Archive for the ‘Comets’ Category

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Chasing Comet Lovejoy

February 4, 2015

I’ve been out a few times in the last few weeks, mostly to see comet 2014 Q2/Lovejoy. It’s still nice and bright and it’s an easy catch in binoculars. You can get up-to-date finder charts from Heavens Above.

Our notes from January 17 - Steve's sketch of Jupiter and my sketches of the Trapezium and comet Lovejoy.

Our notes from January 17 – Steve’s sketch of Jupiter and my sketches of the Trapezium and comet Lovejoy.

About three weeks ago now, on January 17, I was up at the Webb Schools observatory with Steve Sittig, who you’ll recall from the virtual star party, last summer’s birthday observing run, and – farther back, in 2010 – comet 103P/Hartley. We were using the equatorially mounted C14 in the Webb Schools’ Hefner Observatory. We started on Orion just to get warmed up, and we could easily see the E and F stars in the Trapezium. After that we went after the comet. It was kind of a comedy of errors. We had problems getting the telescope pointed where we needed it, and neither of us had seen the comet yet so we were a little unsure of where to look. Finally we started scanning around with binoculars and then the comet was an easy catch, and we were able to get the scope on target. I made a couple of sketches a few minutes apart that show the comet moving through the field, but the western sky was getting hazy and pretty soon the comet was lost to us.

Jupiter from Webb - Jan 17 2015 - with labels

Jupiter and the four Galilean moons on January 17, 2015. Click through to see the moons. Photo by Steve Sittig.

After that we turned east to have a look at Jupiter. Steve made a sketch and got some photos with his DSLR mounted to the C14. As is usually the case, the photos do not nearly capture all of the detail that we could see at the eyepiece. We could see many cloud bands at high latitudes, and north and south equatorial belts were highly detailed with ruffled edges and festoons. Io was distinctly yellow at the eyepiece, much more so than the other moons, which ranged from white to a very faint blue. Thanks to Steve for the photos and for the great, if brief, night of stargazing.

Comet Lovejoy 2015-01-24 invert

The next Saturday, January 24, London and I set up telescopes in the driveway and took in some of the best and brightest objects (most of which London found himself!). I sketched the comet a couple of times, to show it moving against the background starfield.

I have another long-delayed observing report, from a trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park late last fall, but that will have to wait for another time.

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Observing Report: Comet PanSTARRS by naked eye!

March 17, 2013

Last night London and I joined fellow PVAA members Ron, Joe, and Steve up on Mount Baldy to watch for the comet. We spotted it fairly late, at least compared to the other night in Claremont when I first saw it at 7:25 PM. Up on the mountain we didn’t see it until 7:45, but I think it was visible sooner, we were just looking in the wrong place. We didn’t see the comet sooner because we were looking too far south and too close to the horizon. On the other hand, that’s not a bad problem to have, because when did finally spot it, it was higher in the sky than any of us expected, so we got to watch it for a good long time before it got too low to see. We finally lost it in the murk over LA at about 8:15.

Some people go up to our observing spot just to watch the sun set, and last night was no exception. While we were waiting for the sun to set, I was able to show a couple of people the waxing crescent moon and Jupiter and the Galilean moons. Unfortunatelly our guests gave up and left just about 5 minutes before we spotted the comet. Still, they were very excited by the views of the moon and Jupiter. After the comet set, London and Ron and I spent a few minutes looking at bright Messier objects:  the Pleiades, the Orion nebula, and the  galaxies M81 and M82 in Ursa Major. We had another look at the moon and Jupiter and wrapped up at 8:40.

So it was a short session, but a good one. And, as the title indicates, once it got dark enough we could see the comet with our naked eyes. It wasn’t just a bright dot in the sky, but very slightly elongated, like a tiny dash or comma. In the telescope it was fantastic, with a bright, well-defined tail that stretched out for almost half a degree even in the twilight. I tried to get some pictures with my camera, but there not enough contrast between the comet and sky to get any decent results. I will sketch it one of these days.

