Archive for the ‘Observing reports’ Category

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Observing Report: the Smoky-Tex Star Party

September 26, 2020

In the recent post on my new NexStar 8SE, I promised to explain why I was moving quickly trying to get the scope and the mount checked out. It’s because I knew I was bound for darker skies.

This is Black Mesa, at the extreme northwestern corner of the Oklahoma panhandle. The mesa is named for the thick cap of black basalt, the product of sporadic volcanism in northeastern New Mexico over the last 20 million years or so. The basalt is capping a sequence of sedimentary rocks in which portions of the entire Mesozoic are represented, including Cretaceous sandstones, Late Jurassic limestones, clays, and mudstones, Early Jurassic aeolian sands, and Triassic sands, shales, and muds. That’s what normally takes me to Black Mesa: digging dinosaurs.

The extant vertebrates aren’t bad, either. I took this photo on my very first visit out there, in 2016. I’ve been back to dig almost every year since.

Black Mesa draws visitors for another reason: inky-dark skies. On this light pollution map, I’ve highlighted Utah and Oklahoma in white, and circled the field areas of my digs in pink. It’s not just paleontologists that are drawn to such remote areas. The Okie-Tex Star Party is held each year just outside the tiny town of Kenton, less than five miles from our dinosaur quarry.

I’ve been wanting to go to Okie-Tex for ages, but every year before this one I was too busy teaching at this time of year. This year my schedule would have allowed me to attend, but of course the star party was cancelled because of the damned pandemic (correctly, I might add). I had planned to meet up at Okie-Tex with my friend Reggie Whitten, one of the founders of the Whitten-Newman Foundation that supports our dinosaur dig out there. The WNF has a cabin near Black Mesa, and when Reggie heard that Okie-Tex was cancelled, he said to me, “Hell, Matt, come on out and we’ll have our own star party”. I knew this was coming from a couple of months out, and that’s why I was scrambling to get the new NexStar 8SE up and running: I wanted it to be my star party scope.

I started the drive out two Wednesdays ago, on September 16. It’s 1070 miles from my driveway to Black Mesa. The first day, I made it as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico. At home, I’d been stuck under groady, smoky, ashy skies since the Mount Baldy run at the start of the month, and even though I’d been on the road for 12 hours, I was craving starlight. So I drove out west of town, past the airport, found a deserted dirt road, and spent half an hour cruising around the sky with the SkyScanner 100, shown above, and 7×50 binoculars. The skies weren’t crazy dark–the light dome from Santa Fe reacted with the humidity in the air to wipe out everything from the nose of Pegasus to Cassiopeia–but I still had fun looking south and west. I caught Jupiter, Saturn, M11, M57, M56, Albireo, Alpha Vulpeculae, Brocchi’s Coathanger, M71, M27, the heart asterism around Sadr, M29, and M39. I hit the gas giants again at the end of the session, checked in on Mars, and called it a night.

The next day I mostly counted pronghorn while I drove. I love these goofy critters, and there are a lot of them in northeastern New Mexico. Between Santa Fe and the Oklahoma border I counted at least 110, in 17 groups. Not many people know that pronghorn are so ridiculously fast–60 to 65 mph–because they evolved to outrun the now-extinct American cheetah, Miracinonyx, which was probably not a true cheetah but a convergently-evolved offshoot of the North American mountain lion or cougar. Pronghorn are not only fast, they also have a preternatural ability to tell when I’m about to take a picture, at which point they bolt. So I have a lot of photos, like the one above, that show pronghorn butts as they run away.

NB: not a pronghorn.

I got in Thursday afternoon and started unpacking scopes. I’d brought four: the NexStar 8SE as my main ride and big gun, at least for this trip; the C80ED as the next-nicest backup scope in case conditions were too windy for the big C8 (that would be prophetic); the Bresser AR102S for rich-field observing; and the SkyScanner 100 because I wanted a reflector along so I could demonstrate the three main types of telescopes, and because why the heck not.

That first night was the best. It got cool, down in the 50s, but there was no appreciable wind, and the seeing and transparency were both phenomenal. On the planets and bright deep sky objects like the Ring Nebula, I just kept throwing shorter eyepieces into the C8 until I hit the 5mm MWA, which is currently my shortest decent non-Barlowed EP. I only realized the next day that the 5mm was giving 406x in the 2032mm C8, which is a heck of a lot of magnification. Here in SoCal I find there are only a handful of nights each year that I can go past about 350x–and, frankly, for the stuff I observe I rarely need any more juice than that.

The next day, conditions took a turn for the worse. First, there was wind, which is normal for Black Mesa, we’d just gotten lucky the night before. My first solution was to roll with the C80ED instead of the NexStar, but the wind was so strong that even that small, solid scope on a very competent mount was bouncing around like crazy at anything over the very lowest magnifications. The next night, I had the better idea to repark the truck perpendicular to the wind, and put the NexStar in its lee, and that worked great.

The less welcome development was the arrival of, yep, smoke from wildfires. Here’s a shot of Black Mesa looking northwest from Robber’s Roost, scaled down a bit but otherwise unretouched–compare to the photo on a cloudy day at the top of this post, which was taken from essentially the same spot. I felt a little deflated to have crossed about a third of the US for exactly one clear night. This smoke was from fires in southern Colorado, and fortunately conditions got better quickly. We had one bad night of smoke, and then things got clearer every subsequent night.

For the entirety of my stay, I was the sole astronomer in a small and ever-changing group of civilians. Almost every time out, there was at least one person who hadn’t been with us the previous evening, and consequently I spent a lot of time showing people the best and brightest objects: the Ring, the Dumbbell, M13, the Double Cluster, Andromeda, and so on. And of course, Jupiter and Saturn and Mars. Not that I’m complaining! Those crowd-pleasing objects look good from home in small scopes. Under Bortle 1 skies with 8 inches of aperture, they looked phenomenal, and I would have spent most of my time observing them even if I’d been completely alone. The Double Cluster just fits in the field of a view of a 32mm Plossl or 24mm ES 68. You could spend a long time gazing into the depths of those two clusters, and many of my companions did. Different people had different favorites: the Double Cluster, the Ring Nebula, Andromeda, but the winner for most was Saturn. Which is entirely reasonable–even after all these years of stargazing, it’s a kick in the brainpan. Every single time I look at Saturn through a telescope, I am forcibly confronted with the reality that while I’ve been dealing with meetings and oil changes and dentist appointments and grocery shopping, it’s been out there for billions of years, vast, majestic, and serene, supremely untroubled by all the traffic jams and mass extinctions and whatnot transpiring on this wee little rock far across the solar system.

One morning I got up at 4:00 to go on dawn patrol. Several folks had indicated that they might join me, but the only one who actually did was Rachelle Whitten-Newman, Reggie’s spouse. We spent an hour and a half rocking through Orion, Taurus, Monoceros, Gemini, and Auriga. The Orion Nebula looked about as good as I’ve ever seen it, and M37 looked like diamonds on black velvet.

Ad Astra: the official wine of our star party.

Allow me to impress upon you just how darned dark it is out there. In the whole valley between Kenton and Black Mesa, there are about two porchlights on at night. The headlights of a car coming over the local horizon, 3 or 4 miles away–which does not happen very often–look like spotlights. The closest towns are Boise City, Oklahoma, population about 1200, which is 38 miles east, and Clayton, New Mexico, population about 2900, 45 miles to the southwest. You could draw a circle with a radius of 50 miles around Black Mesa and probably sweep up fewer than 6000 souls (the same circle around my house in Claremont would get 10 or 15 million). There are no light domes on the horizon. The major sources of light pollution are the planets themselves.

One night after packing away the telescopes I was sitting on a folding chair outside my tent, just taking in the night sky, when I realized that the entire landscape was very dimly illuminated. I can hardly stress enough how faint was this illumination–it was to the light of a bright moon what moonlight is to sunlight–but it was enough to cast pools of jet-black shadow under the cedars, the vehicles, and the awnings of the tents and buildings. I looked up to see the source of the light and the only possible culprit was Mars, soaring high overhead in the middle of the night. That’s right: out there, Mars casts shadows.

The NexStar 8SE performed like a champ. I started every evening with a 2-star align, usually on Mirfak (Alpha Persei) and Nunki–the latter is the star in the handle of the Sagittarius teapot that is closest to Jupiter. After that, the scope was good to point all over the sky, and to track for longer than I ever needed it to. I felt a little spoiled. One night I was out by myself for a bit so I decided to rock through the Messiers in the western sky. Scorpius was getting low, but I caught all of the M-objects in the “steam from the teapot” in Sagittarius and Scutum, as well as all of the globular clusters in Ophiuchus and Hercules, in about half an hour. After spending 13 years finding objects myself, and nudging the scope along, it felt a little like cheating, but I also realized that I’d never done a careful comparison between, say, M10 and M92, because I’d never gotten to observe them within 30 seconds of each other. That’s an epiphany I would never have had if I’d never used a GoTo scope. So I am looking forward to exploring the full ramifications of how this new tool will affect my observing.

My C8 meets its biggest sibling: a C14 EdgeHD.

