Archive for the ‘Dark Skies’ Category


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.


Observing report: All-nighter on Mount Baldy

July 15, 2012

Whew! Last night rocked. Terry Nakazono was out from LA, and we had been planning for about two weeks to spend the night observing up on Mount Baldy. We had made a shorter, half-night run up the mountain back in June, Terry to chase faint galaxies with his SkyScanner and me to log a few Herschel 400 objects with the XT10. Last night was basically the same plan, but on steroids–the moon was rising later, and neither of us had anywhere to be today. My wife and son were both out of town, she on work and he on a sleepover, so I was released on my own recognizance.

We got up there about 8:45 and met fellow PVAA member Craig Matthews setting up his 8″ Dob. Former PVAA president Ron Hoekwater joined us a little later on.

Terry was rolling with his SkyScanner again, and aiming for galaxies in Ursa Major and Bootes. I decided to leave the XT10 at home and take the Apex 127 Mak instead. I’ve had that scope for about a year, but before last night I had not really tried it out under dark skies. It did go to the Salton Sea in February, but we were mostly clouded out that night. Five inches is a lot of aperture under dark skies, and I was anxious to see what the Mak could do. Mount Baldy is not stupid-dark like Afton Canyon or western Arizona, but it’s not bad at all. The Milky Way was prominent and showed a fair amount of detail, especially after midnight when a strong marine layer at lower altitudes effectively halved the light pollution to the south (Inland Empire) and southwest (Los Angeles). On light pollution maps Baldy shows as being in the Orange zone, Bortle Class 5, but between the altitude and the marine layer it is sometimes effectively Green (Bortle 4). Last night was such a night.

I also took along the Celestron Travel Scope 70, which I had otherwise only used for quick peeks from my driveway. I’ve been meaning to blog about that scope. Right now you can get the scope, finder, two eyepieces, a tripod, and a backpack carrying case from Amazon for about $70 shipped. The finder is a travesty–an all-plastic “5×20” unit that is in fact stopped down to 10mm right behind the objective. I stripped the so-called optics out of mine and use it as a naked-eye sight tube, in which role it performs admirably, and a heck of a lot better than it ever did as a magnifying finder. The tripod is a joke, the sort of thing that gives other flimsy tripods a bad name. It struggles to hold a point-and-shoot digital camera steady, let alone a telescope, so I donated it to a museum. But the eyepieces are serviceable, the carry bag is fine, and the telescope itself is okay–more on this in the next post–so for $70 it is a screaming deal. As with the Apex 127, I was anxious to see what it could do under dark skies.

It was not yet fully dark when we arrived so I spent some time jawing with Craig. It was cloudless and clear where we were, but we could tell it was raining in the Mojave Desert, because the northeastern sky flickered with distant lightning. And we knew it was far off because we never heard even a hint of thunder. The lightning was not reflecting off clouds but off of the sky itself. It was as if the sky was on the fritz, like a bad florescent bulb. It was a profoundly weird and unearthly effect.

I started my observing run by putting the Apex 127 on Saturn. In addition to observing with “new” scopes, I was also rolling with genuinely new eyepieces. Explore Scientific has been having a CUH-RAY-ZEE sale on their well-reviewed 68, 82, and 100-degree eyepieces, so I sold some unused gear and bought a few: the 24mm ES68, which delivers the widest possible true field in a 1.25″ eyepiece, and the 14mm and 8.8mm ES82s. The Apex 127 is my longest focal length scope at 1540mm, so those eyepieces yielded 64x (24mm), 110x (14mm), and 175x (8.8mm). I also have a 6mm Orion Expanse that gives 257x–that is my default high-mag eyepiece in any scope. The ES eyepieces had just arrived in the mail last week so last night was my first time to try  them out.

Anyway, the seeing was limiting, with the view shaky at 175x and downright ugly at 257x, but Saturn was crisp and jewel-like at 110x and I could see four moons even at 64x. I haven’t checked the charts to see for sure which ones they were, but Titan certainly, and Dione, Rhea, and Tethys probably. I have seen up to five moons of Saturn at once before, but that requires steadier skies than we had last night.

After Saturn I hit a few favorite Messiers, including the globs M13, M5, and M4, all of which were impressively resolved for a 5″ scope. My favorite view of the evening through the Apex 127 was of the galaxies M81/M82 in the same field at 64x, with tantalizing hints of detail visible in both.