The comet will only get higher in the sky (for northern hemisphere observers, anyway) in coming weeks and months. At the same time, it’s going to get dimmer–it’s at max brightness right now. But the light fall-off isn’t going to be crippling. Next month the comet will be a magnitude or so dimmer, but it will also be a LOT higher in the sky, and I think the latter effect will outweigh the former. So I’m expecting even better views of the comet in weeks to come.

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Comet PanSTARRS, and other targets of opportunity

March 13, 2013

I had a short but very fun stargazing session tonight. I went to the top of the parking garage in downtown Claremont to look for Comet PanSTARRS. I knew that it would be horizonwards and a little right of the moon. I took the Apex 127/SV50 combo and my 15×70 binoculars. I got set up a little after 7:15 PM and started scanning the western sky, using the 15x70s and SV50 in alternation.

At 7:25 I spotted the comet in binoculars. It was down in the bright twilight glow, but it was surprisingly bright itself. Like a lot of things that you spot just as they’re coming out in the evening, once I’d found it I thought, “Dang, that’s bright, how did I miss it before now?”

Binoculars are pretty much guaranteed to be the best instrument for first picking up the comet, but it is big and bright enough to be a very rewarding telescopic target, and if you only see it in binoculars, you will definitely be missing out. Here’s a little trick for getting it in the scope: once you have it in the binoculars, scan straight down to the horizon–which ain’t far–and find a landmark. Go back up and relocate the comet, then back down again to make sure you’ve got the right landmark (I didn’t, the first time–I’d let the bins drift too much to the right on the way down). Anyway, once you’ve got the landmark, you’re golden: point the scope at the landmark and scan up to find the comet.

At 64x in the Apex 127, the nucleus seemed to be an extended object, not just a point of light. The tail swept straight up. I thought it was a little brighter and a little crisper on the north (right side in the sky, but left side in the scope). I wish I had sketched it–I’ll do that next time out.

Just a few minutes after I got the comet in my sights, a young couple pulled up and parked nearby, and invited them over to see the comet and the thin crescent moon. When the young woman saw the moon in the scope, she jerked back from the eyepiece, shook her hands, and said that the view had given her the chills. When people ask why I do sidewalk astronomy, I tell them about things like that.

Later on a family of five pulled up and I showed all of them the comet and the moon. So I had an astronomy outreach to a total of seven guests tonight. My favorite part: helping a 6-year-old kid get the 15x70s balanced on the side rail of the parking garage so he could see the moon.

If you’d like to see the comet, your best chances are in the next week or two. It will probably be bright enough to see with a telescope for weeks after that, maybe even months, but it isn’t going to get any brighter. Get over to Sky&Tel or just google “comet PanSTARRS”–the internet is falling over itself giving out instructions on how to find the comet right now.

By 7:50 all my visitors had moved on and so had the comet, lost in the hazy clouds over Los Angeles. I wasn’t done, though.

Urban decay

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before, I’m closing in on finishing two of the Astronomical League’s observing programs, the Urban Observing Club and the Double Star Club. If I’d gotten my rear in gear a month ago I could have finished them both easily by now, but my head was stuck in the Jurassic and I let too much time slip by. As of a couple of days ago, I only needed two more objects for each club: M77 and Algol for the Urban Club, and Alpha Piscium and 8 Lacertae for the Double Star Club. The trouble is, they’re all low in the western sky now, and in a month or  two they’ll be right behind the sun. So if I don’t get them pronto, I’ll have to wait a while before I’ll get another crack at them.

I got M77 Monday night from my driveway. I’d also seen it Saturday night on my Messier Marathon, of course, but that didn’t count; to be eligible for the Urban Club, the observations  have to made from someplace sufficiently light-polluted that the Milky Way is not naked-eye visible. Fortunately this galaxy has a crazy-bright core and I caught it with averted vision from the driveway even though it wasn’t fully dark yet. My time limit was set less by the sky and more by local geography: when I saw it, it was already in between the leafless branches of one of the trees in my back yard.