Oh! I almost forgot to mention the Talentcell battery pack. MAN this thing just keeps going. I charged it to full on the day that it came in. Here’s what it’s been up to since then:

  • Sept. 9: 4.75 hours of tracking, in the garage, down to 4 out of 5 charge indicator lights by the end
  • Sept. 17: 3 hours of slewing and tracking
  • Sept. 19: 1.5 hours of slewing and tracking, down to 3 out of 5 charge indicator lights by the end
  • Sept. 20: 1.5 hours of slewing and tracking
  • Sept. 21: 3 hours of slewing and tracking, still showing 3 out of 5 charge indicator lights

I haven’t had a chance to run it since I got home, but so far it looks like it will run the scope for 4-5 hours per charge light, so possibly 20-25 hours of scope operation on a single charge. Very, very happy with this thing. Now that I know that it works and the mount works, I need to velcro them together so I can stop moving the battery pack around on the eyepiece rack while the telescope is slewing, to keep the scope from unplugging itself. Here’s that model again if you’re wanting one (link). I couldn’t be happier with mine.

Yes, that’s the Bresser Messier AR102S riding on the table-top mount from the SkyScanner 100, which is itself riding on the Bogen-Manfrotto tripod. Believe it or not, at that moment that was the most capable rig I could assemble in a hurry!

All too soon, my time in Oklahoma was over. I saw even more pronghorn on the way home, at least 119 in 14 groups between Black Mesa and Santa Fe. At one point, while checking out a group of four that resolutely refused to run away, I set up a scope, and got my best-yet photo of one of these beautiful and bizarre creatures:

I’ve seen a lot more deer than pronghorn over the years, more often, and usually up closer, and I’m always struck by how different pronghorn look from deer. Their bodies are more compact and their legs even skinnier, like furry bullets on sticks. You can tell at a glance that they are built for a completely different level of speed. Marvelous animals. Long may they reign.

Later that day I made an ugly discovery, after sunset when I was barreling down I-40 west of Flagstaff: smoke from the California wildfires. It made a distinct layer in the air, visible from many miles away, as you can see in the above photo. As I-40 plunges off the western edge of the Mogollon Plateau it was like submerging in gunk. Up top, I’d been able to see for dozens of miles; I first saw the San Francisco Peaks rearing above Flagstaff before I even got to Winslow, Arizona, 60 miles to the east. When I came down into the low desert, visibility shrank to just a few miles, and I realized that the smoky air was lapping at the edges of the high country like water at a rocky shore. Yuck.

As it turns out, my astronomical adventure was not quite over. I made it as far as Kingman, Arizona, before I decided to call it and find a place to spend the night. I pulled into the Maverick station off Andy Devine Blvd, just north of I-40, and got a wrap and some yogurt for a late dinner. I walked around as I ate, to stretch my legs, and I discovered a big empty lot south and east of the store, crisscrossed with tire tracks. The moon was out, and at first quarter it looked like it had been chopped in half with a katana. I drove the truck out onto the dirt, set up the Bresser AR102S on the hood, and had a look at the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. I didn’t spend long, only 15 minutes or so, but it was a nice coda to the trip.

What now? I’m back in SoCal, patiently waiting for the wildfires to subside, for the air to clear, and for it to get cool enough for London and I to go camping. I’m going to really enjoy having an 8-inch scope that doesn’t take up the entire back of the truck or require me to move 30-50 pounds at once. I’m going to enjoy having a scope that will track objects so I can sketch them. Who knows, I might actually get back to the Herschel 400.

And I’m going to miss Oklahoma. We had a pretty darned good run out there, despite the wind and the smoke. Reggie and Rachelle and company are already talking about turning our private star party into a yearly event, and I’m all for it. Many thanks to the two of them, to Jeff Hargrave, to Diane, Becky, James, Melissa, and Robert Newman, and to Noah Roberts for a fantastic visit. Clear skies, y’all, and keep looking up.

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Observing Report: SkyScanning on Mount Baldy

September 5, 2020

Backstory: from NEOWISE to Jupiter to the stars

Since I write a monthly column for Sky & Telescope, I can’t ever just quit observing (this is a good thing). But I do go through dry spells where I only observe enough to feed the column. Other times my observing ticks up, usually when something comes along to prod me into getting out more. In July it was comet NEOWISE, then last month it was seeing Jupiter and Saturn so big and bright in the southern sky, with Mars coming along close to midnight. At the same time, I was doing some unrelated sorting and straightening in our home office and I rediscovered some unfinished logbooks for observing projects–the Binocular Double Star and Galileo program logbooks for the Astronomical League (available here), and logbooks I put together for myself for Stephen James O’Meara’s Hidden Treasures and Secret Deep. One of the Galileo club projects is to observe Jupiter’s moons for 17 nights in a row, and use those observations to determine the orbits of the moons. This is a good time of year for such a survey, because we’re pretty much guaranteed 17 clear nights in a row.

For the Galileo club, there is no limit on aperture but there is on magnification: to count, observations have to be made at 20x or lower. My longest focal length eyepiece is the 32mm Plossl, so any scope with a focal length over 640mm is out. In practice that only disqualified the XT10 dob (1200mm) and Apex 127 Mak (1540mm). The C80ED just slipped in–with a focal length of 60mm, it gives 18.75x with the 32mm EP. In the end I made a few of the observations with that scope, and a few more with the little SV50 that I mounted side-saddle with the Apex 127, but my most-used scope for the Galilean moon survey was my serendipitously-purchased and much-modified SkyScanner 100. I didn’t have time for a big observing session every night, but I could grab the SkyScanner with one hand, plop it on the hood of the truck, and be on target in about as much time as it took to compose this sentence.

During this period I was also periodically faffing about with London’s 60mm Meade refractor, and also with the 80mm “reflactor” I nicknamed the Ferret (see this post). I need to do a full writeup on that scope soon. But the point for now is that over a span of about three weeks, I was using most of the scopes in my arsenal:

  • Apex 127 for high-power views of Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon, and Mars
  • C80ED, for the same targets
  • London’s 60mm Meade, for the same targets
  • SkyScanner, for low-power observations of Jupiter’s moons
  • SV50, for the same
  • the Ferret, for evaluation purposes

About the only scopes I didn’t haul out during this period were the XT10, Bresser AR102s, and Tasco/Vixen 9VR. The upshot is that I had the opportunity to compare the SkyScanner to a lot of other small scopes, of varying designs, apertures, and focal lengths. I kept coming back to the same thoughts:

  1. The SkyScanner pulls down a lot of light; 4″ is a formidable aperture for a 6-lb scope (with mount!) that is easily carried in one hand.
  2. The focal length is short, so magnification is limited, but the images are bright and the field of view is wide.
  3. With the collimation dialed in, and at the low magnifications I was using, the images were very sharp and contrasty.

Then I realized a few more things:

  1. These are all the same attributes I love about the Bresser AR102s–which is, for its aperture, the finest deep-sky scope I’ve ever owned–but in an even smaller package, capable of even wider fields.
  2. In four years of owning the SkyScanner, I’d mostly used it for quick peeks at bright stuff from the driveway, and I’d barely used it on the deep sky at all.
  3. Despite all my yapping about small scopes (exhibits A, B, C, and D, for starters), I’d never done a serious observing program with one.

Clearly, I needed to get the SkyScanner out to a dark site and spend some time chasing DSOs. A Messier survey seemed like just the ticket, to get a handle on the capabilities of the scope, and to ease myself back into deep-sky work. Also, although I look at the best-and-brightest Messiers almost every time I’m out, the lion’s share of my Messier observations have been made in the spring, in preparation for or during a Messier Marathon. It would be nice to reacquaint myself with those objects at a different time of year.

A Perfectly Imperfect Start

Normally for deep-sky work I’d head to the desert, someplace like Anza-Borrego Desert State Park or Afton Canyon if I wanted super-dark skies, or Owl Canyon or the Salton Sea for convenient, decently-dark skies. But it’s hotter than two hells in SoCal right now–out at Owl Canyon this weekend, it’s still going to be 86F at midnight. Even here on Mount Baldy the nighttime low was supposed to be 75F, but that’s at least doable, and I’ve done plenty of observing from Cow Canyon Saddle and Glendora Ridge Road. It would work. Except that when I got up there last night, Glendora Ridge Road was closed because of the extreme fire danger, because of the extreme heat and the fact that it’s the middle of our dry season.

Oh well, no worries, I know of a couple of turnouts that are deep enough that I could set up 50-100 feet from the road, and put the scope on the far side of the truck to block most of the headlights. So I went to one of those and got all set up: SkyScanner on a tripod, binoculars to hand, charts and logbook on a folding table, plenty of water and snacks.

Then the moon came up.

Normally for deep-sky work I’d head out near the dark of the moon, but the fact is, I was impatient. So I decided to go out last night, knowing that the waning gibbous moon would rise at some point, but figuring that between the transparent mountain air, local hilltops and ridgelines to put me in shadow, and the fact that moon is waning, I’d be okay. Then I spent too much time messing around at the house, and I didn’t actually get set up on the mountain until 10:15, about 3 hours after sunset and a full hour and a half after astronomical twilight. The moon was already lighting up the ridgeline to the west, and before midnight it had crested the ridge to the east, and was falling directly on me. I could almost read the charts without a flashlight.

I had to laugh, because my very first observing session using a SkyScanner was with Doug Rennie back in 2012, when we’d been out 3 nights after the full moon. It was the same this time, almost to the minute: the full moon had been at 10:22 PM on September 1. But I was also encouraged, because Doug and I had a great time then chasing DSOs under a bright sky with a small scope. Would I be able to replicate that success?

