Archive for the ‘Dark Skies’ Category

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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.

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Observing Report: Messier Marathon at the Salton Sea

May 11, 2011

Okay, clearly I am a little obsessed with Messier marathons. Last spring I got 98 of the 110 Messiers in my first marathon. Last month Andy and I only got 80, but that’s because we got clouded out for the nearly 30 predawn Messiers. I had planned to hang up my spurs and wait until next spring to try again, but I just had to have one more go. I really wanted to crack into triple digits, and checking Stellarium I saw that late April was not a bad time for marathoning, with at least 105 of the Messiers potentially visible. So on Friday, April 29, London and I headed down to the Salton Sea for another go.

Evening Rush

It was a much more relaxing start than my beginning-of-April marathon. That evening, I had been running around for about an hour trying to snag a bunch of fuzzies before they dipped below the horizon. This time I knew that some of the objects were just flatly impossible, and they tended to be the faint galaxies that one sweats over in a spring marathon: M33, M74, and M77. M79, the little glob in Lepus, was also out of the running. The only ones that were particularly timely were the nebulae in Orion (M42, M43, M78) and Taurus (M1). I started about 8:20 and in half an hour I had bagged all of the Messiers west of Leo–17 in total–so I could take a nice long break. I set out a lounge chair, London climbed up in my lap, and we spent an hour looking for satellites (we found 3) and shooting stars (9). Then I got him settled in his sleeping bag, had a snack and a big drink of water, and got started on the springtime galaxies.

Methods

I should break here and mention what tools I was using. For speed and ease of use, I made most of the observations with a 15×70 binocular (this one, in fact). Under dark skies, binos that size can reel in most of the Messiers without breaking a sweat, and the point-and-shoot simplicity and lack of stuff to fiddle with really makes the instrument disappear. For backup, and for hunting down some interesting non-Messiers, I had along the XT10. For finding, the Pocket Sky Atlas. To keep track of what I had seen, I used a one-page checklist and a map (both available here), noting the time of each observation and the instrument used (B or T) on the checklist and crossing out each object on the map.

Realm of the Galaxies

The Leo galaxies were a cinch, and I started in on the Virgo-Coma “clutter” at 10:36. Depending on how you draw the boundaries, there are at least 13 galaxies in this small patch of sky, and maybe more. I tend to count M49 and M61 in addition to the core 13 since they’re the next closest targets and also galaxies. I had never made it through the clutter with binos alone. Last year I got all of them but one with both binos and scope, but this time I really wanted to sweep the whole area without using the scope at all. And I did, although M91 and M98 were both devilishly hard. I had to pull my hood up around my face to block peripheral light and use averted vision to get them, but they were definitely there. M91 was my last object in this part of the sky, at 10:52. During my last marathon, the Realm of the Galaxies took an hour and a half. Last time out, I got through in what felt like a blistering 23 minutes, using a 5-inch reflector. This time I dropped my aperture considerably and still got through faster, in only 16 minutes.

(Before anyone chides me for not taking time to “appreciate” each beautiful and unique cosmic snowflake: I know, I know. This has been the perennial criticism of astronomical marathons. And here’s the perennial response: I have the other 364 nights of the year to savor every detail. The marathon is, explicitly, a race. Getting through 15 galaxies in 16 minutes is a personal achievement in celestial orienteering, not visual study. It means that next time out I’ll spend less time finding NGC Umptysquat and more time looking.)

To the Edge of Forever

One of the benefits of doing a “late season” marathon is that so much more stuff is up in the eastern sky. After getting through the Virgo-Coma galaxies I swept through all of the goodies in Ursa Major and Canes Venatici, the globs in Ophiuchus, and the northern reaches of the summer Milky Way. By a quarter after midnight I had 72 objects logged. Sagittarius was just starting to crawl over the eastern horizon and its Messiers wouldn’t be clear of the near-horizon murk for a while, and I had other things to try for. I wanted to see some quasars.

Er, say what now?

Yes, believe it or not, several quasars–the fiery hearts of long ago, far-off galaxies–are within reach of small-to-middlin’ amateur telescopes. Quasars were mysterious for decades, appearing as star-like points of light with highly redshifted spectra and usually massive output in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. They are now understood to be caused by energy emitted from the accretion disks that form around the supermassive black holes at the centers of most galaxies. As matter spirals into the accretion disk, there is tremendous friction. Imagine rubbing your palms together…at relativistic velocities! Friction in the accretion disk heats it to unimaginable temperatures, and that heat is radiated away as light and other electromagnetic waves.

The brightest quasar as seen from Earth is 3C 273 in Virgo. From a distance of 33 light years, it would shine as brightly as the sun in our skies. A planet in the core of the host galaxy would have at least two “suns”: the star around which it orbits, and the quasar shining equally brightly in the sky. I don’t know if anyone would be around to see it–it seems quite likely that any planets close enough to see the quasar as a sun would be heavily irradiated by it.

I didn’t know any of this just a month ago, beyond having a nodding acquaintance with the nature of quasars. I assumed that they were simply well beyond the reach of my telescopes. But a couple of posts at the blog Washed-Out Astronomy set me straight: “3C 273: Quasars are Easy” and “A Fist Full of Quasars“. Definitely worth checking out!

The aforementioned 3C 273 in Virgo is the brightest and easiest quasar, shining at magnitude 12.8. It’s also quite impressively distant, about 2.5 billion light years away. So the light from this quasar is more than half as old as the Earth itself; when these photons started their journey, our planet’s most advanced life-forms, bacteria, were still working up to producing an oxygen atmosphere, a task they would not complete for another 800 million years. Markarian 421 in Ursa Major and Markarian 501 in Hercules are magnitude 13.2 and 13.9, respectively, but they are much closer at 400 million and 500 million light years, respectively (why, our fishy ancestors had already evolved backbones by then!). Among the easy quasars, OJ 287 in Cancer is the most distant at 3.5 billion light years, but still not punishingly faint at magnitude 14.2. Finder charts for all four of these quasars are available at the links above.

3C 273 was an easy catch, just below an M-shaped asterism of faint stars not far from Porrima (Gamma Virginis, one of the bright stars of Virgo). Markarian 421, in Ursa Major, was even easier to find, since it sits right off the shoulder of a bright, 6th magnitude star. I made both observations with the XT10, but the quasars would have been visible in much smaller scopes; even a 4” ought to show them clearly. OJ 287 had set by the time I switched from Messier-hunting to quasar-hunting, and I skipped Markarian 501 because the rising wind was visibly rocking my vehicle and throwing sand horizontally through the air. It was time to get back to Messiers.

The Home Stretch

The string of clusters and nebulae that comprise the “steam” from the teapot of Sagittarius were easy prey for the 15x70s; it took more time to correlate the sky view with the atlas and figure out which was which, than it did to find them. The little globs along the bottom of the teapot–M54, M69, and M70, were tougher, and required the telescope, as did the globs and other Messiers just cresting the eastern horizon. At 2:25 I logged the last visible Messier–M15, a very nice glob off the nose of Pegasus–secured the telescope against the very impressive wind howling through the campground, and crawled into the back of the Mazda for some rack. M15 was my 100th Messier of the evening, so I knew that I had at least made my proximate goal of getting into triple digits. But there would be more Messiers up before dawn, and naturally I wanted to see how many of them I could add to the tally. I set an alarm for 4:00 and sacked out.

