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Archive for March, 2010

. . . such as they are.

I’m talking telescope powers here, and borrowing shamelessly, of course, from Wordsworth. But I really felt it this morning as I enjoyed about 90 minutes under a clear, but moon-washed sky. What did I feel? That I need another session with ASTROMARTERS ANONYMOUS. I’ve fallen off the wagon. The evil equipment junkie in me is loose again.

Oh, it started in a small way with the purchase of some nice 10X50 Pentax binos that I’m sure will prove useful. But that lead to a serious dallying with a 60mm Unitron Model 128 – the particular scope I used to dream about when I was a kid. But I dodged that bullet after I convinced myself that this was a unit built after 1980 – in other words “new!” – though Unitron apparently didn’t put serial numbers on these scopes and it’s difficult to be positive about dates because the Unitrons changed so little over decades.

But then suddenly, there I was grabbing at a Celestron NexStar SE4  – or is it 4SE? Doesn’t matter, it’s the smallest scope in the SE series and the only one that’s a Maksutov-Cassegrain and that’s what I have wanted to try for some time and this one came with a 9X50 finder and cost just $295. How could I resist?  So as I write this UPS is busy hauling it my way from somewhere down south. (Did I hear someone say this is a “go to” scope?  Isn’t that in  violation of my basic, star-hopping tenets? You bet. And it’s former owner has packed it in three separate boxes and the only one I intend to unwrap is the one with the optical tube in it. That optical tube  has a dovetail and will go right on the Voyager alt-az mount. And if it’s a keeper I’ll sell the go-to mount separately.)

But the point here is, I was on a  tear – yes, this is about observing – I’m getting there – please bear with me 😉 So when Larry Carlino, whose telescope reviews I’ve appreciated, decided he was divesting himself of all Chinese goods, I was smitten by the Orion 120 ED included in his “fire sale” ad  and after less than a hour of mulling the pros and cons, I offered him my SV80S Lomo as an even trade. I think subconsciously I was just stalling. But he might have accepted. The Lomo is a Russian lens, so it would get him out of the Chinese deficit/democracy issue that’s bothering him.

Fortunately, he said “no.” But see why I think I need to refresh my membership in Astronmarters Anonymous? No – it’s not because I’m busting the family budget. My habit is worse than a money thing.  I have a certain investment in astronomy toys and I keep it revolving. Purchases are always matched quite closely by sales. (That means I’ll be putting  an Orion ST120 refractor, an Orion 80ED with a two-speed focuser, and a 50mm Stellarvue “Little Rascal” on Astromart shortly  to compensate for recent purchases and to build up the PayPal account to take care of small temptations in the future. If any of those scopes interest you, ask me for the detail before I post them. I’d rather sell local.)

But as I say, this isn’t about money. This is about the amount of time I spend looking at the Astromart and Cloudy Nights classifieds in search of the equipment Holy Grail that I know either doesn’t exist, or is out of my price league. That’s not too disastrous a pursuit on cloudy nights and rainy days – but I could be building up my “to view” list instead. Or writing the April installment for the web site. Something productive. [b]But what really bothers me is the way it can co-opt my observing time.[/b] That’s where I feel the illness of my equipment obsession. William Wordsworth had it right two centuries ago when he wrote:

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

You bet, Bill! [b]And it is the heart I value most – or what I generally call being “rapt in awe” – or what Bob referred to recently as “getting your mind around” what you are seeing. Whatever you call it, I was doing none of that this morning.[/b] Instead I was wasting my time doing a side-by-side comparison of the SV80S Lomo and the Orion 120ST. Why the 120ST? Because it was the same size as the 120ED and so – I thought – might give me some experiential hints about how much  of a difference it makes to use 120mm vs 80mm – what was the real impact in terms of light grasp and resolution? [b]My conclusion, for what it’s worth, was not enough.[/b] Oh I know the numbers backwards and forwards, but when looking at the same objects side-by-side – the familiar M13 and Double Double and then M57 – well, the added light grasp (about 2X) and resolution just weren’t impressive. What was impressive was the pristine, high contrast view in the SV80S. That’s what I want. And yes [b]this was incredibly unfair.[/b] The 120ST sells for one-sixth the price of 80mm. It’s an F5 achromatic, versus an F6 apochromatic triplet.  And the 120ED would be significantly better than the 120ST. But still, what this did was convince me that I was lucky Larry hadn’t agreed to the trade and I was not going to buy the 120Ed outright and sell the SV80S to cover the cost – which it would, exactly. And in the final analysis that’s a subjective decision, but it was enhanced significantly by  some reminders  through real observing.