Algol is up in Perseus, still a good 25 or 30 degrees above the horizon at sunset, so it’s easy enough to see. That ain’t the problem. It’s the only variable star on the Urban Observing list, so I reckon I haven’t fulfilled the spirit of the thing until I’ve seen it go through one of its periodic brightness variations. These happen about every three days, which sounds great, except that they’re offset so most of them happen during the day, or when the constellation has already set. I need one of those minima to hit between about 7:00 and 9:00 PM, which is a pretty darned narrow window (why oh why didn’t I just see this thing a month ago?). I just missed one on March 7, when my head was still only in the Jurassic. The next one that is in my time window is on the evening of March 27, when I’m scheduled to be on an airplane between Texas and SoCal. The next good one after that isn’t until April 16. That one may just be doable–Perseus is far enough north that it sets pretty late from my latitude (from 40 degrees and points farther north, it doesn’t set at all).

Doing the splits can be painful

I have been kicking and kicking myself for not getting Alpha Piscium and 8 Lacertae in the past few months when they were dead overhead. I actually got Alpha Piscium in they eyepiece one night a week or two ago, but I couldn’t split it before it got lost in the trees. I found out why tonight: it’s a darned hard split.

After the comet and all my visitors had departed, I went straight to Alpha Piscium. It was already down into the near-horizon murk, which makes stars take on interesting shapes and colors that often have nothing to do with their normal night-sky appearances. At 64x it was just a dot. Same thing at 128x. Same thing at 257x, at least at first glance. But then the seeing steadied for a crucial moment and I was able to get the focus dialed in, and there it was: a double star. At high magnification in the Mak, each star is  surrounded by a neat little diffraction ring. At 257x, Alpha Piscium’s secondary component was sitting on the diffraction ring of the brighter primary, as if the primary  was sitting in the middle of a diamond ring. Like this, only I couldn’t see the diffraction ring around the secondary star so clearly. Anyway, it was a pretty sight and a righteous split.

That left me in the same place in the Double Star Club that I am in the Urban Club: 99 down, one to go. I thought that 8 Lacertae might just be possible, so I started star-hopping over that way. I almost got there, too, but just in time to see the lizard’s tail dip below the local horizon. I am pretty sure that if I try again in the next couple of nights, and go to 8 Lacertae before I  do anything else, I’ll be able to get it. It’s a nice wide multiple star, so it shouldn’t be a tough split, if I can just get on target before it sets.

Sunset birding

Another crazy good scope deal

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out: Orion has put their 20×50 compact spotting scope on clearance for $29.99. You can get it through the Orion site or this Amazon link. I am familiar with this scope–London and I gave it a test drive at the Orion store in Watsonville last summer, and on the strength of that encounter London asked for and received one for his birthday last November. We’ve had it out to the Salton Sea a couple of times now, so we’ve gotten to use it for daytime spotting and out under the stars.

How does it do? Well, it’s a 50mm spotting scope, and like most such devices, it basically is a finderscope and has no other finder or provision for one. Also, you’re stuck at 20x. So for nighttime use, you’re going to get binocular-esque views of the moon, planets, and a handful of the brighter DSOs (think Pleiades, Orion, Andromeda) and that’s about it. Also, it’s a short, fast refractor, so there is some false color on bright objects. To be fair, though, almost all spotting scopes are short, fast refractors (‘cept for the Maks), and other than the ED models that cost hundreds to thousands, they all show chromatic aberration. Even my beloved SV50 throws up some false color, and I don’t think the Orion spotter is noticeably worse in this regard.