Knowing that I already had 100 in the bag dulled my ambitions a bit, and I snoozed until 4:30. I was not anxious to get back out in the wind–it was cold and uncomfortable. But needs must when the devil drives, so I dragged my tail out of the vehicle, parked a folding chair right up against the lee side, and got back to work. M30, a glob in Capricorn, was dead easy, as were the Andromeda galaxy, M31, and its satellite galaxy M32. I tried and tried for M110, M31’s dimmer satellite, and a couple of times I suspected a faint glow at about the right place, but it wasn’t good enough to log for certain. I gave up at 4:47–the sun wasn’t going to be up for almost another hour, but the eastern sky was already bright enough to make further observations impossible. So I finished with a total of 103.

Two more that might just have been possible are the open cluster M34 and the planetary nebula M76. Actually, I’m dead certain that M76 would have been possible in the XT10, but I didn’t fancy opening the scope and letting the wind sand-blast the mirrors, so I let that one go. M34 is iffy–it was definitely over the horizon before sunrise, but not by much, and I have real doubts about its visibility, scope or no scope. If M34 was not possible, then there were 105 Messiers visible that night, of which I found and logged 103, missing only M76 and M110.

Of the 103, I logged one with naked eyes only (M44, the Beehive cluster, in Cancer), one with the 9×50 finder on the telescope (M54, a glob in Sagittarius), 12 with the scope only, and 89 with the binos (I did go back and re-observe 19 of those 89 with the scope as well, just because I had time and wanted to see them). Except M74 and M77, I saw all of the Messier objects during the month of April. Also, I believe that M74 is the only Messier that I’ve never observed with binoculars–I should rectify that in a couple of months when it’s up before dawn.

What’s next? I should probably get back to the Herschel 400 one of these days. But part of me is already looking forward to next spring, and my next shot at getting all 110 Messiers. Stay tuned.

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Observing Report: Salton Sea

March 19, 2011

Last Saturday, March 12, London and I went camping at the Salton Sea. It was the first time we’d been camping since the All-Arizona Star Party back in November,  and my first serious observing since then, too.

The forecast was for partly cloudy conditions, and I didn’t want to lug out a big scope if the weather was iffy. Part of this was laziness, and part practicality: we were car camping, and with the back seats folded down and the two of us stretched out to sleep, there would be no place in the vehicle to put a big scope if there was any precipitation. I took Shorty Long and Stubby Fats, my SkyWatcher 80mm refractor and 130mm reflector, and a tripod that fits either one. I set up Shorty right after we arrived and spent some time watching shorebirds, including the egret shown above, which I shot through the scope at a distance of 200 yards or so.

As I am wont to do, I visited the nearby campsites and told people they were welcome to come over and have a look. I got a few takers. There was a big family get-together a few spots down, and about 20 people spanning three generations came over for a look at the moon, and at Saturn later on.

I also  hailed a couple that I saw strolling through the campground right after dark. Their names were Al and Mavis and we ended chatting for a good long time. I even toasted them some marshmallows. I learned that they work as volunteers in the Salton Sea State Park visitor center, and they invited us to stop in the next morning.

We had visitors on and off until almost 10:00, when I pulled a couple of camp chairs together, grabbed a blanket, and had London climb up in my lap. We looked up and watched for shooting stars until he feel asleep. We saw one together, and I saw several more after he sacked out. It was bittersweet–London is six years old now, and I think the last time he fell asleep in my lap was about a year ago. I always wonder if each time will be the last. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to see my little boy grow into a boy, full stop, and we have so much fun doing things that were impossible for him even a year ago. But I miss my baby, too.

The sky was not bittersweet, it was just plain sweet. A few clouds hovered around the horizon but none came overhead, and I found and got good looks at everything I tried for. The moon was at first quarter, which makes it bright and pretty but not so bright that one can’t do a little deep sky observing on the side.

I took the above photo through Stubby Fats, the 5″ reflector. With its fairly steep f/5 light cone and central obstruction, Stubby does not deliver the same contrast the unobstructed refractor, but I didn’t get any complaints. In the early evening, with the moon dead overhead, I had to use Stubby because the long tube of the refractor put the eyepiece uncomfortably close to the ground. Later on I switched to Shorty Long for Saturn and some of the brighter clusters and nebulae, and then back to Stubby for my serious deep sky run after the moon set.

Saturn was a real treat. By a little after 8:00 it was high enough in the east to look good, although I could tell that the seeing (atmospheric turbulence) was degrading things a bit. Once it climbed out of the near-horizon roil, it was simply stunning. The rings are nicely open now and the above photo, taken through Shorty, does not do it justice. At the eyepiece, the shadow of the rings was a black line etched across the planet’s disk, like mascara. I could make out some detail in the clouds, too, subtle pastel shadings wrapped horizontally across this fast-spinning world (a day on Saturn is 10.5 hours long, and the planet’s rotation has squashed it into an oblate sphere only 9/10 as tall as wide).

I spent a good long time just plinking around, getting reacquainted with the sky. The Great Nebula in Orion (M42) looked fantastic, as did the Pleiades (M45) and the Beehive Cluster (M44). The Double Cluster in Perseus was visible, but it suffered from the abundant moonlight–this double handful of diamonds looks best against the black velvet of a new-moon night.

Around 1:00 AM I switched over to the 5″ reflector for good, parked the tripod, chair, and charts beside the car where I would be out of the moonlight, and turned my attention to the deep sky in earnest. My first target was M104, the Sombrero Galaxy. It was there, but as expected the moonlight was still hitting it pretty hard. I made a mental note to come back, and went on to other targets. Next up I observed the a pair of colliding galaxies, NGC 4038 and 4039, popularly known as the Antennae. From my notes:

1:30 AM. Antennae–1st quarter moon not quite set, 108x in 130N, dim blobs between two faint field stars, more tantalizing than inspiring, but visible even at 20x with averted vision.

It wasn’t a knock-your-socks off view, but it still pretty unreal to see their light–45 million years in transit–with my own eyes. In his book Seeing in the Dark (p. 64), Timothy Ferris crystalized perfectly my feelings about galaxies:

As often happens, I was struck by the fact that all these things, unimaginably big or small or hot or cold as they may be, really are out there…they confront us with the regality of the materially real.

I will definitely have to revisit these with a bigger scope on a darker night, and see how far I can trace the tails of stars thrown off by their gravitational dance.

By this time the summer constellations were rising, and I hit M13, the Great Glob, in Hercules. It was beautiful, as always, but as usual I hopped next to M5 for a comparison and found M5 just a bit more pleasing to the eye. In comparison, M13 is bigger but more diffuse, and in my opinion less pleasingly structured. It’s a big ole ball of stars, but in a bit of a formless lump, like grits ladled out onto a cafeteria tray. M5 is smaller and more compact, but with a brighter, more concentrated core, and a periphery of stars that appear to be in concentric rings, like shock waves from an explosion. M13 looks inert and M5 looks somehow kinetic (I’m editorializing here, and your preferences may differ–go compare them back to back and let me know what you think).

Then it was time for more galaxies. I picked up the Leo Triplet–M65, M66, and NGC 3028. These three spiral galaxies are close together as seen from Earth and also in fact.  They represent a small gravitationally-bound group much like our own Local Group, which includes the “grand design” spirals of the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), plus 30 or more dwarf galaxies that hover about like courtiers around medieval royalty. The Leo Triplet must include its own host of dwarf galaxies, but if so they remain unseen by me. However, with a low-power eyepiece I could see all three of the great Leo spirals in one field of view, the combined light of perhaps one and a half trillion suns.