Aside: Training the Eye vs Stressing Over Gear

Also, in general, my observing philosophy is “go for it”. Amateur astronomers can be a neurotic lot, agonizing over setups and field of view and light throughput and a thousand mechanical and behavioral minutiae to squeeze every last photon out of every last carefully-deployed dollar of gear–I know, because that’s what about half the posts on this blog are about. But there is also freedom in setting all of that aside, being grateful for optics that Galileo or Messier would have eaten their own legs off to get hold of, and just looking. So the conditions are imperfect. So your optics are suboptimal, cheap or small or chintzy or some combination of the above. What’s better, observing, or not observing? The astronomy police aren’t going to come lock you up for doing it wrong. Some of my most memorable observing sessions have happened with suboptimal gear under suboptimal conditions, which raises the question of what “suboptimal” even means in this case. Did you see stuff in the sky? Did you have fun, or find the experience educational or rewarding, or get to share it with another human being? Good enough.

Before someone misunderstands my point, I’m not saying just run out and buy any old things. As I’ve said about choosing vs using binoculars, there are loads of things you can and should consider when you purchase an observing instrument. But if you’re going out to observe, use whatever you have to hand. Don’t worry about its quality, get out there under the stars and let it show you what it can do.

A couple of quotes come to mind here. One is something I read some time ago on Cloudy Nights. I thought I had it saved somewhere, but to my immense irritation, I can’t find it at the moment, so I don’t know who said it or when. Nevertheless, it went something like this:

“I realized that most serious observers go after objects that are near the limits of their instruments. Even for a small telescope, that is hundreds or thousands of objects. And I’ve been happily pursuing small-scope observing ever since.”

EDIT: Of course, within about an hour of posting this, I’d found the quote–in one of my own previous posts! The post of mine is “Big fish with light tackle“, the quote was from CN user blb, originally posted here, and here’s what he actually wrote, quoted at a bit more length:

“No matter what size telescope you use, it seems that you are looking at objects that are on the limits of what can be seen with that size scope. Once I realized this and read, some years ago now, what Jay Reynolds Freeman had to say about his observations, I came to realize there were way more objects to be seen in a small telescope than I would probably see in my lifetime. Having come to this realization I made a list of the galaxies that could be seen in a small scope. I included all the Messier, Caldwell, Herschel 400, those listed in Stephen O’Meara’s books, and a few more that others said were possible to see and you know what? Given dark skies and good dark adaption using averted vision, tube tapping, heavy breathing and all the tricks a good deep sky observer uses, there were well over 600 galaxies that could be seen. Now that does not include globular clusters, open clusters, planetary nebula, bright nebula, reflection nebula and dark nebula. What about double stars? There are over 10,000 that can be seen in a 4-inch telescope, most of which are seldom observed. Now add to all that the ease of portability, setup, and use, you see why I have used primarily these two small telescopes the past couple of years.”

The other is from Stephen James O’Meara’s introduction to Walter Scott Houston’s Deep Sky Wonders:

“Scotty had a light touch and avoided being distracted by technical details. You don’t find any invidious comparisons of different telescope or eyepiece brands in his writing or much about the nitty-gritty of equipment at all, because Scotty knew that the most important piece of equipment was the eye, and its training the most important activity; all else was trivial by comparison. Time wasted arguing the virtues of one eyepiece over another was time not spent honing your observing skills.”

Heck yeah. Let’s go misuse a telescope!

The SkyScanner Messier Survey, Part 1

So there I was, set up on a dusty highway turnout, bathed in moonlight, about to go chase Messier objects with a scope that actually would fit in a breadbox. I didn’t want to mess with my whole eyepiece case so I’d just taken five:

  1. a 32mm Plossl for max field of view;
  2. a 28mm RKE because it’s my favorite;
  3. a 17mm Kellner I found in a box of miscellaneous astro-junk and have been evaluating;
  4. a 12mm Plossl that is wonderfully clear and sharp;
  5. and a Celestron 8-24mm zoom.

However, very quickly after I started observing I narrowed down to just two: the 28mm RKE, which gives 14.3x and a true field of just over 3 degrees, and the 12mm Plossl, for 33x and about 1.6 degrees. I don’t have a magnifying finder for this scope, and the moon was wiping out a lot of the dimmer stars, so my usual program was to use a green laser pointer to get the scope on a bright star, then star-hop from there.

And now, finally, on to my observations, mostly verbatim from my logbook. Times are indicated here and there, whenever I remembered to check. Scorpius and Sagittarius were still up when I started, but squarely in the light dome over the Inland Empire. I’d scanned them with 7×50 binos and seen nothing, and I didn’t try with the scope. Instead, I turned to the west, to catch some things before they set.

M13 – an easy catch at 14x, didn’t try at 33x. (10:45 PM)

M92 – same.

M57 – visible in averted vision at 12x with 32mm Plossl, a bit easier at 14x in 28mm RKE, easy and with a hint of donut-osity at 33x with 12mm Plossl.

M56 – visible at 14x, better at 33x.

M71 – barely there at 33x. Suspected in 28mm RKE, though. (11:20 PM)

M27 – easy in 28mm RKE even in these skies. Need to do some comparison tests from home.

M29 – easy catch in downtown Cygnus.

M39 – very easy.

Then I got up, walked around, drank some water and some caffeine, and sat on a boulder to eat a snack. Breaks like that are important in a long session. When I got back to the scope, it was time to head north.

M52 – suffering under this moonlight. Suspected at 14x, confirmed at 33x.

M31 – MUCH reduced, basically down to just the core, but the core was easy.

M32 – suspected as a fuzzy star at 14x, confirmed at 33x.

I didn’t even try for M110, it really suffers under any light pollution, including that of the moon. Instead, I tried for M76. I got to the right field, but I could see nothing at 14x. I suspected it at 33x, barely, maybe, but not enough to count it. We’ll have a rematch under better conditions.

M103 – surprisingly easy at 14x, but still not a nice as nearby NGC 663.

Here I spent some time using the Double Cluster, Trumpler 2, and the Alpha Persei Association to star-hop to M34.

M34 – big, bright, detailed, easy, even at low magnification.

At that point I’d gotten all the easy northern ones. The Pleiades were not quite up yet, on account of a close hill to the east. Instead, I turned south.

M11 – probably the worst view of it I have ever had, but it was there, at both 14x and 33x.

M15 – dead easy at 14x, even with the moon behind me shining right into the eyepiece when I move my head.

M2 – bright, easy, maybe even easier than M15. Have I been neglecting a great glob just because it’s kind of a pain in Messier Marathon season? I repeated the star hop from M15 to M2 with the 7×50 binos and again thought that M2 was a little easier catch. Definitely going to have to spend more time with this object. (1:15 AM)

On the star-hop from Sadalsuud (Beta Aquarii) to M73 and M72, I stopped at NGC 7009, the Saturn Nebula. It was visible at 14x but I had to go up to 33x to confirm that it was non-stellar.

At 1:30 I happened to be glancing at the ridgeline to the west when I saw a very bright meteor going past Saturn, from northwest to southeast. It was a fireball, and as I watched it visibly broke up into a handful of gradually-diverging chunks that individually flamed out and went dark. It was easily the best meteor I’d seen in years.

M73 – kinda stupid, since it’s just 4 stars, but not that hard. Spotted easily at 14x, but had to go to 33x to confirm that it was non-stellar.

I tried hard to get M72. I was dead on and using every trick in the book, including cupping my hands around my observing eye to bock stray light and breathing deeply, but I could only barely suspect it at 33x, and not well enough to count it. It was way down in the murk over LA and the Inland Empire. I could see the mag 9.3 star next door, but not the mag 9.4 cluster. Sometimes visibility hinges on such tiny increments (that, and the fact that the cluster’s light is distributed across its face, leading to an even lower surface brightness).

M30 – could not see it at 14x, then it was easy at 33x, and then when I went back to 14x it was tough but doable; I just needed to know where to look.

I went after M75 and after star-hopping across literally the entire constellation of Capricornus I found that it had just set–I missed it by 2 degrees, or 8 stinkin’ minutes.

Enough chasing tough stuff in the southern sky. Taurus and Auriga were up, so…

M45 – awesome, even in these bright skies. Nicely framed at 14x.

M38 – same story as M30. Could see nothing at 14x. At 33x, the cluster was not just easy, but partially resolved, with its characteristic duck’s-foot shape. Once I knew exactly where to look, I could catch it at 14x–barely.

M36 – obvious, big, even partly resolved at 14x. Great at 33x.

M37 – faint but there at 14x, as a hazy patch. Wonderful at 33x: partially resolved in direct vision, with many more stars momentarily popping into view in averted vision.

M35 – very large. Not super-obvious at 14x, but it was there. Highly resolved and quite beautiful at 33x.

Tried for M1, could not get it at any magnification. (2:49 AM)

Spent some time looking at the Moon and Mars. Mars was a tiny bright dot at 33x, with no details visible, but I didn’t feel like getting a more powerful eyepiece. The Moon looked great. I love moon-gazing at low magnification, when the whole disk fits in the field of view with plenty of space around it. It looks like a world–which, of course, it is.

The Stingray asterism, which includes the open cluster Collinder 65, traced on chart 7 from the Beginner’s Star Atlas; the latter is a free download here.