[b]The problem? Well, I didn’t really see any of these objects I was observing.[/b] I didn’t “get my mind around them.” I was not “rapt in awe.” I did try a little. I did sit back and try to give the various arguments about objective diameter, light grasp, focal length, coatings, baffles, etc. a chance to drift out of my mind.   I wanted to end the mental clutter driven by equipment details. I tried to land on these ideas gently, like a butterfly landing on a flower, as one of my meditation books suggests – and just nudge the thoughts away. And maybe I had some tiny success. But before I could see any of these objects for what they really are stratus clouds were covering a good deal of the sky, so I went in.

And that’s the real reason why I get mad at myself for wasting time “getting and spending.” That’s why I feel I need another session with Astronmarts Anonymous – an organization that’s just a figment of my imagination, of course – but when I consider that Larry rejected my trade offer because he already has a WO 80mm and a TMB 92 and in his current ad he’s selling four or five refractors – well, I don’t think I’m alone in this bad habit  🙄

What amazes me is how well Wordsworth saw all this so many years before the Web, before apochromatic refractors – heck, before most of what we know as modern society existed. Even  then, he felt these things closing in on us – and expressed it all so well.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus  rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton  blow his wreathed horn.

Yes – not to mention being able to see M57 as the last gasp of a magnificent star and an indicator of the future of our Sun – or for that matter,  to even begin to appreciate what that simple, four-letter word, “star,” encompasses.

Ah well – more bad weather on  the way, but Saturday night is looking promising – and Friday, too, if you don’t mind the chill.

Addendum:

Oops – went out at sunrise to exercise and guess what – perfectly clear! Last night the CSC had said it would start clouding up by 3 am – and sure enough, that’s when I saw the clouds that drove me in. But when I checked the latest version of the CSC after writing this it said it would be clear this morning – and is. So I should have come in for a break, then gone out again – would have had clear skies and no moon! (It set about 3:30.) Can you ever predict our weather? And if you do, can you have enough sense to check those predictions in a timely fashion!)

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More gleanings from recent exchanges on the Club board and  observations made here:

You’re right, Bob – the UFO galaxy is a keeper. Thanks for calling my attention to it.  I followed your “staircase” tonight (Friday) – transparency left something to be desired and there was a tad of interference from the moon, but hey, it was nearly at the zenith, so quite easy.

I was using the 80/8 combo  on the Double Star mount with the 30mm Clearvue in the 80, so I had a 5-degree fov. This easily takes in the Beehive, my starting point, with it’s two asses. I used them as pointers and moved up a couple of fields to Iota Cancri and just to be sure I was on the right star, I switched to the 8-inch. Since it’s a beautiful double – the “winter Albireo” – it was easy to see i had the right star and  now it was just a matter of climbing your stair case for another 5 or 6 degrees and looking for a pair of stars the galaxy forms a triangle with. Bingo – found them and thought I saw the galaxy. When I switched to the 8-inch there was no doubt.  Jumps around on you some, though – seems to benefit a lot from averted vision and as I think you mentioned, has a chunk out of one side from a  dust cloud.  The almost north-south orientation was striking. I can’t say I would have spotted it as a flying saucer immediately, but with that image in my head already, that’s what it looked like. Light seemed pretty even – felt like a chalk smudge on a blackboard.