There is another triplet of big, bright galaxies in Leo, the M96 Group, which consists of the twin spirals M95 and M96 and the elliptical galaxy M105, plus a train of lesser NGCs. The Leo Triplet might actually be satellite members of the M96 Group, and both are relatively close by within the Virgo Supercluster, to which our own Local Group also belongs. These galaxies are fellow citizens of the cosmos with our own Milky Way, comparable in size and age and likely history, and by observing them we get a little perspective on our place in the universe–both scientifically and philosophically. The 20x eyepiece swept up the three Messier galaxies of the M96 Group into a single field as well. I frequently had to step away from the telescope, not to rest my eyes but to collect the scattered fragments of my mind, simultaneously humbled by the immensities before me and empowered by the homegrown primate ingenuity that put them, however briefly and imperfectly, within my grasp. I felt blessed.

The Spindle Galaxy, NCG 3115, was, as the name implies, a bright elongated needle of starlight, like a miniature Sombrero. Also living up to its name was NGC 3242, the Ghost of Jupiter. Like the Ring and the Dumbbell, the Ghost of Jupiter is a planetary nebula, a shell of gas blown off by a dying star. In The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, “Uncle” Rod Mollise wrote that contemplating the remains of dying stars gave him the chills. I had previously dismissed that as poetic license, but at 2:30 in the morning, all alone in the cold and dark, I could suddenly relate. I turned south, to warmer climes and cheerier sights.

Directly  to the south the crooked, asymmetric star patterns of the constellation Centaurus reared above the horizon like the rigging of a wrecked ship. Huddling among the wreckage I found Omega Centauri, NGC 5139, the largest globular cluster in the Milky Way. OCen is a beast, 86 light years in diameter and containing several million stars (most globs have a few hundred thousand to perhaps one million). My notes say simply, “DAMN that’s a big glob”. When I looked away from the eyepiece–globstruck, as it were–I saw that to my surprise Omega Centauri was easily visible to the naked eye. I had heard of other observers catching it with bare peepers from SoCal, but on my only other viewing from the Salton Sea it had been entangled in some near-horizon murk and invisible to all but the telescope. I had seen it with my naked eyes on the beach in Uruguay last summer, where it loomed directly overhead like a deity, too vast to be encompassed by mortal faculties. It was oddly comforting to see it down near the horizon, where, according my parochial mental calculus, it “belongs”.

I was winding down. I briefly visited the globs M4 and M80 in Scorpio, the Double Double star in Lyra, and the Ring Nebula, more to check in on these old summertime friends than to have my mind blown yet again, although they were all quite beautiful. My penultimate target was the Sombrero Galaxy, which showed its dark dust lane and trademark shape much more clearly now that the moon had set.

I ended on Saturn, the jewel of jewels. It rises just after dark these days, and will be visible in the evening sky for the rest of the spring and much of the summer. Good times are coming.

In the morning London and I made pancakes, took our regular hike along the shoreline, and then drove to the visitor center. In half a dozen trips to the Salton Sea, I had never been. Al and Mavis welcomed us and showed us around, and asked if we were interested in going on the noon kayak tour. The kayaking tours are free, you just have to sign up in advance. We hadn’t, but there were a couple of cancellations, so from noon to 1:30 we kayaked along the shoreline, enjoying the wheeling flocks of birds and the cool sea breezes.

And now I am sitting in the middle of civilization under a deck of clouds that is supposed to hang around all week. I am already itching to get back out.

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Back in the saddle again

March 18, 2011

London and my telescope looking forward to seeing the stars.

 

After a fairly epic run of observations in November, crowned by the All-Arizona Star Party, I hardly knocked the dust off my scopes from Thanksgiving until early March. But I recently broke the seal: last Thursday, the 10th, I took a telescope downtown and did some sidewalk astronomy. Then on Saturday the 12th I went camping with London at the Salton Sea, and stayed up until about 4:00 AM stargazing. It’s good to be back.

Several factors have contributed to my slow start in astronomy this year. It’s winter, so it’s cold (by SoCal standards) and occasionally cloudy or rainy. But that’s not much of an excuse. Last year I rocked through most of the Messier, Binocular Messier, and Binocular Deep Sky observing programs in January, February, and March, taking advantage of skies swept mostly clear of haze and smog by the winter weather. So questionable weather might not be a good excuse not  to observe, but it’s one I’ve used anyway.

The main factor is that my attention and enthusiasm has been elsewhere, on dinosaurs. It’s been a productive spring for me, with several articles, both technical and popular, either published or accepted for publication (please visit my paleo blog, SV-POW!, for the full scoop on those). It’s not that paleontology and astronomy can’t coexist–for example, last fall I managed to keep up an active observing schedule while also being professionally productive. But to be honest paleontology does siphon off some of my enthusiasm for my other pursuits, including astronomy.

There is also an element of simple exhaustion. At the beginning of 2010, I made a resolution to finish three of the Astronomical League’s observing clubs–the Galileo, Lunar II, and Messier Clubs. In the actual event, I didn’t finish Galileo or Lunar II, but I did finish the Messier Club and five others (Bino Messier, Bino Deep Sky, Southern Sky Telescopic, Southern Sky Binocular, and Caldwell), and made observations toward several more. Don’t get me wrong, I had a ton of fun working on all of those programs, but it’s possible to wear yourself out even doing something you love. This year I intend to take a more measured, less frenetic approach to observing.

One new development ought to help with that: tonight I was elected as president of the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers (if it’s not clear how that will help me be less frenetic, just read on). Our previous president, Ron Hoekwater, had bowed out at the end of his eighth term last fall, and since then our Vice President, Joe Hillberg, had been filling in for him in emceeing the monthly meetings and so on. Some of the board members approached me to see if I’d be willing to take on the job, and I thought it sounded like an interesting challenge and a way to give back to the club. As I told everyone at tonight’s meeting, regular elections are coming up in July, so if people aren’t happy with me they won’t have to suffer for long.

One of the duties that comes with the office is writing a president’s message for Nightwatch, our club’s monthly newsletter (archived online here). I’m looking forward to this. One of the things I’ve wanted to try–but never had the impetus to actually implement–is doing a regular calendar of astronomical events. My plan is to include at least a short astro calendar with my monthly message in Nightwatch, covering moon phases, the locations of the planets, meteor showers, and so on. Hopefully doing the calendar will help me get out and keep some kind of regular, sustainable observing schedule. I’ll also post the calendar here, so the blog will hopefully be fed on a more regular basis. Stay tuned.

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Observing report: All-Arizona Star Party 2010

November 7, 2010

A few months ago I found a good deal on a used 12″ reflector. The guy selling the scope, Darrell Spencer, lives in Phoenix, and offered to drive part of the way for the handoff. We met at a diner on I-10 in Arizona and had a great conversation over breakfast. In particular, we talked about our favorite dark spots and the chances of meeting up to observe sometime. We parted fast friends, and both started scheming about how to meet up under dark skies.

With the new moon, pleasant temperatures, and clear skies over most of the southwest, this weekend was a big one for star parties. Through various clubs and friends I heard of at least four here in SoCal, and I’m sure I would have had a great time at any of them. But the one I ended up attending, thanks to an invite from Darrell, was the All-Arizona Star Party, out in the desert about 50 miles east of the California border. Darrell didn’t know I was going to take this picture until about half a second before I clicked the shutter, hence the expression.

The AASP was going on both Friday and Saturday nights, but I could only afford to do one night, and the forecasts called for Friday night to be a little bit better. I picked up London after kindergarten and we hit the road.