Going handheld

It’s much more rewarding to use during the daytime. I don’t know why Orion is closing them out, but it probably isn’t image quality, because the two I’ve looked through have been nice and sharp. In addition to the zippered soft-side storage case, the scope comes with a velcro-tabbed, padded fabric wrap-around, similar to the weather-resistant ‘view-through’ cases on some high-end spotters (but offering less than total coverage). This has a padded hand-strap so you can take the scope off a tripod (not included, nor would you want any tripod they could include at this price point–trust me) and use it handheld. This is surprisingly effective, and London and I have taken to carrying his scope along on our morning hikes when we’re camping.

Any downsides, aside from the aforementioned false color? The helical focuser was a little stiff for the first few uses. The usual solution with sticky focusers is to twist them all the way in and out a few times to get the lubricant evenly distributed over all the surfaces. I did that with London’s spotting scope and sure enough, the problem went away. Focusing is a breeze now.

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Raw, unmodified photo of some gulls at about 50 yards, taken afocally through the Orion 20×50 compact spotting scope using my Nikon Coolpix 4500.

So, long story short, I dunno why Orion is closing these out, because I think they’re fine little scopes. I haven’t noticed any lasting problems in several days and nights of field use, and if I didn’t already have a 50mm scope of my own, I’d be all over this. It’s a decent buy at $50 and a steal at $30. If you need a small spotting scope, period, or something to keep in the car for impromptu scenery- or wildlife-watching sessions, or something for that kid you know who is interested in nature and science, this thing ought to fill the bill. I’m tempted to get another one myself, to keep in the storage compartment under the back seat of the Mazda. But if you’re interested, don’t tarry–Orion is already out of the spotting-scope-plus-tripod packages, and I don’t imagine the scopes themselves will last long at this price.

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Comets past and future

January 22, 2013

Wow, three months exactly since my last post. Between holiday travel, weather that has mostly been either cloudy and rainy or clear but bitterly cold, and staying busy with dinosaurs, I’ve only been out for a couple of quick peeks since the last post. But I’m still alive, and I’m sure I’ll get back to observing–and posting–when the weather gets better.

In the meantime, I’m recycling my president’s message from the November issue of the PVAA newsletter, Nightwatch. You can find all the back issues of Nightwatch online here.

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I am not a dedicated comet-chaser. Every year, several short-period comets brighten to the point that they can be seen with binoculars or a small telescope, but I almost never track them down. In fact, I’ve only seen three comets in my time in amateur astronomy, but each one has left a big impression. And curiously, all three have been October arrivals.

The first was comet 17P/Holmes, which brightened to naked-eye visibility in late October, 2007. It was extremely good timing for me: I had just gotten my first telescope three weeks earlier. For months I watched Holmes shift against the background stars of Perseus. I tracked with the naked eye and binoculars, and watched the coma expand and dissipate in my telescope. It was mesmerizing.

The second was 103P/Hartley, which I observed with fellow PVAA member Steve Sittig at the observatory on the Webb campus in October, 2010. The sky was not particularly clear that night and we had a devil of a time finding the comet, even in the observatory’s pier-mounted GoTo C14. Eventually we found a fuzzy spot that moved against the background stars in a matter of minutes. That was a novel experience for me. With Holmes I only looked from night to night, not hour to hour or minute to minute, so I never got that little thrill of going to the eyepiece and noticing that something had moved.

My most recent comet was 168P/Hergenrother, which brightened by a factor of about 100 in early October, bringing this normally challenging object within reach of backyard telescopes. I tracked it down for the first time at the All-Arizona Star Party, then from Mount Baldy a week later, then from the Salton Sea a week after that. Each time I sketched the position of the comet at different times so I could record its progress against the background stars.

This year may be a big year for comets, with two that will hopefully reach naked-eye visibility. The first is 2011 L4 PANSTARRS, which was first detected by the Air Force’s automated PANoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System. It should max out this March. Possibly even brighter will be 2012 S1 ISON, a sun-grazer newly arrived from the Oort Cloud. If it survives its extremely close pass by the sun—less than a million miles—it could possibly become bright enough to be seen during the day. Oddly enough, ISON is supposed to become bright enough to see in amateur telescopes in, you guessed it, October.