I switched to the 80mm and with slightly more power it was easy to see in that scope as well. When I really cranked up the power there to 96X it was very easy to see. There’s a little quadrangle of sorts of four 10th and 11th magnitude stars about 10 minutes south of it that I found were a handy marker.

So, while I could see this in the 80mm and it looked quite nice in the 8-inch, I have to admit that it would really shine int he 15-inch which I assume is what you were using. Maybe during the next spell of bad weather I’ll get it back together 😉

Bob commented on this, then added:

BTW, I’m surprised you were able to see both of the donkeys at the Beehive, since I swear that the ISS ran over poor Asellus Australis while I watched with my binos earlier in the evening!  😆  😆 A near-perfect hit!!! Very ethereal to be watching this bright blob of technology through the binoculars and suddenly see the much fainter Beehive racing past the field of view.[/quote]

You sure pulled a lot of stuff out of those murky skies, Bob. But yes, that was a great pass of the ISS – we watched it too thanks to the head’s up from Pete – but in the 80mm and 8-inch and I have to admit, I wasn’t even conscious of the Beehive! Funny – my little lesson of the night was on field of view and I was just too wrapped up in the tracking  – and probably using too narrow a field of view  😳 – to see the little ass get kicked in the – well tail 😆

I had a couple of the “star hoppers” out and I asked them to come a few minutes early just to see that pass. But my plan was to line up the ISS in the Telrad, then jump quickly to the 80mm with the 5-degree fov – then I would hold it in the center of that while the others took turns getting a good look at it in the 8-inch with a 24mm Panoptic – 83X. It worked perfectly and they both got good views, then I switched to the 8-inch – Wow! I could see four rectangles of light, the two outboard ones dimmer and kinda reddish. Best view of the ISS I’ve had so far.  But at that power it is sure moving fast. The DoubleStar mount is smooth, but I felt like I was using a pair of 40mm Bofors and was holding off fighter attacks 😆

Assellus Australis must have had a good laugh, though – let’s see, I think the Space Shuttle missed it by about 136.18 light years – give or take a few fractions of a light second  🙄

I noticed the high clouds you mentioned as we watched the ISS go over. Some of them were thick enough to totally block stuff  – but we still had fun with my visitors learning to track down the two Christmas Trees – M103 and what I think of as the real one over at the tip of the Unicorn.(http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/12/xmastreecluster/ ) Also on the agenda for Rose was ET. Joe wanted to track down M67 – and did – and Rose wanted to go after that obscure little cluster in front of the Hyades – NGC1647  –  and did.

Well not so little – it’s about 30 minutes across -but It really doesn’t make a good first impression! It’s interesting for all its doubles when seen with enough power. But it was also a good illustration of how difficult it is for someone just learning the sky to even know they’ve found an object when they’ve found it. It just doesn’t look much like a cluster. Especially in the 80mm at 15X. It easily sits in the same field as Aldebaran (with the 30mm eyepiece)  and with a dab of moonlight plus the deceptively murky skies she stared at that area for quite a while, looking directly at NGC1647 and not realizing that she was on the cluster.  However, putting the few stars you do see that way in the center of the 80mm and then switching to the 8-inch does reveal it’s true nature.

It drives me a bit crazy, then, to read what O’Meara has to say about this cluster in [i]Hidden Treasures.[/i] He had never seen it either – until his wife, standing in their driveway halfway up Mauna Kea, thinks she has discovered a comet with her 7X35 binoculars! What she saw turns out to be NGC1647. Oh for skies like that! With really transparent one here it would look a little more cluster like in binoculars I guess, but O’Meara calls it an easy naked eye object. Not here!