I went back to the Pleiades for what was going to be my last look before I packed up, but then I noticed that Orion was very slowly climbing over the ridgeline to the east. I cruised along the local horizon and observed Bellatrix, the Orion OB-1a association (in the vicinity of 21, 23, and 25 Orionis), Meissa, and the Stingray asterism I wrote about in the January 2018 Binocular Highlight column. Which reminds me, I should blog about a few things: Allan Dystrup’s “Classic Rich Field” posts on Cloudy Nights (here), the Beginner’s Star Atlas (here), and about the asterisms I’ve written up for Sky & Tel (uh, in the pages of Sky & Tel).

While I was waiting for Orion’s Sword to come over the hill, I got up to walk around a bit and get some circulation going. Coming back I was startled to see a large animal move out into the moonlight just 50 feet away. It was between me and the Moon, so it was just a pool of black shadow casting a smaller black shadow on the ground, but it was big. I froze. There are bears on Mount Baldy, and mountain lions. I tensed, preparing to either run for the car or at least grab the folding chair to defend myself. I needed to know what this thing was. I reached up and flipped on my headlamp, which goes red first, then to bright white light if you keep pushing the button. The red light came on and I saw two red eyes shining right back at me. Gulp! Then the white light came on and I saw that it was just a deer. Whew! My heart was still pounding. I switched the light off to stop inconveniencing the deer. It didn’t spook, and in fact it spent a few minutes just walking around out in the open, stopping to nibble a tuft of grass or a low bush now and then. The wind had died down for a moment, and the night was so quiet that I could hear its hooves softly clattering on the rocks as it walked. I felt an utterly unexpected rush of embarrassment–not because I had gotten scared, it’s perfectly sane to be alarmed when you realize there is a large animal close to you in the dark–but because I was suddenly aware that I was on the deer’s turf. It was supposed to be there, I was the interloper. So I stayed still until it wandered off.

The sky had still been turning overhead while I watched the deer–or, more accurately, the Earth had been spinning eastward, carrying me with it–and Orion’s Sword was almost over the ridgeline. I sat down at the scope and did something I can’t remember ever having done before: I watched through the eyepiece as the Orion Nebula rose over the local horizon, at 3:20 AM. The wind had come back up, and the seeing was particularly ragged in the east. I could only get 3 members of the Trapezium at 33x. I checked and I was seeing M43 as well as M42. I tried for M78 but it was a no-go. I went back to the Belt and Sword for one last look, and shut down.

Taking Stock

I set up at 10:15 PM, started the Messier observations at 10:45, and continued in that mode for 5 hours, including breaks. During that time I logged an even 25 Messier objects. I got to the right field for five others–M76, M72, M110, M1, and M78–but couldn’t see them under the conditions I had. Along the way I also observed 3 meteors, the Moon, 3 planets, 7 double stars, and 14 non-Messier DSOs, for a total of 53 objects. It was my longest observing session since the Messier Marathon in April, 2019.

The SkyScanner rocked. When I couldn’t see certain objects, I knew it was the skies, not the scope. Many objects looked fantastic despite the moonlight–the open clusters M34, M35, M37, and M45 stand out. I had never before caught the dwarf galaxy M32 in such bright conditions. Yeah, the moon was a pain, but that just meant I had to push my observing skills a little, and it made the tough catches that much sweeter. I found a few new things to write about for Sky & Tel, saw a fantastic meteor, and had a close encounter with the local wildlife. All in all, a wonderful observing session, good for the mind and the soul.

I’m going to finish the Messier survey with the SkyScanner. It’s a splendid Messier hunter–easy to use, wide field of view, and sharp enough to dial in on the tricky ones. It’s one of my favorite scopes, and easily the one I’ve recommended the most times to people thinking about a first scope. For 100 bucks you get a capable, convenient instrument. If you hate it, at least you gave observing a fair shake, and you’re not out much (compared to other available options). If you love it, it can keep you busy for a long time–potentially for a lifetime, depending on your interests–and it’s a great grab-n-go scope if you move up to a bigger instrument. It’s not perfect–I hacked the heck out of mine to make it work like I wanted it to–but I think it is probably unbeatable in terms of capability per dollar. I’m glad circumstances conspired to make me finally get one, and I expect to get many more nights of enjoyment out of it.

Until next time, keep ‘Scanning!

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Hideously belated observing report: Mercury transit on November 11, 2019

August 22, 2020

Not a ton to say about this other than that we saw it. London was home from school for Veteran’s Day. It was sunny, warm, and bright, and neither of us fancied spending a ton of time standing in the sun, so we limited ourselves to a few quick peeks rather than continuous observation.

About the only notable thing about the transit was our observing rig, which is probably the redneckest job I ever threw together. Most of my good gear was packed away at the back of the garage and I didn’t fancy digging it out, so I taped a pair of cardboard eclipse glasses over the front of the SkyScanner 100 to create a subaperture mask, taped some spare cardboard from a torn-up Amazon box over that to block all the filter-less areas, and set the whole rig on our green-waste bin. It was decidedly low-tech, but not as sketchy as it sounds–I taped everything very securely to the tube so none of it could fall off, because the risk of direct, unfiltered sunlight through a scope is nothing to joke about. Then London and I took turns shading each other’s faces so we wouldn’t be squinting against the sun while we observed.

I didn’t take any pictures, we just watched the crisp little BB of Mercury drift across the face of the sun. The “lenses” of the solar glasses are about an inch in diameter, so basically we turned the 100mm f/4 system into a 25mm f/16 system, and a light cone that long is pretty forgiving. Which reminds me, I’ve just been reading about people experiencing a pseudo-3D “marble” effect when viewing the moon through telescopes of 40mm aperture or less. I should make a 40mm aperture mask for my C80ED and see if I get that effect.

Anyway, thus ended the transits of the twenty-teens. I was fortunate to catch them all: the Venus transit on June 5, 2012 (observing report), one Mercury transit on May 9, 2016 (observing report), and this second Mercury transit on November 11, 2019. The next Mercury transits won’t be until the 2030s: November 13, 2032 (I’ll be 57), and November 7, 2039 (64). Then 2049 and 2052, 2062 and 2065, and 2078. I’ll be 103 if I make it to that last one. The next Venus transit won’t be until 2117, 142 years after my birth, so barring some kind of technological miracle I don’t reckon I’ll be seeing another. It was a privilege to see the one that I did.

Now transit season is over for a bit over a decade, so we’ll have to find other things to keep busy with. Fortunately the sky has much to offer. Stay tuned.

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Hideously belated observing report: another Messier Marathon at the Salton Sea (from April 2019)

August 16, 2020

Although you’d never know it from the complete dearth of posting from October, 2018, to last month, I neither died nor gave up stargazing. I even had some pretty cool experiences, I just didn’t summon the energy to blog about them. I’m now going to engage in some retrospective pothole-filling, starting with my 6th and most recent Messier Marathon.

Terry getting his 5″ f/8 Meade reflector set up for an evening of deep-sky observing.

Terry Nakazono had gotten in touch and we decided to make a run to the Salton Sea on the evening of Saturday, April 6, 2019. After logging over 2000 deep-sky objects with telescopes of 4.5″ and smaller, Terry had finally allowed himself to indulge and had moved up to his 5″ f/8 Meade reflector, which he had mounted on an AZ4 alt-az.

I was feeling lazy and didn’t want to dig a bunch of gear out of the back of the garage, so I brought London’s XT4.5, which is just an astoundingly comfortable and convenient scope. It normally sits near the front of the garage and these days it probably gets hauled out more than all the other scopes we own combined, just because it’s so quick and gives such good views. If London takes it with him when he moves away someday, I will definitely get one for myself. You can see it here on the homemade stand I made for it a few years ago, to get it up to a comfortable height for seated observing.

I wanted to do a Messier Marathon, but April 6 is getting right to the end of the season, so I figured I’d have some trouble with the early evening objects like M74 and M77. In the actual event, it was way worse: between the light pollution from LA, Palm Springs, and Indio, some clouds in the northwestern sky, and some trees in that direction, I missed not only M74 and M77 but also the Andromeda galaxy (M31) and its satellites M32 and M110, as well as M33. So I started the marathon six objects down out of 110, and the best I’d be able to do if everything else went smoothly was 104 Messiers. Still, I figured what the heck, I’d done my first three marathons (linked here) without getting that many, and there was no shame in ending over 100, especially if I had an enjoyable night under the stars doing it. So I went for it.

How’d it go? Other than losing those six galaxies at the start, it was my easiest marathon ever. I had the Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas and the Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide, a handwritten checklist (like my other last-minute Marathon, back in 2013), my favorite 7×50 binos, and a super-convenient scope. I only used 3 eyepieces: a 32mm Plossl for max FOV, a 28mm RKE, and a 12mm Plossl, which in the XT4.5 yielded 28x, 32x, and 75x, respectively. Once I was rolling, I used the 28mm RKE almost exclusively. The reputation of this legendary eyepiece is well-earned; for the kind of relaxed, low-power deep-sky work I prefer it is unparalleled. All the gear just sort of disappeared and I was cruising through the sky, having fun and enjoying a beautiful night out under the stars.

The dark horse: London’s XT4.5. The white knight: Terry’s 5″ f/8 Meade. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

A highlight of the evening was rocking through the Virgo-Coma galaxies. Ever since my first marathon, way back in 2010, I have always tracked how long it takes me to get through this area. That first time out it took an hour and a half, but I hadn’t logged many Messiers at that point so it was my first time seeing most of them. The next year it only took me 23 minutes, and since then it’s never taken me more than 17 or 18 minutes. My record is 16 minutes, set in 2011 with binos only, and I tied that this time out with the scope.