Launch

We rolled in about half an hour before sunset, and found a spot next to Darrell. Steve Coe and AJ Crayon were set up on either side, so I was hanging out with some truly legendary observers. They also turned out to be darned nice guys. Here’s AJ’s truss dob cooling down on the right, with my XT10 on the right.

There had been a few wisps of cloud in the sky when we pulled in, but as the sun set they evaporated, and by the time the first stars came out, the sky was clear except for a little fuzz over the Phoenix light dome, low on the eastern horizon. The last of the sunlight striped the western sky with some beautiful crepuscular rays.

I spent the couple of hours just surfing around the sky, hitting some seasonal favorites. London looked at a few things but spent most of his time watching for satellites and shooting stars. At 7:20 most people on the observing field stepped away from their scopes to watch the western horizon. There was supposed to be a rocket launch from Vandenberg, a Delta II putting up an Earth-observation satellite (here’s the story from the Vandenberg site). At 7:21 we saw a bright spark flying low over the western horizon. That’s what 100,000 lbs of thrust looks like from 300 miles away. It was the first time I’d ever seen a real rocket in flight. London was even more thrilled, if that’s possible. He also spotted a couple of satellites and shooting stars, so he got everything on his list. I had a list of my own to deal with.

Into the Deeps

London was dead asleep by 8:00 and I settled in for a nice long observing run. I was tracking down the last few objects I needed for the AL Caldwell Club, and starting on my next big observing project, the Herschel 400. A few of my favorite objects from the evening:

NGC 5982 and 5985 (H400): A nice pair of galaxies. At 92x, 5982 is a small bright round glow, like a miniature M32; 5985 is an elongate, dimmer smudge of light. Excellent pairing.

NGC 1023 (H400): Big, bright, beautiful edge-on spiral galaxy, with clearly delineated core and bits of detail in averted vision. A minor showpiece!

NGC 2261, Hubble’s Variable Nebula (Caldwell 46): Very cool V-shaped spray of bright nebulosity. Edges of ‘V’ are very sharp and crisp, and the middle of the fan fades out evenly. Not like anything else I’ve seen in the sky.

NGC 2362 (H400, Caldwell 64): Open cluster. At 37x, almost perfectly triangular scattering of about 20 equally bright stars around a much brighter central star. One of the prettiest open clusters I’ve seen–better than many Messiers.

NGC 2024 (H400): Big, detailed bright nebula adjacent to Alnitak in Orion. At 57x, looks like a ghostly version of its photographic appearance. Extremely cool.

I was using my XT10 for almost all of my observations. I also had 15×70 binoculars along and they came in handy for working out a couple of tough star-hops and for observing IC 342 (Caldwell 5)–this galaxy is so big and diffuse that it was difficult to make out in the telescope, even at low power, but it was a cinch in the binoculars.

But my favorite observation of the night, and one of my favorite observations of all time, was made with naked eyes. About 12:40 I leaned back from the eyepiece and just stared up. Right at the zenith, between the Pleiades and the constellation Aries, was a very large, faint, and diffuse patch of light. I called Darrell over to ask him if it was what I thought it was. He thought so, but wasn’t entirely sure, so we asked Steve Coe, and he confirmed it. We were looking at the gegenschein.

Gegenschein, Shine On

The solar system is full of dust. Very little if any of this dust is left over from the protoplanetary disk that gave rise to the planets; that should have spiraled into the sun long ago.  Most of what’s out there now is thought to have been “processed”: incorporated into planetesimals early in the formation of the solar system, and redistributed by meteor impacts, asteroid collisions, and the evaporation of comets. The planets do not revolve through empty space, but through a flat disk of dust that encircles the sun like a phonograph record.

Under very dark skies, this dust is visible, for the same reason that the planets are visible: reflected sunlight. The brighter manifestation of the reflected dust-light is the zodiacal light, which stands up like a pillar from the horizon. It’s called “zodiacal” because the dust, like the planets, orbits in the ecliptic plane, which is projected against the background stars that make up the constellations of the zodiac.

The gegenschein is another, dimmer reflection of sunlight off the interplanetary dust cloud. As the German term–“counter shine”–implies, the gegenschein is observed directly opposite the sun. Friday night the sun set a little after 6:00 PM, and Saturday morning it rose a little after 6:00 AM, so right after midnight the sun was directly behind us (as it always is midway between sunset and sunrise, wherever you happen to be). That meant that the dust grains right overhead were in full phase, the same way that the moon is full when it is opposite the sun in the sky.  Darrell, Steve, and I saw this full-phase portion of the sun’s dust cloud as that glowing patch of light directly overhead. I had read about the gegenschein, but I had never seen it before. It is so faint that even the smallest amount of moonlight, haze, or light pollution will make it invisible. Seeing the gegenschein is a sign that you’ve been under some of the darkest, clearest skies on Earth.

(There is one further step: some observers have seen the zodiacal light from both horizons extending up to the zenith, making a complete band of light crossing the entire sky, with the gegenschein in the center like a diamond on a ring. Those people have seen the entire disk of dust visible from Earth at that time. This is on my life list of things I most want to see.)

I pushed on to a little after 2:00 AM. I ended the night with 6 Caldwell objects, which pushed my total to 74, past the 70 required for the AL  club. I also observed 27 objects for the Herschel 400, and re-observed at least 21 Messier objects over the course of the evening. The Great Nebula in Orion looked better than I have ever seen it–the nebulosity just kept going on forever and ever, and the patch around the Trapezium was incredibly detailed. I saw a lot of amazing stuff Friday night, but the gegenschein easily takes the cake.

Star…Trek?

London and I have a deal on these camping trips: I observe all evening, and he takes me on a hike in the morning. He told me that yesterday’s hike would be a “bone hike”, and we’d be looking for bones, spiders, and scorpions in the desert.

There was a range of low hills about two miles to the west of camp. London was adamant that we were going to climb them. And so we did. The secondary summit of the hill on the left in this picture is the one we climbed. The entire hill was comprised of shattered rock and covered with cacti, and the farther we climbed, the worse it got, so we settled on the lower peak.

The round trip took three hours and with all the winding around we did we probably walked five miles. I would not have thought my little man would have the stamina, but he was a real trooper. He had even packed up the water we’d need for the hike in his backpack. Not bad for a five-year-old!

We saw plenty of cool stuff along the way: saguaro cacti, free-range cattle, a jackrabbit, ants of every imaginable size and shape, and lizards that zipped from bush to bush almost too quickly to see. London did find a spider–a baby tarantula that froze when we walked up–and a bone, the broken, sun-bleached tibia of a cow. So the walk was a success all around.

Fittingly, the Tuscon contingent at the star party had a bunch of specialized solar scopes set up on the sun. When London and I got back to camp, we went down to check out their setup. They invited us have a look. There was a bright active region and little spike-like prominences standing out from the edge of the sun like quills on a hedgehog. I say “little” prominences but the biggest were probably about as tall as the Earth is wide. It doesn’t pay to get too blase about anything up there, especially our closest star.

Until Next Time…

It’s funny, when I’m back in civilization I spent too much time mooning over gear (New Year’s resolution notwithstanding). But when I’m out under dark skies, gear is the last thing on my mind. The telescope just gets out of the way and I am alone with the stars. It’s easy to slip into a productive rhythm–checking the charts for the next object, working out the star-hop, trying different magnifications to see which will make a given object show up best, taking some time to really look for details, recording my observations…sitting back to look around and just exult in the majesty of the night sky. The time flies by, always faster than it should. Strange, how thoroughly I can lose myself finding things in the sky.

