to wherever we’re going, London is usually off exploring and looking for bones or cool rocks near our campsite. He is very good at staying withing line of sight and not wandering more than 100 feet or so from me. My first goals are always to get our camping area squared away first, whether we’re staying in a tent or just sleeping in the back of the vehicle, and then to get a fire going for dinner. It helps to arrive an hour or two before sunset; much earlier and we just end up getting sunburned and waiting for dark, and much later and it’s harder to set up in the fading light.

I can’t overstate how useful–nay, critical–it is that I can trust London to mind himself for 30-60 minutes while I get everything squared away. It really drives me nuts when people say how lucky we are that London is well-behaved. It’s true that he has a naturally gentle disposition, but dismissing his good behavior as luck devalues all of the work that we put into disciplining him, and more importantly, all the work that he puts into disciplining himself. It’s precisely because of the effort we all put into maintaining a civil household that we can enjoy ourselves so much when we’re out of the house; good behavior out in the wild is earned by practice at home. I don’t bring this up to be snooty or a tiger parent. I just can’t stand wimps who are too lazy or passive to discipline their kids. That’s a dereliction of parental responsibility and a huge disservice to the children, who will have to learn discipline later on, the hard way, at someone else’s expense. End of rant.

After dinner I make a comfy spot for London to watch for shooting stars and satellites. This might be the lounge chair, if I have it along, or maybe just a sleeping bag and pillow laid on top of a big piece of cardboard on the ground. Or my lap, in whatever seating is available. Usually he tells me when he is getting sleepy and I get him settled in his bed. If we’re sleeping in the back of the car, I make sure a window or door is open so I can hear him if he calls out. He never has yet, but I think the knowledge that he could call for me if he needed is a comfort. And I just don’t want the car sealed up with him inside, even in good weather. I always set up the telescope as close to the car or tent as I can, so I can keep an eye on him and he can know that I’m nearby.

I want London to enjoy these outings as much as I do. I grew up out in the country and the ready access to wide open, semi-wild spaces had a huge impact on me. It’s not really feasible for us to live in the country, so my substitute is to get London out into nature as often as possible, and to try to facilitate his enjoyment of it. Even on the hardcore stargazing trips, I try to make sure that his interests and desires get at least equal billing with my own. I don’t think that’s indulgent–I’d do the same for a camping companion of any age. In the early evening, he mainly wants to run off the cabin fever from the car ride, do a little solo exploring near camp, and look for interesting things on the ground. (I’ve taught him to recognize venomous spiders, scorpions, and snakes. He’s never found any out camping, but when he was four he correctly IDed a black widow spider that set up shop under one of our plant stands in the living room!) I usually grill hot dogs for dinner and then follow up with s’mores. That makes the fixing of dinner something he can help out with, which keeps him engaged and gives him a sense of accomplishment. After dinner, we look for shooting stars and satellites until he conks out. Then I get in a few hours of solo stargazing.

In the morning, we have breakfast and go for a hike. I’m usually running on 3-5 hours of sleep, so having some caffeine available is a must. For the hike, London gets to choose the route and duration (within reason); he’s on these trips to hike as much as I am to stargaze, and we’re both comfortable with the give-and-take involved. If your little one isn’t into hiking, you might see if there is another outdoor activity that they are interested in, that could be their recreational time the way that stargazing is yours. In talking about our hikes, London and I always call them “adventures” that we “brave explorers” go on, and I think putting things in those terms helped inspire him the first few times out. Now he’s so hooked on hiking I could call them “death crawls” and he’d still be eager to get out there.

One last enticement: on the way home, we stop at a restaurant for lunch, and London gets to choose where we stop. This almost always means McDonald’s, but I can live with it. We bring dinner and breakfast fixings with us, so lunch on the ride home is our only extraneous expense. And it gives London a little something to look forward to at the end of the trip, when everything is over but the ride home.

Ultimately, camping with London is so smooth and enjoyable that it’s often the first choice for both of us for passing a weekend with good weather. It’s cheap, too: hot dogs, s’mores fixings, lunch at a fast food joint and 2/3 of a tank of gas usually add up to less money than we’d have spent over the weekend anyway. And it gets us out of the house and at least into some contact with nature. I hope he grows to love wild places as much as I do; I think the best way to cultivate that love is to help him enjoy his time in nature right now. I hope your own family outings are successful, and even when they’re not, I hope that doesn’t stop you from going. It’s worth it.