Our chariots to the stars. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

I knocked off at 11:30 with 64 objects logged, and slept until 3:00–easily my longest and most relaxing mid-Marathon break. I was back at the scope at 3:10 to log M57, and from then on it was smooth sailing through the morning objects. I set a new record for myself in the Sagittarius/Scutum area, logging 13 objects in 6 minutes. And honestly, a good chunk of that time was just writing them down. Once you know the positions of the objects, you can basically just sweep the scope or binos across the area and count them off as you go.

How I roll in the middle of the night: atlases and logbook on a folding table, water bottle on the ground where it’s not taking up valuable real estate. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

For the last few objects, I was basically waiting for them to crawl over the eastern horizon. Here are the times for the final five:

  • M72, 4:14 AM
  • M73, 4:15
  • M2, 4:17
  • M15, 4:20
  • M30, 4:50

Yes, I got M30, the squirrelly devil, and finished with a total of 104 objects, having bagged every single Messier beyond those six starting galaxies. In the long downtime between M15 and M30 I looked in on Jupiter and Saturn, and after the Marathon was over I plinked around in the summer constellations, checking out NGC objects until about 5:20, when the sky was getting bright. Then I hit the sack and slept for another four hours.

My log, handwritten in a Field Notes 4.75″x7.5″ notebook.

Thoughts afterward? More than any previous Marathon, this one was just fun. Maybe because I knew right out of the gate that I wasn’t going to break my previous Messier Marathon total (108 objects, in 2013 and 2016), I just relaxed and had a blast cruising around the sky. I’ve done enough Messier Marathons now that the process feels familiar, and it’s nice looking in on objects that (full confession) I don’t often check in on otherwise (looking at you, M73).

The secret to sleeping in late in the desert is to park the vehicle perpendicular to the rising sun and put your cots on the west side. That’s me sacked out closest to the truck, sleeping like a baby after a successful Marathon. Photo by Terry Nakazono.

Of course, I’m still hungry to log all 110 in one night. I think I might need even darker skies and better horizons than the Salton Sea, so I am seriously considering hauling myself eastward for the All-Arizona Messier Marathon. Maybe next spring, if this damned pandemic ever subsides.

Many thanks to Terry Nakazono for being a sterling observing buddy, and for taking many of these photos and giving me permission to post them. Until next time!

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Comet NEOWISE

July 18, 2020

I’ve been out to see the comet a couple of times now. Tuesday evening London and I went to the top of the parking garage in Claremont and caught the comet in binoculars and London’s monocular. Then yesterday evening London and I went up Glendora Ridge Road with some friends. Cow Canyon Saddle was packed so we drove another mile and a half down the road and found an empty turnout. Got up there about 8:40, spotted the comet right away with binoculars and then a minute later with naked eyes, and it just kept getting better until about 10:00 when it went behind the mountains. I did some pen sketches in my notebook while we were up there, and this digital sketch after I got back home.

If you haven’t seen the comet yet, it’s only getting better and easier now. The comet is getting higher in the sky every evening, and so far it’s staying quite bright. As the comet climbs up out of the near-horizon murk, it becomes relatively brighter against the darkening sky.

NEOWISE path traced in Stellarium - large

Here’s a chart for the next week that I whipped up using a screenshot from Stellarium (link) and finder charts from Sky & Telescope (here, here, and here)–irritatingly, some of the S&T finders don’t show many stars, and the big one that does show lots of stars lops off the Big Dipper, which is the most important celestial landmark for finding the comet right now.

NEOWISE path traced in Stellarium - bright

EDIT: only after seeing the published version of the post on the screen did I realize that the lines on my chart are pretty darned subtle. Here’s a brighter version, and below I added an inverted version for easy printing.

NEOWISE path traced in Stellarium - invert

The best tool for casual comet-watching is a pair of binoculars. Whatever you have will work. If you need suggestions on things to keep in mind when buying binoculars, see this post (link), and for recommendations on specific models, see this one (link). Why binoculars and not a telescope? First, the comet is large–the tail spans several degrees of sky. Very few scopes have a wide enough field of view to fit it all in. Because the comet is so large, you don’t need a lot of magnification–in fact, in questionable skies too much magnification can hurt, by spreading out the light of the comet and making it look less impressive. What you really need is low magnification and a wide field of view, and binoculars are perfect for that.

(If you have a scope, by all means haul it out and put it on that comet! It does look great in a scope. But if you don’t have a scope, don’t feel like you have to run out and buy one to get good views of the comet. Buying a scope in a rush is not usually a recipe for success, and binoculars will do fine here. If you are bound and determined to get a scope, I have some recommendations here [link].)

Happy hunting!

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A planetary observing run on Mount Baldy

August 2, 2018

Last night I went up to Cow Canyon Saddle with some fellow PVAA members and other friends, for an informal star party. Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars are nicely lined up along the ecliptic right now, so we went to take a look.

I was rolling with London’s XT4.5 dob and my Apex 127 Mak. I hadn’t gotten the Apex out in a little over a year, and it was nice to confirm that it’s still in fighting trim.

Me, not so much. It was my first session with a scope – any scope – out in months, and I was a little scattered. I had to rifle through three bags to find my good diagonal, and it took three attempts to get out of the house with both my phone and my headlamp. The rustiness even extended to the sky. Normally I can get most of the good stuff using memory and dead reckoning, but I had to haul out an atlas to remember how to get to M81/M82 and M11. Sad!

I got up to Cow Canyon Saddle a little after sunset. Amanda and Ron Spencer and their kids were already set up, checking out Jupiter with their 90mm refractor. Ludd Trozpek was there, too, with a 10-inch dob. My friends and WesternU colleagues Thierra Nalley and Jeremiah Scott arrived a few minutes later.

Thierra, Jeremiah, and I started in Venus, which is in a half-full phase right now. We quickly moved on to Jupiter and then Saturn. Mars hadn’t cleared the mountains to the east so we spent some time running up the magnification on Saturn. The seeing was phenomenal. We put the 8.8mm ES82 in the Apex 127 for 175x and Saturn looked like it was nailed to the wall. We put in the 5mm Meade 100-degree and at 308x the seeing was visible, not as the usual small-scale shimmers, but as an occasional wave of distortion washing over the whole field of view, as if we were viewing Saturn through a thin film of water with a low ripple now and then. In my experience, nights on which I can push past 300x are few and far between, so we got pretty darned lucky.

Enough about the eyepieces and the conditions. The planets looked unreal. Even at low power, Saturn’s Cassini Division was easy and crisp, as if it had been punched out of the disc of the rings with a metal press. At higher power, the shadow of the rings on the planet and the shadow of the planet on the rings were equally stark. And the planet itself was striped with pastel bands of salmon and cream. We had no problem holding any of these details in direct vision. As always, it was a kick in the brainpan to be reminded that while I’ve been going about my little business on this little planet, Saturn has been doing its own thing out there, 800 million miles away: regal, immanent, undeniable. We caught Rhea and Titan, too, but failed to spot the other moons.

Jupiter was only slightly overshadowed by its smaller sibling. The King of Planets was wrapped in dozens of belts and zones, down to the limit of vision, with the four Galilean moons neatly arrayed to either side.

Of course, we had gone up in large part to look at Mars, and see if we could detect any details through the nearly-global dust storm. When Mars cleared the mountains to the east, it was instantly the brightest thing in the sky. Even Jupiter looked wan compared to the red planet. I think every scope on the mountain was aimed at Mars within the first minute. The seeing may have been good up high, but Mars was fairly boiling in the near-horizon turbulence. Still, we could see the north polar cap immediately.

We decided to let Mars climb up out of the murk, so we switched to the deeper sky for a while. Lyra was almost at the zenith and Epsilon Lyrae was an easy split at 175x in the Apex 127. We spent some time with the Ring Nebula while we were in that neighborhood, then swung north to catch M81 and M82 before they got too low. Then it was back to the band of the Milky Way to pick up M11, the Wild Duck Cluster (after the aforementioned faffing about) and Albireo.

We went back to Mars and the view in clear air was vastly improved. The north polar cap was steady, and we caught fleeting hints of detail elsewhere on the planet. I don’t think that was all imagination – the most recent Hubble images show some of the dark features in the southern hemisphere starting to emerge through the dust. We had fun, both with the observing and with teasing each other about Percival Lowell, canals, and Tharks.

Jeremiah had been keeping an eye on Cassiopeia as it rose in the northwest, and I was casting frequent looks in that direction as well. A little after 10:00 the Double Cluster finally cleared the local horizon and we got a nice look at 48x in the Apex 127 (as low as that scope goes, using the trusty 32mm Plossl). Our final object was the heart asterism around Sadr at the center of Cygnus, which I wrote about for the Binocular Highlight column in the July issue of Sky & Tel.

