Archive for the ‘Milky Way’ Category

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Observing report: Saturday night stargazing on Mount Baldy

April 2, 2017

Waxing crescent moon, afocal shot by Eric Scott with Samsung Galaxy S6, shooting through Orion XT10 reflecting telescope.

London and I went up Mount Baldy last night with our friends Thierra Nalley and Eric Scott. Marco Irigoyen and Leandra Estrada joined us up on the mountain. We went up to look for comet 41P, but that didn’t pan out.

Since we went ostensibly to look for the comet, I brought the XT10 for firepower, and lots of binoculars. We got set up at Cow Canyon Saddle at about 8:30. Our first target was Orion, before it could sink into the light dome over LA. Second targets were the Pleiades and the Double Cluster. The Double Cluster in particular looked magnificent. I’ve been on a small-scope kick for a while so the XT10 hasn’t been out much, and I tend to forget what a potent instrument it is, especially under dark or semi-dark skies.

The skies on Mount Baldy last night were definitely semi-dark. Even three days shy of first quarter, the waxing crescent moon was bright enough to throw shadows and rather seriously degrade the darkness of the sky.

I tried for the comet but just couldn’t see it. I had the chart, knew where to look, and swept the area repeatedly with binoculars of all sizes and with the XT10, and I got bupkiss. This was after catching the comet easily in 7×50 binos every time I looked for it in Texas last weekend – but I wasn’t fighting any moon then. I think the comet is so big and diffuse that the surface brightness is low, and therefore it is easily swamped by moonlight. It certainly was not evident last night.

While we were in the neighborhood of the Big Dipper, we had a look at Mizar and Alcor, the famous double star in the dipper’s handle. Then for comparison we checked on Sigma Orionis, and then Marco wanted a look at Jupiter. After Jupiter we went on an extended tour of the deep sky, in which we observed:

  • M81, M82 (interacting galaxy pair)
  • M97, M108 (planetary nebula and galaxy in same field)
  • M3 (globular star cluster)
  • M37 (open star cluster)
  • M35 (open star cluster)
  • M104 (Sombrero galaxy)

In addition, we also saw three more open star clusters with our naked eyes and/or binoculars: the Hyades, M44, and the Coma Berenices star cluster.

We finished up on the moon, and then Jupiter again. We spent quite a bit of time getting pictures of both with Thierra’s and Eric’s phones. By coincidence, they both have the Samsung Galaxy S6, which has a very full-featured slate of camera options. Leandra is a pretty talented photographer and she was able to coach us on what settings to use. I think the results are pretty astounding, for handheld shots using phones. Here are the two best images of Jupiter, captured by me using Thierra’s phone and Leandra’s advice:

Here’s a composite of Jupiter and the Galilean moons – the planet was overexposed in the original to get the moons to show up, so I replaced it with the better of the two shots above.

And here’s a comparison screenshot from Sky Safari Pro 5 identifying the moons – from left to right in the above image they are Callisto, Europa, Io, and Ganymede.

As usual, the view at the eyepiece was about an order of magnitude more detailed than what the photos captured. One thing that I had never seen before with one of my own scopes was a band of ruffled white clouds within the north and south equatorial belts (the prominent orange-brown stripes on either side of the equator). The barest hint of this survives in the photos. It was a pretty mesmerizing view. For eyepieces we used a 32mm Plossl (37.5x), 28mm RKE (43x), 24mm ES68 (50x), 14mm ES82 (86x), 8.8mm ES82 (136x), and 5mm Meade MWA (240x). The most used were the 28mm RKE, 14mm ES82, and 5mm MWA. If you’re wondering why we used both a 32mm Plossl and a 24mm ES68 – since they give the same true field of view – we used the Plossl during the afocal photography because it gives a wider exit pupil, which is easier to keep the camera’s aperture centered inside.