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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!

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Comet Hergenrother again

October 18, 2012

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Observing Report: All-Arizona Star Party 2012

October 17, 2012

The 10MA crew at AASP ’12. From left: me with my XT10, David DeLano with his SkyWatcher 100T, London with his AstroScan, and Terry Nakazono.

Last Saturday night London and I were out in Arizona for the 2012 All-Arizona Star Party. We’d been to the 2010 AASP–one of the finest nights of stargazing of my life–but we missed it last year, so it was great to get back out there. Terry Nakazono went with us. It was our third time observing together after a couple of Mt. Baldy runs this summer, and our first time under truly dark skies.

Happiness is a new scope under dark skies!

The big news for us was meeting frequent 10MA commenter David DeLano for the first time. David and I have been email pen pals for a couple of years now, and he’s written a couple of guest posts (sun funnel and diagonal comparison) but we’d never met in person before this weekend. He’s not unusually happy in this picture–in my admittedly limited experience, his grin is as much a feature of his face as his moustache. But he is pretty darned happy, because he was rolling with his dream scope this weekend, a 4″ f/10 SkyWatcher triplet apo that he’s owned for just a couple of months. This was only his third or fourth time using it, and the first time under dark skies.

Terry’s new Celestron NexStar 102GT–a.k.a. the Costco Scope. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

As luck would have it, Terry was also rolling with a new “big gun”, and it was also a 4″ f/10 refractor. His is an achromat, the Celestron NexStar 102GT, which he acquired even more recently. He calls it the “Costco Scope”, because apparently this particular package of scope and mount is only available in Costco stores. It’s a 4″ long-focus achromat on a fully motorized GoTo mount for $200 even, which is probably one of the best deals in telescopes right now. Terry showed me Barnard’s Galaxy and IC 342, another faint galaxy, through this scope, and I can confirm that it both pulls down the photons and gives a nice crisp view.

Loaded for bear. The padded grocery sack on the left covers the end of the XT10 so it doesn’t get dinged when I close the hatch. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

With Terry’s new scope and tripod–not to mention his tent and the rest of his gear–London’s AstroScan, my XT10, assorted camp chairs and sleeping bags and backpacks and water bottles and so on, our Mazda 5 was packed pretty full. Terry snapped this pic when we stopped for gas in Blythe.

The AASP was not just a chance to hang out with new friends but also to catch up with an old one. I hadn’t seen Darrell Spencer (on the left here, checking out David’s SkyWatcher) since the 2010 AASP, although we’d emailed back and forth a few times. It was great to see him again–and kinda funny, too. Not much had changed. He was rolling with his 11″ Celestron SCT and I had my XT10, just like last time. He was working on the Herschel II list and I was chasing Herschel 400 objects, just like last time. He’s closer to finishing his list, though, with only 25 or so objects left. Meanwhile I’ve just barely passed the 150 mark on the Herschel 400.

Darrell was already set up when we rolled in, and he invited us to set up to the south of his camp. Next to him was Jimmy Ray (just visible here between Darrell and David), who quickly hit it off with our crew. Darrell and Jimmy also shared their experience with us, which was a real boon, especially for Terry as he was still learning the ropes of his first GoTo scope.

Oh, about that GoTo scope. Up until now Terry has been working almost exclusively with tabletop Dobsonian reflectors. His first scope on getting back into astronomy in the past couple of years was an Orion Funscope, and his most-used scope is his SkyScanner 100 (see his review here). With the SkyScanner 100 and more recently a StarBlast 4.5, he has logged over 400 deep-sky objects, mostly galaxies. To put this into perspective, in five years of stargazing I have observed perhaps 350 deep-sky objects, mostly with a 10″ scope. So it’s quite an achievement, and one I hope I can convince Terry to write up as a guest post.