This weekend might have been the end of the fall star party season.
California’s rainy season is upon us.  There will be clear nights and plenty of good stuff to see for the next few months, but it will be catch as catch can. Still, I’ve had a great run this fall, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Observing report: the backup star party

October 11, 2010

Saturday afternoon London and I drove to the Mojave Desert east of Barstow, California. We caravanned with our friends Jann and Gene, whom Vicki and I have known since before London was born. The San Bernardino Amateur Astronomers, Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, and High Desert Astronomical Society were all coming together for a big star party at Afton Canyon. We missed that; the road down into the canyon had a few rocks big enough to potentially eviscerate my Mazda5 and Jann’s and Gene’s Honda Fit, so we camped up on the canyon rim. In the photo above, you can see some white picnic shelters down in the canyon.

As it turned out, we had a fabulous evening even though we missed the official star party. We were just getting set up before dark when a sedan pulled up next to us, which turned out to hold my friend and fellow PVAA member, Gary, and his 13″ Coulter dobsonian. I had my 10″ Orion dob and a 5″ widefield reflector a tripod, and Gene had brought along his Celestron C90, so we had plenty of telescopes. This would prove fortuitous. We had just a few minutes to catch the very young crescent moon before it set, and then ate dinner while we waited for twilight to fade.

Jupiter and the Galilean moons, taken with my XT10 and Nikon Coolpix 4500. Click for the big, unlabeled version.

A group of a dozen or so college students from USC were also camping on the canyon rim, fifty yards or so away from us. As I usually do when either camping or observing, I invited them to come over and stargaze if they were so inclined. Many of them took me up on the offer and from 7:00 until about 11:00 we–that is, Jann, Gene, Gary, and I–entertained a steady stream of guests. I had a low-power eyepiece in the 5″ reflector for widefield views of the Double Cluster, Andromeda Galaxy, Pleiades, and other expansive targets. Gene’s Mak was turning in tack-sharp views of Jupiter and some double stars, and Gary and I were serving up deep-sky objects with the two big dobs, with frequent breaks to watch the dance of Jupiter’s moons. I didn’t keep a list of things we observed, but off the top of my head I recall seeing, in addition to the aforementioned targets:

  • M7 and M6, open clusters between the tail of Scorpio and the teapot of Sagittarius;
  • M8, the Lagoon Nebula, and M20, the Trifid Nebula, in Sagittarius;
  • the M24 star cloud;
  • M11, the Wild Duck Cluster. This was a sure crowd-pleaser.
  • Ditto for M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules;
  • More globs: M22 in Sagittarius and M15 off the nose of Pegasus;
  • Planetary nebulae: the Ring (M57), the Dumbbell (M27), and the Cat’s Eye (NGC 6543);
  • NGC 253, the Silver Coin Galaxy;
  • NGC 457, the ET Cluster, in Cassiopeia;
  • Brocchi’s Coathanger, an asterism near Cygnus;
  • Mizar & Alcor, a multiple star in the handle of the Big Dipper;
  • Epsilon Lyrae, the “Double Double” star, Lyra.

These were just the things we had in regular rotation. I also had my green laser pointer and was using it to point out the constellations and some of the brighter deep-sky objects. M7, M8, M20, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the Double Cluster, and Brocchi’s Coathanger were naked eye visible. It was also a cinch to get people on target with binoculars by pointing with the laser and letting them follow the beam. I had along three pairs of binoculars, 7×35, 7×50, and15x70, and they all got used.

We were seeing shooting stars throughout the evening, and I saw two that produced visible flames and left glowing trails across the sky. The sky, by the way, was very dark and very clear, probably the finest sky I’ve had for a big-scope observing session. The Milky Way was amazingly detailed to the naked eye even before the sunset had completely faded.

The group observing wound down sometime around midnight. Our last few targets included nebulae in and around Orion–M42, M43, and the sometimes elusive M78–and the galaxy pair of M81 and M82. By that point I was tired of driving the big scope and also just plain tired, so for my last hour of observing I curled up in a camp chair with the 5″ reflector and just did some casual solo stargazing, with no plan or fixed destination.

My favorite views of the evening were:

Number 3: seeing riffled edges on Jupiter’s cloud belts (the photo above does not do it justice), in the big scopes.

Number 2: seeing the Double Cluster surrounded by an incredibly rich Milky Way starfield, in the 5″ widefield scope. I prefer to observe the Double Cluster with a wide enough field to get some nicely frame the two dense conglomerations of stars and to give some context. Prior to Saturday night, my all-time favorite view had been with 15×70 binoculars from Mount Baldy. The view in the 5″ scope was like binoculars on steroids–a nice wide field, but packed with wall-to-wall stars. I got that sensation, which I crave, of having so many stars in the eyepiece that it was almost exhausting to take it all in.

Number 1: dust lanes in the spiral arms of M31. I first saw these for myself a couple of months ago out at Owl Canyon. Now that I know what to look for–and since I keep going to progressively darker sites!–these get easier and easier to spot. To me, it looks like someone got charcoal on their hands and dragged two fingers across the galaxy. The arms don’t show up as denser concentrations of light, but interruptions in the soft glow of the galaxy; not brighter but darker. I could see these in the 5″ scope, and they were sufficiently clear in the 10″ scope that people with no prior observing experience were seeing them right away. I remember how much of a kick in the brainpan it was when I first saw those spiral arms, and it was awesome to get to share that with others.

In fact, having people to share the views with really made the night. If it had just been Jann and Gene, Gary, and London and me, I’m sure we would have had a nice time. But it was so much nicer to have interested people stopping by to show things to. I’d say that my enjoyment of telescope time scales directly with the number of people I get to observe with. I can have a fine time all by myself, and it only gets better from there.

Stargazing was only half of the fun, though. This morning we had a lazy  breakfast in camp while we waited for the air to warm up a little, and then we went for a hike.

Gene had a GPS unit and the coordinates of a geocache, which gave us a general direction for the hike and an achievable goal. We followed the road down into Afton Canyon, crossed a dry riverbed under a railroad trestle bridge, and explored a very beautiful side canyon.

Eventually our first route led us to a treacherous slope so we found another way back down to the bridge. We found a stand of rushes and a trickle of water, with lots of dragonflies zooming around. Jann had a field guide to dragonflies along, so she and London watched dragonflies while Gene and I pushed on to the cache. Gene’s GPS  was getting satellite bounce that imparted some meandering to our path. At one point we found some old graves made of piles of rock with weathered, sunblasted wooden crosses, like something right out of the Old West. That was downright creepy, even for someone who works with cadavers. Eventually we did find the cache and sign the logbook, and all four of us enjoyed a leisurely stroll back to camp.

I’ve been fortunate to get out to the desert quite a bit this year–to the Salton Sea on several occasions in the spring, to Owl Canyon a couple of times, and to Joshua Tree Lake last weekend. This weekend’s trip was my favorite so far; the entire time I was exultant at being out at such a beautiful place. I’m already looking forward to next time.

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Observing report: and now for something completely different

October 3, 2010

Last night my son London and I went to a star party at Joshua Tree Lake RV & Campground. The party was hosted by the Southern California Desert Video Astronomers, and it was not like any other astronomical gathering I’ve ever attended. The SCDVA have a nice area of their own off the main campground, with a couple of big white screens on which they project live images taken through their computerized telescopes. It was my first exposure to large-scale video astronomy, and also my first experience with how the SCDVA put on a star party. In short, it actually was a party. There were probably 50 or so people in attendance, and there was an actual program with a series of MCs and live music and a guest of honor.