Even though we missed the comet, I was pretty happy with what we did see – at least one of every major class of deep-sky object, including all of the stages of the life cycle of stars. In the disk of the Milky Way, new stars are born from vast nebulae of gas and dust, like Orion. In time, heat and light from the newborn stars push away the remnants of their birth clouds, leaving behind only the stars themselves, as open star clusters (‘open’ as opposed to globular). Over time, the stars in open clusters drift apart to become ‘field stars’ like the Sun, no longer gravitationally bound to their siblings. When the run out of fuel, stars blow themselves apart in supernovae if they are 8 times the mass of the Sun or larger, whereas smaller stars blow off their outer layers of gas to form planetary nebulae like M97. Whether stars die suddenly in supernovae or slowly as planetary nebulae, the matter blown out by dying stars enriches the galactic gas and dust clouds, and in time it will be incorporated into new generations of stars and planets. We are products of this process – all of the elements in our bodies other than hydrogen were born by fusion in the hearts of stars, and seeded into the galaxy’s spiral arms when those stars died.

Farther out, globular clusters like M3 orbit the core of the galaxy on long elliptical orbits that are not flat, but come looping in from all directions. The stars in globular clusters are typically very old, 12 billion years or more. We know very little about how and why globular clusters formed, and how they came to have such weird orbits. Probably they are some kind of developmental leftover from the formation of the earliest galaxies in the first billion years after the Big Bang – astrophysical fossils, if only we knew how to interpret them.

All of these processes are going on in other galaxies as well, especially spiral galaxies like M81, M104, and M108.

To put all of that into context, here are all of the objects we observed again, this time ranked from closest to farthest:

In our solar system:

  • moon – 240,000 miles or 1.3 light seconds
  • Jupiter – 370 million miles or 33 light minutes (currently – Jupiter is about 5 AU out from the sun, but right now we’re on the same side of the sun so it’s only 4 AU from us)

In our spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy (the Orion spur):

  • Mizar and Alcor (double star) – 83 light years
  • Hyades (open star cluster) – 151 light years
  • Coma Berenices cluster (open star cluster) – 280 light years
  • M45 (Pleiades; open star cluster) – 440 light years
  • M44 (Beehive; open star cluster) – 577 light years
  • Sigma Orionis (multiple star) – 1255 light years
  • M42, M43 (Orion nebula; star-forming region) – 1344 light years
  • M97 (planetary nebula in same field as M108) – 2030 light years
  • M35 (open star cluster) – 2800 light years

In the next spiral arm out from the galactic center (Perseus arm):

  • M37 (open star cluster) – 4500 light years
  • NGC 869/884 (Double Cluster; open star clusters) – 7500 light years

In the galactic halo of the Milky Way:

  • M3 (globular star cluster) – 34,000 light years

External galaxies:

  • M81, M82 (interacting galaxy pair) – 11 million light years
  • M104 (Sombrero galaxy) – 31 million light years
  • M108 (galaxy in same field as M97) – 46 million light years

That is very satisfying to me, to take in such a menagerie of celestial objects, at so many scales and distances, in the space of a couple of hours armed only with a comparatively inexpensive telescope and an idea of what’s out there to be seen. I can’t wait for next time.

Saturday night astro crew. Left to right: Marco Irigoyen, Leandra Estrada, London Wedel, Matt Wedel, Thierra Nalley, Eric Scott. Photo courtesy of Eric Scott.

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Deep in the Dark of Texas: the Three Rivers Foundation Messier Marathon

March 28, 2017

This story starts with Jeff Barton, Director of Astronomy at the Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts and Sciences (3RF). Jeff sent me a Facebook message on January 27, inviting me to come speak at the 3RF Messier Marathon star party, for which 3RF would pay my travel expenses and provide food and lodging.

I did not get this message until February 19, because I suck at Facebook. Fortunately the offer was still open. So last Thursday I flew to DFW, rented a car, and drove out to the Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus, a little west of Crowell, Texas.

3RF is an educational foundation and Comanche Springs is the North American astronomy wing (they also have scopes in Australia for public education and outreach). It’s out in rural Texas ranchland, and as you drive up the first thing your eyes will light on is the big silver observatory dome.


Inside the dome is a 15″ refractor with DGM optics, an OMI tube, and a monster Astro-Physics mount.


There are several roll-off roof observatories on the campus, with more to come in the near future. This one holds two imaging scopes, a big Ritchey-Chretien on the left and a big SCT on the right, both on Software Bisque Paramounts. These are set up for remote observing – in the near future, schoolteachers will be able to tie into these telescopes and collect images with their students.