Anyway, my point is that going from small reflectors with no electronics to a big GoTo refractor is quite a change of pace. I asked Terry how it came about and he pointed to two major factors. First, the scope is a heck of a deal and he was curious about it. Second, and more importantly, after logging 400 DSOs by starhopping with small reflectors, he felt he had earned a break. I couldn’t agree more.

A few low clouds skirted the western and northern horizon around sunset, but they didn’t last, and the skies were cloud-free all night long. Transparency was good but not incredible. Jimmy said he could see the Gegenschein and pointed it out to Darrell and me, but neither of us was fully convinced. I’m not saying Jimmy didn’t see the Gegenschein, but I didn’t see anything I felt comfortable calling the Gegenschein. That could be inexperience on my part, and it could be imperfect vision, too. London regularly sees things in the sky that I just can’t make out. But it was also at least partly imperfect transparency.

(Now, I should qualify that by pointing out that the skies here in Claremont are essentially never as clear as the sky was at the AASP Saturday night. The transparency was only imperfect by the standards of the remote Arizona desert, where on the clearest nights it seems that there is no atmosphere whatsoever between you and the stars.)

The western sky was striped with delicate crepuscular rays after sunset (also just like last time).

One of my major goals for the night was finding and sketching comet 168P/Hergenrother, a dim periodic comet that unexpectedly brightened by a factor of 100 recently. It’s a tough catch from town–earlier this week I caught it from my driveway with the XT10, but only by waiting until it was high in the sky, knowing exactly where to look, and using averted vision. But under dark desert skies it’s dead easy, and shows a bright nucleus and wide tail even at low magnification. Comet Hergenrother is also moving at a decent clip–as the sketch shows, it moves visibly in the space of an hour.

I found the comet by sweeping northeastern Pegasus at low power, and sketched the field without taking the time to figure out exactly where I was. I thought I could work that out later, using Stellarium, and I was right. The right part of the above image is a screenshot from Stellarium, inverted and annotated in GIMP, to show the field of the comet. Hergenrother is still visible–check Heavens Above or google ‘comet Hergenrother chart’ for finder charts. Update: the best Hergenrother charts I have found so far are at Skyhound and AstroBob. The Skyhound chart covers more days, but the AstroBob chart goes deeper, and those dim little stars are clutch if you’re trying to find the comet under less-than-perfect skies. The Heavens Above charts are great but AFAICT they only show the position of the comet right now, so there is no provision for printing out a chart for this evening (and the comet will have moved in the meantime).

I chased the comet, I traded views with my fellow stargazers–including London, who found the Pleiades by himself with his AstroScan–and I hunted down a bunch of new Herschel objects. But my favorite views of the night were the unexpected ones.

First were the meteors. Holy smokes did I see a ton of them. I lost count around three dozen. One of the best came when Terry and London and I were walking David to his car–a brilliant meteor shot across the western sky and left a glowing trail that slowly faded. I almost missed the best meteor of the night, though. Around 1:30 in the morning I was looking down to check my charts when I saw bright light flashing in my peripheral vision. I looked up in time to see a fireball shooting straight down toward the northern horizon. It was so bright it cast shadows on the ground–something I had read about but never seen before. Update: David pointed out via email that the Orionid meteor shower peaks this weekend, and the meteors we saw last weekend were probably advance scouts from that swarm.

From midnight to 1:00 AM I took a little siesta. I reclined in the lounge chair with my 10×50 binos and split my time between dozing, scanning with the binos, and just looking up in wonder. The Milky Way shone from one horizon to the other like an arch supporting the dome of the heavens. But ironically it was the “dome of the heavens” I was trying to escape.