The Spencers had departed before we looked at the Double Cluster, and Thierra and Jeremiah left after Sadr. Ludd and I finished the session with a few minutes of binocular observing. He had along a recent acquisition: a WWII-vintage Sard 6×42 with a true field of 11.9 degrees. It’s a legendary instrument that lives up to the legend. The first thing you notice when you pick them up is that they’re heavy – there’s a lot of glass in there. That’s in part because the prisms are huge. Unlike some modern binos that skimp on prisms, the Sards have prisms that are if anything maybe a little oversized. The eye lenses are also immense. It’s not just a lot of glass, it’s good glass, as I could tell as soon as I looked through them. It’s not sharp to the edge – stars take on interesting shapes in the outer 25% or so of the field – but it is impressively sharp over a huge true field, with excellent clarity. It was an interesting experience, looking at all of the constellation Lyra at one time. Cassiopeia almost fits – you can see all but one of the stars at either end of the W/3/M. Ludd reports that under darker skies, the Sards are a wonderful tool for scanning the Milky Way. They’ve re-fired my occasional interest in low-power, super-wide-angle binos. If anything comes of that, you’ll hear it here first.

So, all in all a fantastic observing session, with some of the best views of Jupiter and Saturn that I’ve ever had. I should do this more often.

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Observing report: InSight Delta V launch from Vandenberg

May 5, 2018

The InSight Delta V rising above the western horizon as seen from Claremont. Composite of three raw iPhone 7 shots.

This morning at 4:05 AM PDT, a United Launch Alliance Delta V rocket blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, carrying the InSight lander to Mars. For the first time ever for a Vandenberg launch, London and I got up to see it. We went to the top of the 1st Street parking garage in downtown Claremont.

I’d only ever seen one rocket launch before, another Vandenberg launch back in 2010. But I was at the All-Arizona Star Party for that one, so all I saw was a little red spark cruising along the western horizon. Not bad for being 400 miles away, but it didn’t give me a sense of what to expect from here, where we’re still 170 miles out as the crow flies.

The InSight Delta V passing Jupiter as seen from Claremont. Composite of five raw iPhone 7 shots. Trajectory line added in GIMP.

I needn’t have worried – it was extremely cool. The rocket exhaust was easily visible to the naked eye, rivaling Jupiter in brightness. London said he could see the plume of fire as an extended object. His eyes are noticeably sharper than mine and I don’t doubt it. I couldn’t make that out with my own eyes, but it was dead easy in binoculars, and even my phone captured the exhaust plume as a little inverted teardrop of fire. I assembled these composites of the rocket lifting above the western horizon and then flying past Jupiter just a few minutes later, right before main engine cut-off. We saw a brief flare as the second stage lit, but it’s a much smaller engine and it rapidly disappeared from view.

I have to thank PVAA newsletter coordinator Claire Stover for putting me onto the Launch Alert mailing list, which sends updates about upcoming launches. There’s a Falcon 9 set to lift off from Vandenberg in a couple of weeks, on May 19. I think that will be a daylight launch, so I don’t know what to expect in terms of visibility. I’ll keep you posted.

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Observing Report: Owl Canyon Campground

April 15, 2018

Last night I got to scratch some long-standing itches. I hadn’t been out for an all-nighter in a long time, hadn’t had a long solo observing session in over a year, and hadn’t been to Owl Canyon since October, 2015.

It wasn’t supposed to be a solo session. London and I had not been camping since our February trip up the coast to see elephant seals with Brian Engh, so we’d been looking forward to getting out into the desert together. But just before we were supposed to leave, London’s allergies started acting up. We basically didn’t get a winter – March was the only month since last spring that temperatures didn’t hit 90F here, and it did get up to the high 80s, so pollen loads have been way high this season. Air quality was predicted to be even worse at Barstow than it was at home, so London decided to stay home and keep Vicki company.

I got out to the campground at 7:00 straight up, had camp set up by 7:20, and then had time to sit and watch the stars come out. I saw Venus first, at 7:37, then Sirius, Procyon, and Castor and Pollux in short order. There are brighter stars farther west, namely Capella, but it was down in the fading sunset glow. I took a break to have a snack, and by the time I was back, Orion and the Pleiades and Hyades were out.

Unfortunately, so were a few bugs. I used to use a Thermacell insect repellent, and it works well in still conditions. But in my experience, if there’s even a hint of a breeze, the protective bubble put up by the Thermacell tends to fall apart. Plus it requires some tending, and reloads aren’t free. About three years ago I discovered this no-DEET eucalyptus-based repellent and I use it every time I go out. It will wear off after a few hours, but it’s easy to reapply. I do squirts on my wrists, back and front of the neck, and ears, and if the bugs are really nasty, on my forehead and the backs of my hands. This stuff works, and I’ve been using it long enough that the smell of it conjures expectations of wild places and dark skies.

I’ve started writing out some goals at the start of each long observing session. Given the number of things I do – teach, serve on committees, mentor current students and interview incoming ones, do research, write, publish, travel, play games, spend time with family and friends – you might think I’d be an organized observer. The truth is that even at my best I am almost hilariously disorganized when it comes to observing projects, or even keeping up interest and momentum in a given thing over the course of an evening. I suppose that’s why I like the Astronomical League’s observing programs so much, and why I dig Messier Marathons: both activities give me some much-needed direction.

Anyway, writing out some observing goals at the start of each session gives me some directions in which to focus, and also provides some alternative paths if I get bored with whatever I’m doing. My goals for last night were:

  1. Enjoy the night sky! As I said above, it had been a long time since I’d had a nice long, unhurried session in which to unwind. Observing is my sanity break.
  2. Check on a few old Binocular Highlight targets. I try to get out and re-observe each thing before I write it up for Sky & Tel, but sometimes life intervenes and I have to roll using my old observing notes. That’s not ideal and it gives me hives. I really like to go back and check on published targets and make sure I haven’t pushed any duds.
  3. Find new Binocular Highlight targets. The beast gets hungry once a month and it has to be fed. And in truth it’s a joy – finding things to write about pushes me into parts of the sky I haven’t explored, and I regularly discover wonderful things that broaden my experience and enjoyment of the night sky.
  4. Mini Messier Marathon. I didn’t get to do a full Marathon this year – I was traveling on the most promising weekend. So I thought I’d scratch that itch by doing a partial Messier run. It’s a good way to hone skills, put equipment through its paces, and re-learn the positions of a few of the more obscure objects.
  5. Binocular double stars. I have been working on this AL observing program since 2013! The trouble is that I tend to forget about it for months at a time. Last year I passed 40 objects on my way to the required 50, so I knew I was within striking distance.

I was rolling with what has become my default setup: the Bresser AR102s and the 7×50 binos that came with it. For eyepieces I used the Edmund 28mm RKE, switching to the 8.8mm ES82 for a few difficult targets. I also had along my trusty Celestron Skymaster 15×70 binos, which came in handy on a few things. Pretty simple: one scope, two eyepieces, and two binos. It was enough.

I started with a run through the Messiers and bright NGCs in Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga, Taurus, Gemini, Orion, Canis Major, and Puppis. These are mostly areas I’ve covered in Sky & Tel articles now, so I can run and gun mostly from memory. I did slow down a bit to check out some of the Trumpler and Collinder clusters, and I popped in the higher-magnification eyepiece to spend some quality time with the Messier clusters in Auriga and Gemini.

I also spent some time chasing artificial satellites. I caught one going almost due west – it passed between the open clusters M46 and M47 while I was comparing them. I chased it for a full four minutes, from Puppis to Monoceros, Orion, Gemini, and Taurus to Auriga, where it flew through through the larger of the two “waves” of stars in the middle of the pentagon and then faded out at the western edge. I can’t really explain that – going west, the satellite should have gotten brighter, not dimmer. It was getting pretty low in the sky at it’s possible I lost it from atmospheric extinction rather it going into shadow, which seems geometrically impossible. I tracked another heading north-northeast in a polar orbit and tracked it for three minutes. At that angle, it crossed into Earth’s shadow very gradually. From the time I first noticed it dimming, it took almost a full minute to disappear.

I caught a few shooting stars over the course of the evening. One zipped through my eyepiece field, but the other three that I saw were all naked-eye visible. The last once, well after midnight, left a brief glowing trail in the sky.

By 10:45 I had logged 30+ DSOs and I was getting restless. I had no enthusiasm for the springtime galaxies. Instead, I hauled out my Bino Double Star logbook, which has been out with me on most observing sessions since the fall of 2013, although I’d only used it on seven previous nights and almost always from the driveway at home. I switched over to bino doubles and they drove my observing for the rest of the night. I did look at plenty of other things while tracking down the doubles, including a couple of new asterisms and some potential fodder for the Bino Highlight column.

I usually have a rule about not logging new double stars from dark sites. Doubles are one of the few classes of celestial objects that usually look just as good from town, so if log them from dark sites I’m theoretically wasting my dark-sky time and simultaneously depriving myself of driveway observing targets. But heck, I was getting close to closing out the project requirements and I needed a change of pace.

I also wanted to get another win on the board. I’d completed nine AL observing programs before, but most of them were in 2009 and 2010, and I hadn’t completed a new program since finishing the Urban Observing program back in 2013. Hard to believe that after knocking out nine clubs in my first five years as an AL member, I didn’t finish any more in the next five.

It was an interesting early-morning run. Scattered clouds started moving in about 1:00 AM, and by 2:45 I was playing tag with sucker holes. Fortunately the clouds were moving fast across Cygnus, Delphinus, Equuleus, and Pegasus, and I managed to get four objects in the half hour between 3:40 and 4:10. That brought my total to 52, a couple more than are required. BUT! I’d forgotten about the requirement to observe at least five of the doubles on the list with naked eyes, and compare to the binocular view. So I’m not quite done after all.