Irritatingly, I didn’t get any pictures of the big roll-off roof observatory which holds one of 3RF’s 30″ Obsession dobs, and where they park the two 20″ and one 18″ Obsessions when they’re not in use. That’s right, four 18″ and larger Obsessions in one place. They have more stored in town, waiting for more observatories to be built, and another gaggle of Obsessions in Australia.


In lieu of a picture of the Obsession shed, here’s a view of the north end of campus, looking east. From left to right you can see one of the four or so bunkhouses in the background, the ‘new’ classroom/mess hall, the equipment shed where the binocular chairs are stored, and the restrooms, and one of the observing fields in the foreground.


Here’s one of the motorized binocular chairs. You sit in the padded seat and drive yourself in altitude and azimuth with the joystick on the right armrest, while the Fujinon 25×150 binoculars deliver 6″ of unobstructed light-gathering to each eye. There’s another chair with a more modest but still impressive 100mm bino, and I believe a third chair that wasn’t out during my visit.

The tagline “Deep in the dark of Texas” is not my original, I got it from the back of a 3RF t-shirt. It’s true. The skies at Comanche Springs are dark. Seriously dark. You drive through a section of open range to get there. I had to get a picture of this brown cow sitting by the side of the road – this cow refused to be fazed by anything. I grew up in rural Oklahoma and in my experience, free-range cattle are highly correlated with dark skies. The skies at Comanche Springs are Bortle 1 or 2. The only places I have been under skies this dark are Afton Canyon, the All-Arizona Star Party, and the remote desert of southern Utah. More than 200 miles west of the DFW metroplex, and 20 miles from the nearest town of more than 1000 people, there are no light domes on the horizon – none.

I roomed with these fine gentlemen. You may know Robert Reeves from his several books on astrophotography (see this page) and from his “365 Days of the Moon” on Facebook, which has now been running for more than two years. David Moody is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (yes, the one in London, co-founded by Herschel) and one of the authors of Astronomical Sketching: A Step-by-Step Introduction. Lonnie Wege is a sales manager at Celestron and brought the door prizes, which were donated by Celestron.

To be in the company of such experienced observers and imagers was a real privilege, but it was only intimidating for the first 30 seconds or so because they’re all so nice. In Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris describes hanging out at the Winter Star Party: “I listened to the elders talk – a mix of astronomical expertise and self-deprecatory wit, the antithesis of pomp.”  That’s what it was like for me at the 3RF star party – just a bunch of regular folks, all equally willing to share and learn, all equally excited for nightfall.

I got in Thursday evening but didn’t do much observing. It was cold and windy, and then cloudy. I did spend a few minutes out in the lee of one of the bunkhouses cruising the sky with binoculars, and I figured out an easy hack for hanging my red headlamp over my bunkbed, but that was about it. Incidentally, my headlamp is already red, but like almost all red-light accessories marketed toward amateur astronomers, it’s still too darned bright. Usually I have a layer of masking tape over the front to knock down the brightness, but for some reason I pulled it off recently. Fortunately they had plenty of red taillight tape in the 3RF coffers, so I got it back into fighting trim.

On Friday I visited the elementary and middle schools in nearby Quanah, Texas, with 3RF’s Director of Education, Townly Thomas. Townly visits schools in a 100-mile radius from Quanah to bring enhanced STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) activities to kids. I know she’s popular because I heard one student call to her as we walked down the hall: “Mrs. Thomas, when do we get to do STEAM again?” I went in my capacity as professional paleontologist and brought some fossil casts for the students to see. Pictured above are the thumb claw of Saurophaganax, a big allosauroid from Black Mesa in the Oklahoma panhandle (more about that here), and the skull of Aquilops, a little ancestral horned dinosaur that I got to help name in 2014 (ditto). Many thanks to my friends and colleagues at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History for making the casts available – I’ve had fun introducing them to lots of schoolkids.