The guest of honor was John Dobson, who is famous for basically inventing both sidewalk astronomy and the Dobsonian telescope. Dobsonians are just Newtonian reflectors on alt-az mounts, and the name “Dobsonian” was coined by people other than John. In his words, it’s just a cannon mount, and wars have been fought for centuries with big guns on “Dobsonian” mounts. He’s much more proud of having his name attached to Dobson’s Hole, which is what we Dob drivers call the area of the sky straight up overhead, because it’s such a pig to accurately point our scopes at targets near their axis of azimuthal rotation (frequent adjustments in non-intuitive directions, and no leverage short of bear-hugging the scope or putting handles on the side).

What set John Dobson’s alt-az mounted Newts apart from those that had come before is that they were CHEAP and they were BIG. The cheapness was of necessity–Dobson started building scopes when he was a monk, and the associated poverty meant that he had to scrounge for telescope materials. The classic homebuilt Dobsonian had a thick cardboard tube, of the kind used for forming concrete; a base made out of plywood; and a mirror ground and polished by the telescope maker from a big blank of glass–in Dobson’s case, old ships’ portholes. The bigness was of design–Dobson felt, and feels, that the way to get people hooked on the wonder of the universe is to kick them in the brainpan with the view of some celestial object through a great big telescope.

Dobson’s other great invention (or popularization, if you prefer) was sidewalk astronomy. As with the Dobsonian mount, public outreach by astronomers had a long history, but Dobson kicked it up a notch. Before John Dobson, astronomy outreach usually involved bringing people to the telescopes. Dobson brought the telescopes to the people. As he put it last night, he did it to remind people that their address in the universe didn’t end at Haight Street (the famous “hippie” street in San Francisco where Dobson used to set up his telescopes for passersby). Events like International Sidewalk Astronomy Night and Observe the Moon Night trace their roots to Dobson’s brand of engaging the public, and the entire International Year of Astronomy was very much in the same spirit, although obviously much broader.

Dobson–who turned 95 just last month–gave an interview and took questions from the audience, and in all probably spent about an hour speaking. He was very entertaining. My favorite bit:

Woman in the audience: “How did you get interested in astronomy?”

Dobson: “I got born. What’s your problem?”

At that point, surreally, I went on a brief scorpion hunting expedition with fellow PVAA member Cliff Saucier, who had a UV flashlight and asked me if I wanted to see some scorpions. I didn’t know before last night that scorpions flouresce under UV light, but man, they shine like little yellow-green suns. Cliff could wave his flashlight back and forth over the desert floor and from 30 feet out we could see scorpions glowing like flares. The picture is blurry because I took it with my phone, but the colors are faithful, just quite a bit less intense than the live view. You’d swear that the scorpions themselves were radiating. It made them look even more like evil machines than they already do, which is saying something.

Back at the star party, we were treated to a slide show of stunning desert photography and a life performance by “Hurricane” David McChesney, former national champion harmonica player. Now, I am not normally a big fan of the harmonica, but on the other hand, I have never in my life heard anyone play it like Hurricane Dave. For big swaths of his show I was sitting slack-jawed with a big dopey grin on my face, not because he was funny (although he was, frequently and deliberately), but because it’s awesome to see a master working at the top of his game. I was reminded of the quote that the highest levels of performance in any field of endeavor are indistinguishable from art.

After Hurricane Dave, the video astronomy got going. While the SCDVA guys put up one stunning image after another, Clive Wright played his spacey ambient guitar. It was far out, man, and I mean that as a compliment. Up on the big screens we got to see the Ring Nebula, the Dumbbell Nebula, the Swan Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula, the Trifid Nebula, and probably a few others; I didn’t rigorously keep track.

Appropriately, the party didn’t end so much as dissipate. London and I were car-camping–I was doubly happy about that after seeing all the apparently radioactive scorpions cruising around the campground–so when he finally got ready to go down I retreated from the star party scene and set up the Astroscan next to the car for a quick session. I only observed for about an hour, but I cruised through about a dozen of the best and brightest deep sky objects, including the North American Nebula and the Veil Nebula, which I can’t see at all from my side of the mountains. I ended on Jupiter and its moons, which were appropriately stunning.

It was kinda cool to get out with the ‘Scan. The only other time I took it out to a dark site was also a camping trip–back in 2008 I got to take some students from my ecology class camping in Yosemite, and I took the Astroscan along and gave one of the guys his first-ever view of Saturn. It’s a solid little scope. The f/4 light cone is pretty brutal on eyepieces, but it has a crazy wide field and as long as you don’t push the magnification too high, you can have a lot of fun. I have a feeling that scope is going to be seeing more action in the future.

This morning London and I ate a lazy breakfast in camp and took our time getting around. On the drive out we saw a tarantula crossing the highway, so we stopped and watched it for a few minutes. If they gave out medals for doing the spider dance I would have a vault full of trophies, so for me this was an exercise in deliberately creeping myself out. Anything that has more legs than I can easily keep track of is Not Cool in my book. But sometimes even Not Cool is cool. Especially if you and your little boy are scaring yourselves silly watching a humongous spider.

In Yucca Valley we ran into some dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are cool, and roadside dinosaurs are extra cool, but that’s a story I’ll have to take up later this week, over at SV-POW!

Final verdict? I had a fantastic time. At one point when no one else was near him, I got to talk with John Dobson for a few minutes and to tell him how much his brand of sidewalk astronomy had inspired me. He was kind enough to autograph my star atlas; I couldn’t think of a more appropriate thing to bear his signature. The site was dark, the sky was clear, the weather was perfect, and the SCDVA were very generous and entertaining hosts. If you ever get the chance to attend one of their shindigs, do it. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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Observing Report: Saturday night at Owl Canyon

September 6, 2010

Owl Canyon Campground is a few miles north of Barstow, in the Mojave Desert on BLM land. There are picnic tables, shelters, fire pits, and restrooms but no running water, and if you spend the night you’re supposed to leave your camping fee–all of six bucks–in a metal can on a post near the entrance. It’s almost exactly 90 miles from my house, on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains. Although the Dark  Sky Finder puts the campground on the border between the green and blue zones, to my light-pollution-conditioned eyes, it is pretty darned dark out there. I was there observing from a little before 9:00 PM Saturday night until about 5:00 AM Sunday morning.

I set up my 10″ scope and took a quick turn around the sky, hitting the best and brightest clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, showed spiral structure. I saw not one but two dark lanes in M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, looked more like a football wearing a bowtie, so extended was the nebulosity.

I had seen some of these things before, in larger telescopes, but they were all first-time observations for me, using my own telescope. And the night was just beginning.

Taking a break from the telescope, I pulled out my 15×70 binoculars just to see what I could see. And what I could see was incredible. The Milky Way was a wide, detailed arch of pale light stretching across the sky, so rich that I found star clusters and nebulae far faster than I could log or identify or even count them. I saw the North American Nebula, which really does look strikingly like North America, for the first time. Buoyed by that success, I went after the Veil Nebula, a double arc of wispy light expanding out from an ancient supernova. It was there, not bright, but unmistakably present. Later, using the telescope, I saw in the Veil the riffles of detail that I had previously seen only in long-exposure astrophotos.

I didn’t see all this at once, of course. After about 5 minutes of cruising the sky with binoculars, I realized that I was going to need a more extended, more comfortable look. I put a blanket and pillow on an empty picnic table, stretched supine, and spent the next two hours just looking up in wonder, much of the time with my naked eyes alone.

Lying up on the picnic table, my immediate surroundings were out of even my peripheral vision. The dome of the sky came down on all sides to the mountains, bluffs, and buttes that ring the campground on all sides. I was, therefore, alone beneath the cosmos, on a rocky world of my own.