Hope folks get out tonight and watch the Moon’s close encounter with the Pleiades. It’s going to be murky again, but still should be a nice binocular sight  and I think this is the last such event for several years???  According to Starry Nights software, the view from here should have it just clipping the bottom off that wonderful chain of 7th and 8th magnitude stars that trails down from Alcyone. That should happen between 9:30 and 10 when the Moon will be pretty low in the west. Of course you’ll probably need  a telescope to see those stars so close to the Moon, but it leads with its dark edge. If the weather gives me a break – and the CSC is ambiguous on this one – I’ll be watching.

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That was my “eureka” moment this morning as I got reacquainted with M10, M12, M5, M3, M13, and M92 in that order.  I felt real good about it too – until I came in and started rereading Stephen O’Meara’s descriptions in “The Messier Objects” and realized how much I didn’t see 🙂

But in another thread Bob was talking about “getting your mind around what you see” and that’s just about always my main goal and this morning I started by comparing M10 and M12  as they appeared in the C8 at 154X (13mm Nagler). I was noticing some details, such as the small triangle of brighter stars that partially engulfs M12  and how the layer of resolved stars over its core was greater in M10. Suddenly a description I had read popped into my head – one of these globulars was likened to a “gumball machine.” The author was referring to the colors of the resolved stars – only which one was she talking about? At this point I thought it was something Sue French had written, but I couldn’t remember if she was talking about M10 or M12, so I set out to determine which it was that looked more like a gumball machine.

The more I compared the two, the more I appreciated their individuality – but I was darned if I could detect much evidence of color in either.  Still, i decided she must have been talking about M10. And that’s when I had the “aha” moment that lasted and lasted . . .  Suddenly  my mind’s eyes was turning the different layers of stars into one of those snow globes you shake – or maybe more a series of crystal celestial spheres like those woodcuts from the MIddle Ages show. Whatever it was, the gumball metaphor has caused a break through and each globular now looked like what I knew it was – a three dimensional globe of hundreds of thousands of stars. Of course we can’t see 3-D at these distances and with one eye – but the impression was overwhelming and I tried to hold it like you do a dream, knowing if you look too closely it will vanish.

I love to tour the globulars available at this sidereal hour (c. 15h) and so I set out northward for M5. It was a “wow” making  M10 and M12 look pale in comparison. And the 3-D magic was, if anything, enhanced.  I moved on to M3, one I have visited many times in recent months as it was rising on winter mornings. Hmmmm… not as nice as I remembered. I mean cool – but M5 seemed to blow it away. OK, how about the “Great Pumpkin” – the  one everyone knows, M13? it was just about at the zenith and at this point the C8 corrector was collecting a little dew ( probably had something to do with the performance of M3, though I’m not sure.) It was quickly dispersed with  the hair dryer and I warmed up my hands a bit in the process. OK – M13 deserves its rep. I know some observers think M5 is better, but I have to go with M13 – not only because it gets higher in our sky ( which helps) but  because with the same scope and eyepiece you resolve so many more stars and the 3-D impact was overwhelming.  I wanted to look for the galaxy that’s near it, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it was and I didn’t want to break the spell by checking my charts. I was on a roll 😉

So where next? M92, of course, the most under-rated globular in our sky. M92 makes you appreciate that small can be beautiful too.  If M13 is the Great Pumpklin, then M92 is an apple – hard, crisp and bright like a Red Delicious! The 3-D vision held. Hope I can regain it another night!

When I got in I immediately checked Sue’s book to see if the gumball machine was M10 or M12. Ooops – she doesn’t use that metaphor. So i went to Stephen O’Meara. Yep. There it was – and he was talking about M12, not M10 as I thought. But no matter – the remembered phrase triggered that wonderful sensation of a third dimension. And rereading his description I know I have to slow down and spend a lot more time with these old friends over the next few months, for there’s so much more to see in each of them.

I’d started the session, btw, by checking on Porrima and for the first time getting a clean split with the C8 at 286X – but I was disappointed. This pair so bright and the C8 so sloppy ( I probably still don’t have it as well collimated as it should be) that there just was a lot of light in the diffraction rings – far too much. At this point I really missed not having something like a 120 or 127mm apochromatic. The split just isn’t wide enough yet for the 80 to handle – maybe next year.