After the school visit, I got on the road back to Comanche Springs – I didn’t want to miss the talk by Robert Reeves on his lunar imaging. Here’s a  handful of the many things I learned from Robert:

  • He uses a 180mm SkyWatcher Mak to get his moon images these days. Runs his camera at 50 frames a second for 100 seconds to get 5000 frames, stacks and saves only the best 500, and then does a LOT of careful, thoughtful processing.
  • Lunar shadows are jet black, not gray. If you see gray shadows in someone’s moon images, they need more processing.
  • The lunar Bay of Rainbows is Sinus Iridum, not Sinus Iridium – no third ‘i’. I have been misspelling and mispronouncing it for a decade.

Now, this was a Messier Marathon star party and there were rules and checklists and everything – more on that later in the post. I think that originally Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights were all fair game for the contest, but Friday night turned out to be suboptimal. We did get a lovely sunset, as you can see above, but those clouds were pushed on through by a strong, cold wind. Instead of setting up scopes ourselves, many of us retreated inside the dome to observe with the 15″ refractor. We also had a group of 15 or 20 college students visiting, so we all took turns looking through the big refractor. They’d already been going for a while when I got inside. The first object I saw myself through the big scope was the globular cluster M3. Then we looked at M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, and then Comet 41P.

I haven’t blogged about the comet yet, but it is easily visible in binoculars under dark skies, and with any luck it may get naked-eye visible in the next week or so. I haven’t checked to see if it’s visible from Claremont – I was too pooped after I got home last night. I saw it every night in Texas, but I haven’t sketched it yet. Hopefully I’ll get that done soon. In the meantime, Sky & Tel has a good finder chart that will carry you through the end of April here.

After the comet, we looked at the galaxies M102, M82, and M104, and the globular cluster M13. I might have missed an object or two – I popped outside to call home, and spent some time in the attached classroom warming up and getting to know some of my fellow stargazers. I know we went to Jupiter at some point, and we back to Jupiter at the end of the session to catch the start of an Io shadow transit.

I slept in on Saturday and did some final tinkering on my talk. David Moody gave a talk before dinner about visiting the Royal Astronomical Society library and getting to see first editions of books by Copernicus, Newton, Bode, Bayer, and more.

After David’s talk we had dinner and door prizes in the mess hall. Here Jeff Barton (right) is pointing past Fred Koch, who was drawing names, to accuse Lonnie Wege (left) of something. It was all in good fun and there was plenty of laughter, especially when Phil Jones won the grand prize – 15×70 SkyMasters, just like mine – in absentia, having been out setting up his imaging gear. When he came in, Lonnie told him that all he had won was the case, and the binos were going to someone else. Well, binos did go to someone else (whose name unfortunately escapes me), but he had already won 10×50 binos so he kindly donated the 15x70s to Phil. This is Phillip L. Jones of VisualUniverse.org, by the way – you’ve probably seen his photos in books and magazines.

I won a door prize myself – a rechargeable hand warmer. I ran over and plugged it in after dinner so it would be ready to go by marathon time. I was very glad to have it later on.

Saturday night was looking much, much better. There were a few clouds low on the western horizon, but everyone who had come to Comanche Springs to observe or image was getting ready. Here are Glenn Winn in the foreground setting up his 17.5″ Discovery dob, and Jim Admire in the background with his XT10g. Just out of the frame on the right was Jay Ellis and his own XT10.

I set up just south of Jay, and the four of us were the biggest group of visual marathoners. Phil Jones had his imaging rigs set up about 100 feet south of Glenn. There were more imagers on the south observing field, by the Obsession shed, and at least two serious visual observers: Tom Monahan and Russ Boatright (there may have been more, but Tom and Russ are the two who came to the awards ceremony on Monday).

I don’t remember what scope Tom was rolling with, but Russ impressed the hell out of all of us by going super-minimal: he did a naked Messier Marathon from Memory. Not naked as in unclothed, but naked as in, not even with a list of the objects. In a regular M-cubed the observer is allowed no charts – they have to find all of the objects from memory, hence the name. In a naked M-cubed, the observers is not even allowed a list to remind them what to look for, it’s just them and their instrument. Russ ran his naked M-cubed with Canon 18×50 image-stabilized binoculars.