There are about two dozen campsites at Owl Canyon. Saturday night, only three others were occupied, and none of them were close to me. But as usual when observing at a public campground, after setting up I had walked to the two inhabited sites I could conveniently reach (the third was across a minor canyon) and let the people there know that I had set up a telescope and that they were welcome, but certainly not obligated, to drop by for some stargazing. For the first time ever, I got no takers.

To be out there in that fantastic place, seeing such spectacularly evocative and beautiful things, and to have no one with whom to share them, was almost unbearable. I felt embarrassingly wealthy, like someone devouring a feast while his neighbors on either side go hungry.

About midnight I got down off the table, went back to the scope, and started on my planned observing program. Whether this reflects dedication, more focused curiosity, or a species of retreat from the terrible immensity which I had recently been contemplating, even I am not sure. You are welcome to perform the experiment yourself and report back. In fact, I strongly recommend it.

At some point I knocked off to take some photos of Jupiter, which by the early morning hours was almost halfway across the sky and the brightest single source of light I could see. I got some pictures, but the Great Red Spot was not in evidence. Fortunately Jupiter rotates quickly, once every 9 hours, so I had a feeling that I would catch the spot if only I was patient. I went back to the deep sky.

About 4:00 AM I was working the northern sky when I saw a most arresting site: an immense pale dome rising like a puffball mushroom behind a mountain to the east. This was of course the moon, but I had never before watched the waning crescent moon rise, and certainly not from a site as dark as this. The waning crescent moon leads the sun; the illuminated part is of course sun-wards, so the “dark” part is to the west and rises first. And this is what I saw coming up over the mountain: not the thin sliver of the moon illuminated by the sun, but the rest of the disc lit only by Earthshine. By the time I got the scope pointed in the right direction and the camera properly set, the bright “horns” of the sunlit moon were over the horizon, but the summit of the mountain still took a bite out of the disc.

By this point I had been awake for almost 20 hours and observing for more than 7, and I was starting to wind down. But I went back to Jupiter for one last look, and sure enough, the Great Red Spot was there. And above the GRS was a little black BB: the shadow of a moon crossing the face of the King of Planets. The visible moons from left to right in this shot are Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Io is invisible in front of Jupiter, at least through my telescope, but it is the one casting the shadow.

After Jupiter I crawled into the car, slept for 3 hours, and then drove into Barstow to the hotel where Vicki  and London were staying. The next night I drove them a couple of miles out of town and showed them the Milky Way. And now… now all I want is for the next few weeks to pass quickly, and for the next dark of the moon to find me once again in the desert, under beautifully dark skies, staring up in wonder.

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Observing report: Binoculars on Mount Baldy

August 14, 2010

Thursday night my buddy Brian and I drove up Mount Baldy to do some casual observing. Brian probably wouldn’t describe himself as an amateur astronomer (yet), but I’m working on him. We’ve been talking for months about going out with binoculars and a planisphere and just spending some time learning the sky. When I got back from Uruguay I realized that Brian had been in town for a year and we hadn’t been out observing yet, so I started bugging him regularly. Thursday night, we went.

It was just by chance that Thursday night was the peak of the Perseid meteor shower; we were going out anyway and the meteor shower didn’t affect our decision one way or another. But it was a nice perk, and we both saw some excellent meteors up on the mountain. Not as many as we might have if we had gone for that purpose, because the best meteor watching is done with both eyes wide open, laying on the ground or on the hood or trunk of the car. Even binoculars cut out so much sky that you’re more likely to miss meteors than to see them if you’re scanning the sky with binos. That said, Brian did catch at least one through binoculars. Brian had along his 10x50s and I had my 10x50s, 15x70s, and SV50. We looked at just about every good target with all three instruments. Usually we’d find things with the 10x50s, kick things up a notch with the 15x70s, and go to the SV50 for a steady fixed view and sometimes for more power. It was a useful, easy-to-use set of instruments that I thought complemented one another well; my only regret was not bringing the eyepiece rack for the telescope mount, because I spent more time than I wanted fiddling with end caps when I was switching eyepieces on the telescope.

We started out facing south, down the mountain, toward Scorpio and Sagittarius. Those are two of the most recognizable constellations, Scorpio because it actually looks like a scorpion and Sagittarius because of the striking ‘teapot’ asterism. They’re also prime territory for deep-sky observing, with binoculars or telescopes of any size. Our first target was M7, just above the “stinger” of Scorpio. M7 is a BIG, bright cluster, and it looked pretty darned good even though Scorpio was down in the light dome over LA. M6 is right next to M7 and looks like its smaller sibling. From there we went up into Sagittarius, to M8, M22, and M24. M8 is the Lagoon Nebula, and M22 is the brightest globular cluster in Sagittarius. M24 is “not a ‘true’ deep sky object, but a huge star cloud in the Milky Way, a pseudo-cluster of stars spread thousands of light years along the line of sight, perceived through a chance tunnel in the interstellar dust”, according to its SEDS page.

At that point I was doing something else–switching eyepieces on the telescope, as likely as not–and Brian was just cruising with the 10x50s when he ran across another bright cluster. We identified it, and several other “discoveries” of the evening, by the following process: one person would find something in binoculars, and then hold the binos with one hand while getting a green laser pointer on target with the other hand. Then the other person would follow the line of the green laser to the target using his binoculars. That first time, the target was M11, the Wild Duck Cluster, one of the true gems of the summer sky. Other “discoveries” sent me scrambling for the star atlas.

By that point we had been facing south for more than half an hour and we needed a stretch and a change of pace. We hit M13, Epsilon Lyrae (the Double Double star), and M15 in the mid sky before settling down to face north. Our  first northern target was M31, the Andromeda galaxy. It was grand. We also spotted its two satellite galaxies, M32 and M110, without much trouble. By that time the Double Cluster had cleared the treeline to the north so we spent a few pleasant minutes contemplating that celestial showpiece. Then we just panned around Cassiopeia taking in all the good stuff. Even with binoculars, you can spot clusters in Cassiopeia faster than you can identify them, unless you already have them committed to memory, and we saw a lot more than we logged. Specific objects that we noted or looked up included the open clusters Stock 2, M34, and NGC 457. Our last two objects were M33, the Triangulum galaxy, and the Engagement Ring of stars around Polaris.

We wrapped up about 12:30 AM after a solid hour and a half of unhurried observing, during which time we had seen several asterisms, one nebula (M8), one identified double star (Epsilon Lyrae) and at least one unidentified by us, seven identified open clusters (M7, M6, M11, the Double Cluster, Stock 2, M34, and NGC 457) plus several more unidentified, three globular clusters (M22, M13, and M15), five galaxies (M31, M32, M110, M33, and our own Milky Way arcing high overhead), and a galactic star cloud (M24). So we had seen at least one of just about every class of deep sky object except for planetary nebulae and dark nebulae. If I’d been more target-oriented I would have remember M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, and then we’d have gotten a planetary as well.

But I wasn’t target-oriented. I was just there to have fun surfing the sky with a friend. I had a heck of a good time, and I think Brian did too. I’m already looking forward to the next time out.

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Observing Report: Salton Sea…and Claremont

January 10, 2010

Best-Laid Plans

Since I moved to SoCal and joined the local astronomy clubs, I have done lots of public outreach events and moon and planet parties, but until this past weekend I had never been to a star party. Moon and planet parties are easy; set up your telescope wherever there are people and show them the bright stuff. Light pollution is no problem. Star parties are a different story. If you want to see the faint but beautiful clusters, nebulae, and galaxies, you have to have dark skies.