Oh – and my other revelation of the night? I can’t reheat my tea with the hairdryer! Well, not in 10 seconds, anyway.  Another brilliant idea proven dumb  🙄

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I understand why some folks would think I was  Luddite and in fact a couple referred to me that way in a recent forum on the club’s web site, so I answered there and then realised my answer pretty well spelled out my current thinking on the observing, so I’m including the major part of it here.

See, I would take issue with your term “Luddite” – I know you’re kidding, but other people may think it applies and it doesn’t. “Luddite” implies a person who is opposed to new technology in general and since I sit here surrounded by it in the form of four computers in this room alone and since I still build and maintain several web sites, I don’t see myself quite as a Luddite and most people seem to feel I’m just the opposite – much too ready to embrace new technology.

Let me say once again – because this has to be amply clear – I’m not trying to convert you or anyone else to my way of enjoying astronomy. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, bless you. Enjoy! I’m just trying to explain why I do what I do – which includes offering assistance to folks who come to me and want to learn the night sky. But that’s their decision, not my preaching. And if someone comes to me and asks about what kind of new scope to buy, I will encourage them to stay away from cheap “go to” outfits – as I suspect you would. But if they have the money, I certainly would encourage them to look seriously at something like your LX90. I owned and enjoyed one for several years and think that’s a fine choice for some people – not so fine for others. Just depends.

But that’s the main point. A telescope is a personal decision and should be based on your personal goals and needs. And even when our goals are identical, the decisions can be very different. I am left in awe over the enormity of the implications of what we encounter in this hobby every night. I believe from the conversations we have had, Pete is as well. But Pete and I have very different paths to dealing with that encounter. He chooses to surround himself with complexity in terms of technology – and appears very comfortable in doing so. What’s more, it makes his method of connection possible. I immersed myself in much the same way with video and with a variety of “go to” systems on various scopes that I thought made a better way for me to convey my enthusiasm about the night sky to people who visited and to get them deeply involved with these mysteries.

But it wasn’t working for me. I didn’t feel people were getting the message. I had visitors out practically every clear night and while I got the usual “oooos” and “ahhhs” from folks we all experience, I didn’t think the message was getting through. So I continued to scratch my head and wonder how in the world can I reach people better. Now many, many folks find that imaging is a great way to accomplish what I want to accomplish. Certainly astronomical imagers can become very, very involved with the objects they are imaging. But it wasn’t working for me. In fact, just the opposite was happening. For me – not necessarily for Pete, nor you, nor many, many others – the technology of our hobby was becoming a distraction. So I got rid of it. I still have my Argo-Navis system, but only because it’s part of the 15-inch and if I decide to sell that scope it will be more marketable with that system on it. But I don’t use it.

So the bottom line is, getting rid of all the complex stuff worked for me. I found myself able to enjoy the night sky much more. This applies not only to electronics, but telescopes in general. I want the simplest – and best – techology that works. I wouldn’t call the DoubleStar Mount I have from Universal Astronomics low-tech – but it’s technology appropriate to my goals of simplicity – of having the equipment become transparent – to make my route to “awe” more direct.

And most important for me, is that I am getting the most satisfaction I have gotten in years from my outreach efforts. These were becoming more and more frustrating to me because – as I said – I thought people were connecting, but only in a superficial way. I felt much more was involved when I looked at M13, than when they looked – and I didn’t know how to convey that extra sense of – well, of “awe.” Now you and the other members of this club certainly seem to get that same awe or you probably wouldn’t be doing what you do.

Unfortunately, simply ditching the complexity didn’t work on its own. Even without “go to” I found I had reached a point where I wasn’t reaching people. It relieved me not to have electronics on my scopes – but people were still just standing around at the 15-inch waiting for me to find things for them, then they would pop over to the eyepiece, take a look, and make the required sounds to indicate how impressed they were.