Shattering the Bowl of the Sky

I haven’t talk much with others about this, so I don’t know how common it is, but for me one of the hardest things about space is perceiving it as space. It is very, very easy to look up and see the sky as a dome set on top of one’s little patch of the Earth like a bell jar. It is much harder, for me at least, to keep in mind that it is three-dimensional, that the stars are not points stuck to the dome or to a celestial sphere but free-floating lights–no, impossibly distant suns–hanging unsupported in…nothing. In space, or in spacetime, which is harder to think about but amounts to the same thing.

One thing that I find helps me in trying to escape the tyranny of the spherical sky is to imagine that I am looking not up, but out, or even down. It works best if I lie down with my feet pointing south, and imagine that I am hanging off the side of the Earth like a picture on a wall. I used to do this in the front yard of my parents’ house, under radically dark rural Oklahoma skies, and to enhance the illusion I would dig my fingers into the dirt to keep from sliding off. When I tried it Saturday night I managed a mental 180: for a few minutes I fooled myself into thinking that I was hanging facedown, with the whole Earth above me like a great balloon tied to my back, staring down, down, down. Down forever into a great cosmic gulf in which the stars and clusters and galaxies were distributed at different depths, unevenly, like coral reef fish seen by someone snorkling at the surface. I wanted to let go, cut the balloon string, and fall into those distant deeps.

Eventually I came back down–or was it back up?–went back to the telescope, and got back to work. But the aftereffects of my perceptual voyage into deep space–really deep, fall-into deep–lasted like a slight electrical charge, a pleasant tingling in the brain.

The next time you’re outside under dark skies, try it and see where you go.

Morning panorama from the east end of the airstrip–click to enlarge

I pushed through to about 4:30 and then crawled in the back of the Mazda for a few hours’ rack. By about 8:30 it was too bright and hot to sleep anymore so I got up, got some badly-needed caffeine on board, and went about the day’s business. Which on the morning after a stargazing run with London means a hike.

A nice lineup of TeleVue refractors. From left to right, I think they are a TV-101, TV-85, TV-76, and TV-60. With mounts, this is probably $10,000 worth of equipment. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

On our way through camp we got to peer at other peoples’ scopes, in the manner of nosy neighbors. This lineup of TeleVue refractors was certainly droolworthy.

Of the many cool scopes we saw, my favorite was this homemade motorized binocular chair. The twin 6″ reflecting telescopes feed light to the eyepieces. The scopes can raise and lower as the observer raises and lowers his head, and the whole chair turns and reclines at the observer’s command thanks to a hand-held control paddle. Given my love of binocular astronomy, something like this might be my ultimate observing setup.

We didn’t have as much time for our hike as we did in 2010. Then we walked about five miles all told, over about three and a half hours. This time we had about an hour and a half, but we still managed to cover a lot of ground and see lots of cool stuff.

We used saguaro cacti as waypoints. This one seemed to be telling me something…

Back from a successful “bone hike”. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

At the 2010 ASP London was about a week shy of his 6th birthday. When we started out on that hike, he announced that it was going to be a “bone hike”. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that you can’t just decide to walk out into the desert and have any guarantee of finding bones. I figured we’d get what we’d get, and I’d break the tough news later if it became necessary. As luck would have it, it wasn’t–one of our first finds, just a few hundred yards from camp, was a big fragment of a cow tibia.

This time London knew going out that we’d probably get skunked, and it certainly looked like we would for most of the hike. But on our way back, within a stone’s throw of the closest RV, we started seeing the clean bright white of sun-bleached bone. We picked up a shoulder blade and parts of three vertebrae, perhaps from the same cow that lent us its tibia two years ago. We left behind a couple of ribs and another shattered vertebra for the next people to pass that way hunting for bones–possibly our future selves, if nothing turns up sooner on our next AASP morning-after bone hike.

I’ll end this post like I ended the last AASP observing report, with a photo of Darrell and London and myself, standing on a dusty abandoned airstrip in the exact middle of nowhere–a seemingly unremarkable spot that has become one of my favorite places on Earth. I’m already looking forward to my next Arizona star party. I hope I don’t have to wait two years to get back.