Saturday night’s marathon was great. There were clouds low in the west again, and none of us got M74. But the clouds blew through quickly and after that it was clear, dark skies all night. I was rolling with the Bresser AR102S Comet Edition and Fujinon 7x50s I had borrowed from 3RF. I’d actually flown in with my own binoculars, the Bushnell 10x42s that I had out at Santa Cruz Island last June, but the 7x50s gave a wider, brighter image and were more in line with my current fascination for low-power, wide-field uber alles. I would have brought the Bresser 7x50s that came with the Comet Edition package, but I ran out of room in my backpack – the Bushnell roofs take up about half the space.

And speaking of space in my backpack – I managed to fly with carry-on luggage only. A red duffel bag held the Bresser OTA, Manfrotto tripod, DwarfStar alt-az head, and big dinosaur claw, with my clothes wrapped around everything as packing material. My backpack had a couple more shirts, my laptop, travel paperwork, notebook, Pocket Sky Atlas, binoculars, boxed Aquilops skull, shaving bag, and Bob King’s new book Night Sky With the Naked Eye, which I’d gotten specifically to read on the plane (expect a review soon). Both bags were stuffed nearly to bursting, but they were both within carry-on allowances and the backpack still fit under the seat in front of me.

Oh – rules. There were five categories: Young Astronomer, GoTo Telescope, Non-GoTo Telescope, Binoculars, and Highest Aggregate Score. No-one has ever gotten all 110 objects in one night at a 3RF marathon, so the highest aggregate goes to the person who gets the most over the course of two nights. If there’s a tie in the number of Messier objects, the bonus points kick in. Herschel 400 objects were worth two points apiece, and there was an ascending scale of more difficult dim objects, including Hickson Compact Groups of galaxies.

Here’s my log from Saturday night. Although I missed M74, I tried to make up for it by nailing as many H400 clusters in Cassiopeia and Perseus as I could. By the time I took my first break at 10:15, I had 27 Messiers and 16 H400s. I took several short breaks over the course of the evening to get snacks and caffeine and chat with people. It all went pretty smoothly until just before dawn, when I was trying to catch M30. I star-hopped down from Deneb Algedi (aka Delta Capricorni) to the right vicinity and found myself looking at trees. They were only small trees, and probably 200 yards from the observing field, but they still obscured those last few crucial degrees above the horizon. I’d picked a bad spot.

What I should have done is pick up the binoculars and walk south until I could see the target star with no trees in the way. What I actually did was pick up the scope and chair and run south and set up where I thought I’d be in the clear, only to star-hop down again and see other, different trees – I’d gone too far south. So I moved everything yet again, and by the time I got on target, the sky was getting bright. Fooey. Still, I got 108 objects, tying my personal best from 2013, which was actually the last time I’d even attempted a Messier marathon, so I couldn’t be too unhappy.

As it happened, I tied with Glenn Winn that night. He’d missed M77 in the early evening, but gotten M30, so his list of 108 objects was slightly different than mine but came to the same total.

Anyway, I went to bed happy. Got up for lunch on Sunday, then slept some more, then got up for another talk by Robert Reeves. Robert’s second talk was also on the moon, but focused less on his imaging methods and more on the processes that have shaped the moon, and the moon’s changing appearance under varying conditions of light and shadow. It was incredible stuff – I took a whole page of notes to guide my own future moon-observing.

Sunday night we had clearer skies than Saturday, but it was colder and a brisk north wind was blowing not long after dusk. None of us got M74. Down at the Obsession shed, folks were looking for it with even bigger scopes and failed to see it, so I’m confident it just was not visible that night. Possibly that was atmospheric, but the zodiacal light certainly didn’t help – it was a broad dagger of light stabbing up vertically from the horizon all the way to the Pleiades. I have never seen it so bright.

The other thing that shaped my Sunday night plans was the fact that Glenn did get M77, bringing his aggregate Messier total to 109. All of my bonus points from H400s would only help in the event of a tie, and the only was I could tie him was to get M30. And without M74, there was no chance for me to achieve my personal goal of getting all 110 Messiers in one night. So I needed to be up before dawn to try for M30, but there was no point in subjecting myself to a whole night of observing in the windy cold. I packed up the scope and moved into the lee of Jeff Barton’s camper and switched over to binoculars. I was still using the 3RF Fujinon 7x50s.