After getting those last four bino double stars, I thought I was finished for the evening. I’d had a great, cathartic run, logged dozens and dozens of DSOs, including a handful of new objects, and finished the instrumental observations for my tenth Astro League observing project. Then I saw that Jupiter was in the open. The scope was still set up, and I hadn’t paid my respects to the king of planets, so I had a look and made a quick and dirty sketch in my notebook.

Even that was not my final object of the evening. After I’d finished with Jupiter, Cygnus was in the clear, so I went to possibly my favorite target for binoculars and rich-field scopes: the heart asterism around Sadr, at the heart of the Swan. I stared until I felt myself starting to nod off, and checked the time. It was 4:37 AM, precisely nine hours since I’d picked Venus out of the sunset. That felt like fate, so I called it.

My final tally for the night:

  • 3 artificial satellites tracked with the scope
  • 4 meteors, 1 in scope and 3 naked-eye
  • 10 asterisms, 3 of which were new
  • 13 double stars, 11 of which were new
  • 8 nebulae
  • 43 open clusters
  • 7 globular clusters
  • 2 galaxies

I observed a total of 60 deep sky objects, 43 of which were Messiers, and an even 90 objects of all types. Not bad for what felt like a very relaxed – and relaxing – run.

It’s cloudy over SoCal tonight, and that’s a good thing. I need to go rest on my laurels. Catch you in the future.

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Observing Report: Total lunar eclipse on January 31, 2018

February 2, 2018

Man, only the second post in six months, and we’re back to another eclipse! Oh well, that’s how it goes sometimes.

This is also going to a short post. I have more photos from the eclipse, and I’m hoping to get them processed soon and put into a composite like I did for the October, 2014 (link), and April, 2015 (link), lunar eclipses. But those photos are still lurking in a raw state on my hard drive. You’re getting the only two I’ve processed so far: the above shot of the full moon at 12:20 AM, before the eclipse started, taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4500, and the below shot from the start of max eclipse, around 5:00 AM, taken with an iPhone 7. Both shots taken afocally through London’s XT4.5 dob and a 32mm Plossl.

Hope you got to see it. Stand by for more shots…at some point. Hopefully. What can I say? Fossil season came early this year…as I knew it eventually would.

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Observing Report: Total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017

August 28, 2017

My parents, Norma and John (seated), and me with London and Vicki (standing), with the projected eclipse.

Long Range Planning

Since the August, 2017, eclipse first came on my radar, my plan was to see it from somewhere on the Great Plains. I had two reasons for this. One, most of my family lives in Oklahoma, and it would be simpler for them to drive up to the eclipse path than to fly to somewhere more remote. Also, on the plains you can usually see weather coming from a long way out, and fronts move in predictable ways. I figured that if clouds did spring up on eclipse day, I’d have a better chance of driving to get around them on the plains than anywhere else.

Originally I’d been thinking Kansas or Missouri, both of which border Oklahoma and would have made short drives for my relatives. But a closer look at the eclipse map this spring dissuaded me. The eclipse would only barely clip the northeastern corner of Kansas, in the relatively densely populated area around Kansas City. The path of totality painted a broad stripe across Missouri, but mostly along a line connecting Kansas City and St. Louis. I figured that area would get hammered by visitors, and the cloud forecast wasn’t as favorable as it was for points west, either.

Map by Xavier Jubier/Eclipse2017.org

Nebraska, on the other hand, looked pretty good. My maternal grandparents used to live in Imperial, in the southwest corner, and they retired just a few miles down the road to Enders. Imperial would make a convenient rendezvous point, both for any family driving up from Oklahoma, and for me, Vicki, and London flying in from California.

In one sense Imperial was not convenient: it’s a long way from any major airport. Two hundred miles from Denver, and three hundred from Lincoln. But I like long drives in the country (really, I do!), and I was happy to trade some driving at either end of the trip if it would save me traffic in the middle.

I guess now is a good time to mention that I did not want to stay on the path of totality. I figured – correctly, as it turned out – that competition for rooms would be fierce, that at least some places would be gouging visitors, and that traffic would be a problem in at least some areas. Instead, I wanted to stay an hour or two off the path of totality, preferably somewhere out of the way, where crowds would not be a problem, but I’d still have a range of possible observing spots within easy driving range. Again, Imperial was a promising choice, and in early February, I called and reserved rooms for my parents and for Vicki, London, and me at the Balcony House Bed & Breakfast (which was outstanding, by the way – it’s worth going to southwestern Nebraska just to stay there).

By now, plans were firming up. I knew that the fall gross anatomy course at WesternU would be rolling by eclipse time, and Vicki and I would need to arrange things so we’d miss as few days of lab as possible (many thanks to our department chair for the time off!). But we also wanted some time in Imperial to unwind, and to visit places important to our family history. That meant leaving on Saturday, August 19, and coming back on Tuesday, August 22. The Balcony House didn’t have any rooms on Saturday night, and in fact, nobody else in Imperial did, either. So we decided to make Saturday an easy day and only drive as far as Holyoke, Colorado. Holyoke is another old family stomping ground – Grandpa and Grandma had lived there for several years, too, and it’s where my mom grew up.

Sun funnel testing in Claremont

The Sun Funnel Rides Again

Gear! I didn’t settle on exactly what I’d be rolling with until Thursday, August 17, just two days before we were to fly. My old Sun Funnel – veteran of the annular eclipse and Venus transit of 2012 and the partial eclipse of 2014 – was in storage in the garage. There was never really any question but what it would be going along; it’s just too darned useful for showing solar events to even small groups of people. I did have to decide which scope to use with it. We’d sold London’s AstroScan, but my flock of airline-portable scopes had grown in the meantime. Strong contenders included the GalileoScope, Tasco-Vixen 9VR, and SkyScanner 100. I set up and tested the 9VR and the SkyScanner, and I ended up going with the latter scope, for several reasons:

  1. It has the most aperture of any scope I was seriously considering.
  2. It’s at least somewhat collimatable.
  3. With its open design, I wasn’t worried about it overheating.
  4. It balanced the best with the Sun Funnel mounted.

For the flights, I put the SkyScanner in the padded bag that my Apex 127 came in, and packed t-shirts and socks around it. The Sun Funnel I broke down – I put the screen material in a folder between sheets of clean paper, and I stuffed more socks in the funnel itself. I also brought along four pairs of eclipse glasses, a piece of #14 welder’s glass (previously seen here), and 10×42 Bushnell binoculars to look for solar prominences during totality.

London with his grandparents in front of the Balcony House in Imperial, Nebraska

One more piece of gear came to me on the road. Sunday morning we woke up in Holyoke, Colorado, had lunch at The Skillet (which had excellent country cooking), and then popped across the street to the Family Dollar for a few odds and ends. I’d been thinking of making a little sun-finder, like the one David DeLano detailed in this post. My SkyScanner has a DIY wooden bracket that is square to the tube, so I just needed something round that I could use to project a spot of sunlight. I ended up going with a $1 empty condiment bottle, which I already blogged about here. When we rolled into Imperial that afternoon, I unpacked all of the gear and did a test run on the sidewalk in front of the Balcony House. Everything was ready – now we just needed clear skies.

Targeting on the Fly

My initial targets for possible eclipse observing spots were the towns of Tryon and Stapleton, Nebraska, both about a half an hour north of North Platte. I picked up a Nebraska road map and highlighted possible routes from Imperial to either Tryon or Stapleton, going either north to the path of totality and then east, or vice versa. Either town would have required about 2.5 hours of driving on a regular day, and I figured it would be smart to budget for eclipse traffic. The east-then-north route to Stapleton had the following problem: it went through North Platte, and if traffic was apocalyptically bad, we might get stuck on the edge of the path of totality, or even outside of it. The north-then-east route to Tryon would get us close to the centerline first, with fewer opportunities to get stuck off the path.

Ah, but then. A few days out, and the weather apps were predicting partial clouds and possibly even rainfall for west-central Nebraska. Right up until Monday morning, North Platte, Tryon, and Stapleton all looked they might get clouded out. So Sunday the five of us – Mom, Dad, Vicki, London, and me – had a council of war. To the level of detail possible in weather prediction, the area around North Platte looked lousy, but Scottsbluff, in far western Nebraska, was supposed to have sunny skies. Between North Platte and Scottsbluff, the weather looked progressively better to the west, and worse to the east. So we changed things up: instead of turning east to Tryon or Stapleton, we’d stay on Highway 61 north out of Ogallala and shoot up to Hyannis, then turn west on Highway 2 and go as far as we needed to find clear skies. This was basically the Tryon plan with the directions reversed: go straight north to the eclipse path first, then drive east or west along the path to a promising destination.

The Drive Up

I wish I had had the time and opportunity to take pictures during the drive up from Imperial. It was beautiful. We left Imperial right after dawn, and the rising sun turned the fields to gold. Within a few miles, we could see banks of fog lying in the low spots on the landscape. And then a few miles further, the fog was lying everywhere. We started driving through fogbanks that congealed into an unbroken blanket by the time we reached Ogallala. The weather apps were still projecting clear skies to the west and, well, unclear skies to the east, so we kept going.

