Archive for the ‘Star parties’ Category


Observing report: All-Arizona Star Party 2013

October 9, 2013


Last weekend London and I headed out to Arizona for the All-Arizona Star Party. This was our third such event–we also made it out in 2010 and 2012. London was more excited than usual about the actual stargazing. We took along his Astroscan, 50mm spotting scope, and 7×35 binoculars, and he used them all. He was also curious about the Travel Scope 70 so I tossed it in the car on a whim–this proved to be a fateful decision. As for myself, my back was acting up yesterday so I skipped the XT10 in favor of the Apex 127/SV50 combo, plus 10×50 Nikon bins.

We rolled in just after sunset. As usual, we walked around and said hi to the neighbors. This paid off later on when one guy invited us over for a look through his 14″ StarMaster dob. We looked at the Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009), which was not detailed but visibly blue, and at the Double Cluster (NGCs 869 and 884), which was simply stunning.


The summer Milky Way was standing up straight from the horizon so I set up the Travel Scope 70 and started showing London the Messier objects in Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Scutum. His favorite was the M24 star cloud, which is fine by me, because it’s one of my favorites, too (find it yourself here).

The seeing was not great–lots of twinkling stars. But transparency was good. After London sacked out I got in a good four and a half hours of chasing Herschel 400 objects with the Apex 127, and logged 17 new ones. I also looked at scads of Messiers en route, probably three or four dozen in all.


Now, here’s a weird thing. Maybe it’s partly to do with the skies out there being so good, but every time I looked through the SV50 or TS70 I thought, “Wow, bright!” and every time I looked through the Astroscan or Apex 127, the view seemed disappointingly dim by comparison. Last year when I first started playing with the TS70 I was also blown away by the brightness and crispness of the view (at low mag, anyway). It can’t only be a function of f ratio because the Astroscan is an f/4 and the f/6 TS70 was smoking it. Nor is it anything to do with collimation–the Apex 127 was splitting double stars down to the limit of the seeing, and star-tested practically perfectly, whereas I suspect the TS70 is way out, given how poorly it takes magnification (irritatingly, I didn’t think to just star-test it).

So, I am wondering: is this how one gets to be a refractor guy?

Go home, cactus. You are drunk.

Go home, cactus. You are drunk.

Brief, possibly amusing note — Google turns up the following numbers of hits for these terms:

  • refractoritis – 6040
  • refractor guy – 5300
  • refractor weenie – 296  <– often self-described!

Observing Report: All-Arizona Star Party 2012

October 17, 2012

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

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

Happiness is a new scope under dark skies!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shattering the Bowl of the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Awesome video about Google+ Virtual Star Parties

July 13, 2012

A few months ago I posted about virtual star parties on Google+. At this year’s Google I/O, this video about the virtual star parties was part of the keynote presentation. The Gary Gonnella in the video? He’s a member of the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers–my club. He showed us this video, along with his eclipse and Venus transit photos, at tonight’s meeting. You’re doing us proud, Gary!

Go check it out.


Something new under the stars

February 13, 2012

Virtual star parties.

Google+ allows multiple video streams at once. The number of amateur astronomers across the continent with video cameras is probably in the low thousands. Get several astronomers steaming live video of celestial objects, a few knowledgeable people answering questions, and a few dozen to a few hundred enthusiasts following along, and you’ve got a virtual star party.

It’s not my idea, and I’m not speaking hypothetically. This is happening, right now (well, maybe not right at this minute, but in the larger present). Fraser Cain, who runs Universe Today, seems to be the nucleating center. There have been several virtual star parties to date, with pro astronomers Phil Platt (Bad Astronomy) and Pamela Gaye (Star Stryder) participating and answering people’s questions. If you’d like to get in on it, join Google+ and add Fraser Cain to one of your circles. You’ll get updates when virtual star parties are coming up. Apparently there  is no set schedule, as this is still a new thing and sort of experimental, but from what I hear the response has been great and there will be more.

I say “from what I hear” because I haven’t been to one of these shindigs. I heard about them from a fellow PVAA member, and I’m just passing the word along. You can tell from my posting rate these past few months how much time I have. (And yes, the irony of me complaining about too little time, given this blog’s subtitle, is not lost on me.)


Observing report: All-Arizona Star Party 2010

November 7, 2010

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

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

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


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

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

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

Into the Deeps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gegenschein, Shine On

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time…

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

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


Observing report: the backup star party

October 11, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favorite views of the evening were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Observing report: and now for something completely different

October 3, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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