It was another Fujinon binocular that would provide the most memorable views of the evening: the 25×150 motorized bino chair. 3RF volunteer Gary Carter had set up the bino chairs and was touring people around the sky on Saturday evening, but I was too busy marathoning to partake. Sunday night I hopped in the big chair, Gary got the binos adjusted, and I was off.

In a word – WOW. I have been fortunate to get to observe with a lot of big telescopes, but I am not exaggerating when I say that using that bino chair was my favorite observing, ever. I just sat there comfortably in a padded chair and drove myself around the sky with the joystick, while enjoying hands-down the brightest, most immersive, most enjoyable views of the night sky that I have ever had. Six inches is a lot of light-gathering per eye. I don’t know the AFOV of the eyepieces but it is wide. It’s hard for me to even believe that the magnification was only 25x – everything subjectively seemed much bigger, because it was so much brighter and more detailed than I am used to. When I was cruising over to look at the Double Cluster, I kept getting distracted by all of the little open clusters that dot the Milky Way in and around Cassiopeia (I was coming in from the north). M78, near Orion, was so big and bright that at first I thought I had the wrong object.

In summation, observing with the Fujinon bino chair was a transformative experience – it changed my perspective on what observing could BE.

I knocked off a little before midnight with 60 Messiers in the bag, and went to get some sleep. I didn’t get up until 5:30, and I wasn’t back out on the observing field until 5:45.

I have read many accounts from observers under dark skies who said that when the summer Milky Way rose, it was so bright that they mistook it for a cloud. I had not previously experienced that for myself. But Monday morning I was headed out of the bunkhouse and I saw a bright, white cloud in the eastern sky. We’d been fighting the occasional cloud every other night, so when I saw that cloud out of the corner of my eye I thought, “Aww, crap, I need clear skies to get M30”. But when I turned my head to see how big the cloud was, and how extensive, it turned out to be the Milky Way in Sagittarius and Scutum. I should have known better anyway – Comanche Springs is so dark that actual atmospheric clouds aren’t bright, but dark. They show up as blank spaces in the starfields.

I didn’t get M30. I got the scope correctly placed this time, and I got to the target star, and I spent about 15 minutes alternately adjusting the zoom eyepiece and staring into the darkness. A couple of times I thought I saw something, but I couldn’t even hold it in averted vision, so it could well have been a case of averted imagination. Anyone who has pushed their gear to its limits in the search for faint fuzzies will know the feeling. There are the things that you see repeatably in the same place, with the same orientation, that you log as detected – and then there are things that never swim up out of the minor variations in background darkness that your retina throws up when confronted with a blank slate. M30 never surfaced for me.

Ah, well. I did get 25 more Messiers with the 7x50s between 5:45 and 6:05. It helped that I had seen them all the previous morning with the telescope, so I knew exactly where to look. I probably could have gotten a few more, like M2, if I hadn’t been so fixated on M30. But 85 Messiers in one night with 7×50 binos is not a bad total at all, especially not when I got a 5.5-hour break in the middle.

I was too keyed up to go right back to sleep, so I went into the observatory classroom, made myself a Frito pie with a microwave bowl of Dinty Moore Beef Stew – which was awesome, by the way – and copied my results over from my personal log to the 3RF competition forms. Then I went back to sleep for a couple more hours.

We all reconvened in the observatory classroom around 10:00 for the final tally and presentation of awards. Here’s the scoreboard:

The highest aggregate total went to Glenn Winn, with 109 objects over the two nights. I got second in the Non-GoTo category, behind Glenn, and also got second in the Binocular category, behind Russ Boatright. In his naked M-cubed with the 18×50 bins, Russ got a staggering 90 objects. Color me impressed – very impressed. Jim Admire got 91 objects with his XT10g, and that was without pushing through dawn, so he won the GoTo category. Tom Monahan wasn’t even going to turn in his sheet, figuring that his 47 objects from the first half of Saturday night would not qualify him for anything. But a lot of people who signed up didn’t turn in any results, so Tom got the pleasant surprise of third place in the Non-GoTo category. I think the Young Observer awards went unclaimed, as no actual youngsters participated in the marathon.