The fog had cleared by the time we saw our first eclipse-watchers, at the fairgrounds in Arthur. There were hundreds of people in RVs, tents, cars, and trucks, looking worriedly up at a sky that was completely socked in with clouds. We kept going, and saw a few hundred more scattered along the side of the road as we approached the center line. About this point we hit what I can barely bring myself to describe as ‘traffic’. At its worst, we were the 9th and 10th vehicles in a convoy of 13, but the convoy was rolling along at a steady 62 or 63 miles per hour, which was fine and certainly not worth the risk of trying to pass someone on a two-lane road in the Nebraska sandhills. The hills themselves were liberally spangled with wild sunflowers. From a distance, they looked like they’d been dusted with pollen. Everywhere we went the landscape was green.

Alliance

From a purely eclipse-viewing perspective, I would have been happy with any of the towns on Highway 2 west of Hyannis. Sure, they were a few miles off of centerline, but the difference in the duration of totality would have been trivial. And I figured we’d miss the big crowds expected at Alliance. But this plan had one fatal flaw, which I did not anticipate: a complete absence of public restrooms west of Hyannis. If I’d been by myself, I might have just pulled over anywhere and, er, recharged the water table as needed, but that’s a less attractive option to a group that includes two women and two senior citizens. Actually, there may have been a public restroom in Lakeside, but we had no chance to find out, as there was a big train blocking the road into town when we came by. So we headed on into Alliance and braced for the worst.

Our setup at the Western Nebraska Community College shindig. The forest of telephone poles in the background is where line repair people train.

The worst turned out to be not that bad, actually. We drove past a big group assembled on a grassy field on the east edge of town, and on to the first gas station that looked like it might have restrooms. By the time we’d all had a biology break, it was almost time for the eclipse to start. We decided to head back out to the east edge of town and see if the group on the grass still had some parking spots. This turned out to be an excellent choice. The parking was organized by the Western Nebraska Community College, which had free porta-potties and eclipse gear for sale. We ended up next to a family from Denver that we had met in line at the gas station. They all had eclipse glasses but no other optics, so I set up the Sun Funnel so they could watch with us, and they returned the favor by taking pictures of our party.

The Eclipse

As soon as we had the cars parked, I was busy setting up the Sun Funnel, while everyone else got folding chairs set up and got their eclipse glasses on. I got the photo above, my first shot of the eclipse, at 10:45 AM.

There was a wind out of the north that kept threatening to snatch our hats away, and it was flirting with blowing the scope over. I can’t remember ever setting up the Manfrotto tripod for low use, with the legs spread almost straight sideways, but I remembered from the documentation that doing so was possible. That fixed the stability issues with the scope, and from that point on, all we had to do was re-aim it every few minutes (I’d already made this switch in the family shot above – that shot is out of order in terms of eclipse phases). As I mentioned in a previous post, not only was the dollar store mustard bottle sun finder cheap and effective, but I could see the projected dot through the translucent walls of the bottle so I didn’t have to get my head behind or underneath it to aim the scope – handy when the sun was almost directly overhead.

A labeled shot from the end of the eclipse, when all six of the big sunspots were visible, with the Earth added for scale. All of the other crud on the image is dirt and bits of grass – that’s what happens when gear is left out in the wind in a grassy field for three hours.

There were half a dozen nice sunspots, and it was fun to watch the moon overtake them. A lot of the people who stopped by to look at the sun funnel weren’t familiar with sunspots, so I gave them the quick spiel: giant magnetic storms on the sun, with the biggest that we could see then being about the same size as planet Earth.

About halfway between first contact and totality, the north wind started pushing clouds across the sky, which you can see in the above video. This added some definite suspense to the proceedings, especially when, about 5 minutes before the start of totality, a huge “dreadnought class” cloud came over. I think everyone on the field was on pins and needles – we could still see the sun, as the next photo demonstrates, but it wasn’t what you’d call a great view.

Fortunately the cloud moved out of the way right at the start of totality. And I mean precisely then. Below is a shot from just a couple of seconds before, with the diamond ring effect haloed by the tail-end wisps of cloud. Those wisps moved out just as the moon covered the last light of the sun, and our view of totality was perfectly clear.

That photo above is my best eclipse shot. Vicki has a DSLR but I didn’t take it along. I did waste a few seconds, but only a few, trying to get a couple of HDR shots with my iPhone, but they didn’t really come out. I had read plenty of horror stories of people who basically missed their first eclipse messing around with cameras, so I resolved long ago that if I was lucky enough to have clear skies for totality, I’d try to spend them looking, not shooting.

For the most part, the partial phases of the eclipse were familiar to me from the 2012 and 2014 eclipses. Totality was a whole ‘nuther beast. This was my first total eclipse, and even though I had read a lot of eyewitness reports and seen some videos of other total eclipses, several things surprised me:

  1. Neither of my previous eclipses had been close enough to total to produce the weirdly sharp shadows that you get on either side of totality, when the thin crescent sun acts more like a point source than a bright extended object. So I’d never seen that effect before, and neither had anyone that I was with. We had fun marveling at our shadows, but I didn’t think to get any pictures or video of them. You can see the sharp shadows starting at 1:25 in this video.
  2. It got a lot darker a lot earlier than I expected. This was especially true in the last 10 minutes before totality. It was extremely weird – before the dreadnought cloud moved in, we were all aware of standing in direct sunlight, just not much of it. It wasn’t like diffuse sunlight coming through clouds, and it wasn’t like sunset light, either. I’ve never seen anything else quite like it – which I guess is part of the reason people chase eclipses, to see things you can’t see any other way.
  3. The inner corona was a lot brighter than I expected. I couldn’t really see any of the outer corona, just a thin bright ring around the moon. It was bright white. The contrast between the blazing white of the corona and the absolute blackness of the moon made the latter even more unearthly. In Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris described the moon during totality as an “awful black ball” and I can now vouch for the accuracy of that description. It doesn’t look right.
  4. Even at the midpoint of totality, the sky was brighter than I had thought it would be, and the ground was darker. We all did look up, and saw Venus, Mars, Mercury, and Regulus, but I didn’t see any other stars; the stars didn’t ‘come out’ as I had expected. In contrast, right where we were, looking around at family members and other eclipse chasers, it was dark, like being outside half an hour after sunset. And the 360-degree twilight lit the horizon all the way around in shades of orange, salmon, pink, and violet. In general, the terrestrial effects of the eclipse were more pronounced and arresting that what was going on in the sky – with the undeniable exception of that awful black ball.
  5. I assume that the atmospheric effects on either side of totality are symmetrical – that the weird light I mentioned above in point 2 extends just as far after totality as before, and that the 360-degree twilight extends just as far before totality as after. But that’s not how I perceived them. I noticed the oddly thin light before totality, and after totality had ended I was surprised at how long the sunset effect persisted. The above photo is from a minute and a half after the end of totality, looking north-northeast, about 90 degrees off the path of the shadow, and the twilight effect is still visible in the distance.

After Totality

Totality was a rush. In the aftermath we sat around talking happily about how amazing it had been, and watching on the sun funnel as the moon gradually uncovered the sun. London and I made pinhole projections – his is above, mine below.

We also wandered around until we found a cottonwood that was projecting crescent suns on the street. Here’s a photo:

And a video – this worked out better than expected, because the wind was blowing the leaves and branches around and making the crescent suns flicker, like sunlight glinting off moving water. Shame I didn’t think to turn the phone sideways, but I’d just had my mind blown, so I’m giving myself a pass.

All too soon it was winding down. The telescope and sun funnel had been the first things set up when we rolled in, and they were the last things put away when we left. Here’s my last shot, from 1:16 PM:

Ironically, after all the gloomy predictions, traffic was worse getting away from the eclipse than it had been getting to it. I’d hoped that maybe we could head south out of Alliance and fast-track it back to Ogallala on Highway 26, but that way was jammed up. So we went back the way we came. On the drive home we were the 5th and 6th vehicles in a train of 17, and we had to settle for a bit under 60 mph, but we still made it back in good time. There was another train blocking the access into Lakeside, so I still don’t know if the town has a public restroom.

The trip had one neat little coda. On the flight home, London had the window seat, and he spotted the young crescent moon, back in the evening sky after its big adventure. I passed him my phone, and he got some great shots. Here’s the best:

What now?

There will be other solar eclipses between now and the next “Great American Eclipse” of 2024, but most of them will happen in other parts of the world, and the chances that I’ll have the opportunity to go see them are slim. Here are the upcoming eclipses and transits that I am hoping to observe in the next decade – as always, assuming the skies cooperate:

  • January 31, 2018 – total lunar eclipse
  • January 21, 2019 – total lunar eclipse
  • November 11, 2019 – transit of Mercury
  • May 26, 2021 – total lunar eclipse
  • May 16, 2022 – total lunar eclipse
  • November 8, 2022 – total lunar eclipse
  • October 14, 2023 – annular solar eclipse
  • April 8, 2024 – total solar eclipse
  • March 14, 2025 – total lunar eclipse
  • March 3, 2026 – total lunar eclipse

That’s a pretty good lineup, I think. For more details on all of these events, see MrEclipse.com.

In sum, the eclipse was awesome, in every sense of the word. I get now why people become eclipse chasers. I’m not quite to the point where I can afford to go jetting around the world to catch every single one, but I will make it to every future eclipse that I can. If you ever get a chance to stand in the path of totality, go.

UPDATE 29 August: Mike’s comment below about Cthulhu reminded me that I needed to post another picture. After I put the diamond ring photo on Facebook, my friend Jarrod posted this modified version, which I can’t unsee. Cower before Ecl, the Dragon of Totality:

Eclipse dragon