Both of my local clubs have star parties regularly, but until now there has always been some scheduling conflict or another that kept me from going. But I finally had a shot last Saturday, January 9. The Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers were going to the Salton Sea, a big saline lake out in the desert south of Joshua Tree.

I spent last week planning the trip, making a pack list (which I need to post sometime), and especially figuring out an observing list. The AL Messier Club is my main observing goal this season, and I am freshly armed with Harvard Pennington’s extremely useful Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide, which has finder charts and eyepiece sketches for all 110 Messier objects.

Inspired by Jay Reynolds Freeman, I decided to get as many Messiers as possible with my 15×70 binoculars; those observations would count for both the AL Binocular Messier Club and the regular Messier Club. About 20 or so Messiers are currently too close to the Sun to be observed right now, leaving about 90 viable targets. Knowing how unpredictable observing can be, I decided that my conservative goal would be 20. But I secretly hoped to bag quite a few more, maybe 50 or beyond, which didn’t seem unreasonable if I could just stay up all night. We had some nice clear nights last week, and I was sorely tempted to stay up observing from my yard on a couple of evenings, but I decided to save my energy for the big push Saturday night.

Clouds

Saturday I got up early, got packed, took care of some household chores, at lunch, and tried to get a short nap before I hit the road. I was too keyed up to sleep, but I at least chilled out a bit. I got on the road at 2:00 so I could get to the State Recreation Area campground, where we were meeting, in time to set up before sunset.

I was uneasy on the drive out. The sky was full of cotton, from horizon to horizon. Not low, scudding clouds, but the high cirrus-like stuff. Low clouds I don’t worry about so much; they come and go so fast that it is almost impossible to predict what is going to happen in 20 minutes or 20 miles away. They also tend to have breaks now and then so you can still get some observing done through the sucker holes. High clouds tend to stick, and the spaces between them are usually filled with enough haze to make observing difficult or impossible. As far as I could see, all of SoCal was under a vast tent of high clouds.

A couple of times I almost turned back, but as Timothy Ferris said of observing in Seeing in the Dark, you can’t catch any fish if you don’t get your line wet. And who knows, sometimes things do clear off.

The Sea and the Stars

I got to the campground and found a handful of other PVAA members setting up. Someone had talked to the park ranger, who said that daytime clouds often cleared off after dark. I set up my gear, scarfed a quick supper, and spent about half an hour watching birds. The Salton Sea is a major mecca for shorebirds and birders alike. There were dozens of night herons and a handful of great horned owls nesting in the trees near our campsite, and down at the shore I saw egrets, pelicans, about a trillion gulls, and little shorebirds of more makes and models than I can identify. Sunset was gorgeous, flaming pink clouds behind purple mountains, all reflecting off the glassy surface of the sea, interrupted only by the wheeling and gliding of hundreds of birds.

But enough of that rot! What about the stars? Well, against all odds, they started coming out. First Jupiter, then Deneb in the northwest, then Capella, Betelgeuse, and Procyon in the west, and so on until all of the seasonal constellations were out. The sky wasn’t perfect–there was a thin high haze that dropped the transparency a bit, and the odd plank of  cloud interrupted one or another view from time to time–but in general they were pretty darned good. Looking straight up, I could see the Milky Way easily and the Andromeda galaxy with averted vision, which is my usual test for decently dark skies. I made a couple of sketches for the AL Galileo Club and then started knocking off Messiers.

It was a doomed enterprise. The first few were easy, and I took the opportunity to look at a few showpiece objects through other people’s scopes, and show off stuff in mine, but the longer I hunted, the fewer things there were to see. The clouds were creeping back in. Soon the entire western half of the sky was blocked off. Orion was still prominent, but the haze gradually increased until every star looked like a nebula.

We pulled our chairs into a circle and had a good chat, but by 9:00 it was clear that the sky wasn’t getting any better, and according to the weather forecast, it wasn’t going to get any better. We reluctantly packed it in. I had come prepared to spend the night, but I expected to spend it observing. With nothing to hold me there, I hit the road back to Claremont.

Climbing Mount Improbable

It was not a fun drive back. I’d gotten a measly eight Messiers with binoculars, and one more with my 6″ reflector. That was M29, which was pretty far down into the light dome over LA. And speaking of the LA light dome, for the whole drive back I was under it, the evil pink glow of urban sprawl bouncing off a solid deck of cursed clouds. And curse them I did, vigorously and continuously.

I was holding out a secret hope. Sometimes Claremont is totally socked in, but up on Mount Baldy, less than 15 miles from my house, it’s totally clear. I had already planned to stay up all night and I had all my gear, so why not? I’d run up Mount Baldy and just see. I figured it would be completely either/or. Either the clouds would be high enough to go over the mountains, in which case I’d get nothing, or the clouds would stop on the flanks of the mountains, in which case they’d be blocking the city lights and the mountain would be even darker than usual.

Of course, it was the former. Doubly defeated, I drove home. Got in after midnight, stowed about half my gear, and got ready for bed.

Just To Be On The Safe Side…

I was just about to hit the sack when it occurred to me to wonder if I’d locked the car. I’m forgetful, and sometimes don’t, especially if it’s taken me several trips to unload. So I padded out to the driveway to check. The car was locked after all. More importantly, the sky was almost completely clear. In the 20 minutes it had taken me to unload and shut down, the edge of the cloud deck had come east and cleared my neighborhood. There was Orion, Taurus, Canis Major!

Now, I had just rocked through the open clusters of the Big Dog a few nights ago with my reflector, and I knew they’d be easy prey for with the 15×70 binoculars, and I was up anyway, and I needed a win. So I pulled on some sweats, grabbed binoculars, atlas, logbook, and red flashlight, set up a folding chair in the middle of the  driveway and got to work.

I quickly knocked off the Pleiades, M45, which would have been an easy catch at the Salton Sea but which I’d passed over in favor of harder targets. I ‘d figured I could pick it up later, any time the sky was clear. There on the driveway at one in the morning turned out to be just the “later” I needed. Then M41, a bright and easy cluster in the heart of Canis Major. Then M44 and M67 in Cancer, and I was off and running.

I didn’t find everything I looked for. The clouds were gone but the normal LA light pollution was still there. The effect of magnification is to spread out the background sky, thus making it darker, so to some extent you can fight light pollution with magnification. This works well with open and globular clusters, which are balls of stars in and around the Milky Way. It doesn’t work as well with nebulae and galaxies–magnification can actually hurt, by spreading out their otherwise concentrated light until it’s lost in the skyglow. And increasing the magnification is not an option with standard binoculars. I bagged every cluster I tried for–which is every one that was up at that hour–but failed to get even a single galaxy. I think that will require another trip up the mountain.

Still, in a little over an hour, I’d bagged a dozen Messiers with the binoculars, including a couple, M40 and M48, that I’d never observed with any instrument. That brought me up to 20 for the evening with binoculars, and 21 total, just past my original goal for the star party. I stayed up a little longer to get M5–big, bright and easy–and even longer for M68, which was devilishly difficult in the LA light pollution, but ultimately doable, and called it a night.

I’ll post directions for finding most of these, along with some tips and tricks for observing them from the city. The biggest hurdle is just getting out and trying. In the end, I had a great night and a lot of fun. I enjoyed the company of my fellow astronomers at the Salton Sea, and it was nice to go to bed, finally, full of victory energy and not just hatred for the clouds.

Stupid clouds.