Here’s a shot of the winners’ circle. From left to right are:

  • Jeff Barton, our host and the competition judge;
  • Glenn Winn with his 1st place medal and aggregate score trophy;
  • Russ Boatright;
  • Jim Admire;
  • yours truly, and;
  • Tom Monahan.

Many thanks to 3RF volunteer Gary Carter for taking the photo, and for permission to use it here.

A good time was had by all, and plans are already being laid for next time. Turns out that Jeff Barton is a fan of double stars, and he visibly lit up when I brought the idea of a Double Star Marathon to his attention. Something like 80 globs are visible in the fall during fall Messier Marathon season, so some kind of glob marathon may be in the offing in the near future as well.

I learned some things about my gear, too. The Bresser/Manfrotto/Dwarfstar rig was utterly uncomplicated, as I suspected from my test run at the Salton Sea the previous weekend. Rarely have I had more effortless and trouble-free observing. And I’m proud to have gotten 108 objects in one night with a 4″ scope – I don’t think there’s any shame in losing to a 17.5″ reflector, nor to an observer as experienced and friendly as Glenn. I might even have ‘sold’ a few of the Bresser Comet Edition packages, as there was a lot of curiosity about the scope among the star party attendees. I think Jeff Barton may have ordered one yesterday morning.

Is a 4″ reflactor enough scope for a Messier Marathon? It wasn’t this time. I’m not hurt about not getting M74 – if people with 17″ and 18″ dobs couldn’t see it, then conditions were just not right for it to be seen, period. M30 is more troubling. I know for dead certain that I was pointed at the right place, and I tried every trick in the book – averted vision, tapping the tube, slowly sweeping – and still couldn’t get it to pop out, and this was from its rising onward. But I know it was visible in bigger scopes. Sure, it will be a few degrees higher by the end of the month, but M74 will be a few degrees lower, too.

Now, I know that people have gotten all 110 Messiers in one night with even smaller scopes. According to this analysis by A.J. Crayon, hosted at the SEDS Messier site, it has been done with a 60mm refractor. That is darned impressive. So theoretically, yes, under perfect conditions, a 4″ scope is more than enough. But your chances improve with bigger scopes. Still, even a 17.5″ scope wasn’t enough to get all 110 this time, at this site. And it is worth noting that I’ve now done just as well with a 4″ scope as with my Apex 127, having gotten 108 objects in one night with both instruments.

Flying with the Bresser Comet Edition turned out to be surprisingly easy. I got scope, tripod, alt-az head, and clothes for five days into a standard duffel bag. The likelihood of this scope racking up more airline miles in the future is very high. And the 28mm RKE and 8-24mm Celestron zoom were all the eyepieces I needed. I didn’t use a finder of any kind – I didn’t take my green laser pointer for airport security reasons, and I forgot to borrow one from Jeff (who did offer) before the marathon started Saturday night. But it was okay, I just did my dead reckoning trick and didn’t even think about it after the first few objects. On the flip side, I did wish for a different atlas. I really need to suck it up and take the Jumbo PSA next time. At 4:00 in the morning when my eyes are tired and I’m trying to read by the dim light of a red headlamp, the writing in the standard edition is just too small.

I have new ambitions about gear – mainly, that I gotta get me some big binoculars. Frequent commenter and sometime observing buddy Doug Rennie has 20×80 bins that he mounts on one of these – that would be a potent and enjoyable combo for a very reasonable outlay (although I see that the price has crept up from the $65 or so it was going for last year). And my new no-holds-barred, price-is-no-object dream observing rig – which I may never achieve – is a motorized chair with 150mm binoculars. It was that good.

But ultimately the star party was not about gear, it was about experiences. I had a fantastic time at Comanche Springs, saw amazing things in the sky, learned a lot from my fellow amateurs, and most importantly made a lot of new friends. Many thanks to Jeff Barton and the whole 3RF crew for their hospitality and for making my trip possible. I don’t know when I’ll be back out there, but I’m already looking forward to it.

For more about Messier Marathons, including log sheets, links, and observing reports from previous marathons, see this page.