Then I got to work, finding and logging Herschel 400 objects. I was chasing mostly open clusters in Cygnus and Cassiopeia. I logged NGCs 6866, 7062, 7086, 7128, 7008 (a planetary nebula) and 7790. I also tried for open clusters NGC 7044 in Cygnus and 136 in Cassiopeia, but could not locate anything I felt comfortable calling a definitive open cluster at the charted locations amid the rich Milky Way starfields. This was also an issue with several of the Cygnus clusters I did log—at high magnification they tended to disappear into the surrounding star chains and asterisms.

Getting skunked is no fun, and by that time I’d been working on H400s for about two hours. For a change of pace, I switched over to the Travel Scope 70 and started plinking at Messiers. With a 32mm Plossl eyepiece I got 12.5x magnification and a stunning 4-degree true field–more like a finder on steroids than a telescope. I started with the Double Cluster as soon as I saw it was over the horizon, then hit M31, but didn’t immediately see its satellite galaxies. Then it was on to the “steam” rising from the teapot of Sagittarius: M8, M20, M22, M24, M25, M23, M18, M17, M16—these last three all nicely framed in the same field—M26, and M11 up in Scutum. Then back to the “bottom” of Scorpio and Sagittarius to catch M6 (M7 had already set behind a hill to the south—bummer), M69, M70, and M54, then all across the sky for M51, M101, M102, M13, M92, M15, back to Andromeda for a nice view of M31, M32, and M110 all prominent in the same field, M52, M103, M33, M76, and M34. I’d seen all these things before, but for most of them this was the lowest magnification I had seen them at, given that my binocular observations of them had mostly been with 15x70s. One of my favorite views of the night was M103 in Cassiopeia with NGCs 654, 663, and 659 in an arc below in the same field.

A little after 3:00 AM it was time for another goal: tracking down the outer giants. I had looked up the finder charts for Uranus and Neptune on Sky & Telescope’s website and logged their positions in my atlas. I found Neptune first, in Aquarius, using the Apex 127. Neptune was a very blue spark, and required 257x to appear non-stellar. Uranus, farther east in Pisces, was obviously non-stellar even at 64x. I also ran up to 257x on it, but the most pleasing view was at 175x. I had seen both planets before, but never as well, nor spent as much time on them as I did last night. Very strange to see giant Neptune as a tiny point of light in the mind-boggling darkness and immensity of space.

After observing planets I went back to the TS70 to continue the Messier survey. Logged M57, M56, M27, M45—absolutely stunning in the center of the field at low power—M72, M73, M2, M30, M75, M71—and old adversary from my early days with the XT6, but dead easy at low mag under dark skies—and M77. I tried for the faint face-on spiral galaxy M74 and suspected something there but couldn’t be sure. For a few these objects, including M72 and M77, I had to go up in magnification to pull them out of the skyglow or make sure they were not stars, using the 25mm (16x) and 17mm (23.5x) Plossls. I tried the 24mm ES68 but it was too heavy for the long cantilever from the mid-tube dovetail to the extended focuser tube of the TS70.

The last big show of the night was an upside-down kite shape rising in the east, with Jupiter at the top, Venus at the bottom, the thin crescent moon on the left, and Aldebaran on the right. I looked at the planets with the Apex 127 at 64x—the near-horizon seeing was bad but Venus’s crescent shape was well-defined, and Jupiter showed a couple of cloud bands and of course the four Galilean moons. Update: Pictures of this conjunction are posted here.

And that was it. The sky was rapidly getting brighter in the east, so we didn’t need artificial light to pack up. We pulled out at 5:25, went to Norm’s diner for breakfast, and I dropped Terry off at his hotel and went home for some badly-needed rack.

My final tally for the night was 8 new H400s, including NGCs 654 and 659; 44 Messiers, 42 of which I saw in the TS70; and 5 planets, including all four gas giants and Venus. Favorite observations were the flashing sky from over-the-horizon lightning, M81 and M82 in the same field in the Apex 127, M31 and both satellite galaxies in TS70, my best-yet views of Neptune and Uranus, and the dawn conjunction of planets, moon, and stars. Between dusk and dawn I observed five of the seven planets visible in a 5-inch scope, missing only Mars and Mercury (both were achievable, it turns out, I just didn’t try for them). It was a heck of a good night.

How did all the equipment perform? Stay tuned for the next post!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.