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My article in the March 2017 Sky & Telescope

January 27, 2017

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This is one was an easy write-up, because it had been in my head and in my notebook for a long time. Way back when I first got tapped to write for S&T, I pitched a tour of the winter Milky Way from Puppis to Gemini. I’d never written for a magazine before and I had no idea how much sky it would take to fill 1600 words. Turns out, all I got through on the first attempt was Canis Major, Puppis, and a couple of odds and ends like M48. That was my article in the December 2015 issue.

Right after that came out, I pitched the unfinished second half, and now it’s out. Like that first article, it’s a tour of the winter Milky Way pitched at binocular users, but hopefully useful for telescopic observers, too. This piece runs from Monoceros through northeastern Orion to southern Gemini. The March issue of Sky & Tel is probably hitting newsstands this week. If you get a copy, I hope you enjoy the article.

If you’re thinking that Gemini is a pretty arbitrary place to stop cruising the Milky Way, you’re not wrong. I can say no more for now, but stay tuned…

Update: whoops, I originally put January in the post title instead of March! This is, of course, the March issue, it just came out in January. Sheesh.

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

June 4, 2016

Matt at Delicate Arch IMG_2984

Preface – Running with the Red Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observing Report 2 (Large): Going Deep at RTMC

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

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

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

M51 sketch by Lord Rosse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the northern sky:

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

In the western sky:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s eat.

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My article in the December Sky & Telescope

October 31, 2015
SnT Dec 2015 cover - marked up

Einstein has my article on his mind!

Here’s the exciting news I teased back in September: the December 2015 issue of Sky & Telescope, which is available online and should be hitting newsstands about now, has an observing article by yours truly. It’s a binocular tour of the southern stretch of the winter Milky Way, from Canis Major through Puppis to end in Hydra.

SnT Dec 2015 contents - marked up

The road that led here started back in December, 2014, when I got a very nice email from S. Johnson-Roehr, “JR”, the observing editor for Sky & Tel. JR had stumbled across this very site (possibly because I’d just recommended the newly-reprinted Caldwell Objects?) and asked if I’d be interested in contributing an observing article. We batted some ideas back and forth and quickly settled on the winter Milky Way. I had been through this area of the sky before but I wanted to give it one more pass, both to flesh out my notes and to road-test the star hops I had in mind. I made those observations this spring, wrote the article over the summer, and now it’s out in the world.

I have one favor to beg of anyone who reads the article – I need feedback. This is my first time writing about astronomy anywhere but a blog, forum post, or club newsletter, and I’d like to know (1) what worked, (2) what didn’t, and (3) what you’d like to see in the future. The comment field is open.

There’s a lot more to like in this issue of S&T, some of which will be of particular interest to regular readers of this blog. Tony Flanders has another inexpensive telescope shoot-out. Back in 2011 he and Joshua Roth looked at $100 scopes, in particular the Orion SpaceProbe 3, GoScope 80, and SkyScanner 100 (that article is a free download here, and a follow-up comparing the SkyScanner to the StarBlast is here). This time Tony considers three scopes in the $200 range: the Meade Infinity 90mm refractor and alt-az mount, the Orion StarBlast 4.5, and the Astronomers Without Borders OneSky. I won’t give away any spoilers, except to note that he finds all three to be capable scopes, which I’m sure is no surprise around here.

Another nice review in this issue is Alan MacRobert’s look at the first two volumes of Jeff Kanipe’s and Dennis Webb’s Annals of the Deep Sky, from Willmann Bell. As a deep-sky junkie who likes to read himself to sleep with Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and Stephen James O’Meara, I have been curious about these new books, but I hadn’t heard anything about their quality before reading MacRobert’s article. Sounds like I need to make space on my Christmas list.

There’s loads more interesting stuff in this issue – cover articles on Einstein and gravitational waves, great observing articles by Alan MacRobert, Fred Schaaf, Gary Seronik, and Charles A. Wood, a very nice piece by Sue French looking at some neglected open clusters and double stars in Cassiopeia (an area I thought I knew well)…you get the picture. If you’re not a subscriber, you can find the December issue of Sky & Telescope on your local newsstand, or order a print or digital copy online here.

If you’re new here, welcome! Have a look around, and feel free to comment.