Didn’t satisfy me. I was just the tour leader and I was failing to get folks deeply involved. I’d prepare in advance, I’d tell them about what they were seeing, I’d encourage them to spend more time at the eyepiece, I’d ask questions . . . nothing seemed to really work the way I hoped it would work.

Then came the big break through – the aha moment – which as I look at it now is so obvious I really feel dumb relating it. :oops:

If I wanted folks to get deeply involved all I had to do was turn the scopes over to them and let them find things on their own.

And since doing that – since I switched from being a tour leader to being a coach – my enjoyment has gone up tremendously and I find the people coming to Driftway Observatory have shown a similar increase in enthusiasm and what I think I detect as a depth of awe. (Yes, my personal enjoyment is most important. I’m not a big believer in altruism. I feed on their enthusiasm. If I inspire them and they get excited by what they see, then I get excited. )

That’s why I own three nearly identical 8-inch SCTs and have them installed on simple, non “go to” mounts. With these, and similar scopes, I can set up three or four observing stations quickly and I can turn each over to a visitor and they seem to be having great fun finding and observing just a couple objects each session. (I do limit the number of visitors per session to something I can easily handle.)

This works for me. This works for them. It does not mean it will work for everyone, or it is the only “true “path, or any other such nonsense. But I don’t think it makes me a Luddite either. I’m not going around opposing other people’s approach to the hobby. I suspect people who start with me and my approach may eventually end up immersed in technology. I don’t care. What I do care is that I’m enjoying myself more – that’s of first importance to me – and I’m enjoy sharing the universe with them more. And I enjoy it most of all when I can get 10 people out in the open under gorgeous conditions and have them really get a lot out of an experience where the only technology involved is a single 80mm scope on an alt-az mount and whatever binoculars they had around the house and brought with them – as per my earlier report of observing the new moon and zodiacal light the other night.

But to be a true Luddite I’d have to go around blowing up places like “Wishing Star Observatory” and that’s the last thing I want to do. I love what Pete does for his own satisfaction and the way he is continually sharing it with others and he’s been dedicating himself to these outreach goals a lot longer than I have. That approach is great. Just doesn’t work for me ;-)

Well, that was half the story. As the discussion progressed with others joing in, I found myself spelling out exactly why I think star=hopping works for me.

Rotorhead wrote:. . . And I think that the nugget that is hidden in your words is that we really need to try to get our minds around what it is that we are looking at, so that it isn’t just another ‘thing’ in the eyepiece, regardless of how you found it. For many, many reasons, the low-tech ‘hunt’ is daunting or even a turn-off for a lot of folks. And, as you say, that doesn’t matter – use whatever means you need to find all these astounding objects, but slow down when you get there and try to understand what you are looking at.

You are absolutely on target with that, Bob, and if you had asked me a few years ago I would have vehemently defended my use of “go to” arguing that the hunt,a s you call it, is a total waste of time a childish game of connect the dots played on universal scale. :lol:

Now I argue just the opposite. Again, speaking purely to what works for me , I now think the hunt is critical to wrapping my mind around what I see because:

1. It’s a warm up exercise that helps you shed the other cares of the day and focus more tightly on the universe – in other words to quiet what meditators call “the monkey brain.”

2. It gives you a critical sense of context – this morning, for example, as I approached the Virgo Galaxy Cluster I couldn’t help but notice Saturn, and then Porrima – and that made me think of M53 and I took a little detour to this very distant globular and the whole effect was to increase my “depth perception” – that is, it made me very conscious that I was seeing one object a few light hours away, a second perhaps 30-40 light years away and a third – in the scope – roughly 50,000 light years away. But what I was looking for in the Virgo Cluster were objects in the order of 30-50 million light years away. So the objects provided little stepping stone’s for my mind, reinforcing the concept of the incredible depths with which we deal and reminding me that what looks flat to the eye has a third dimension that is absolutely mind-bending. I just don’t get this impact – in fact I rarely looked at the neighboring sky – when I use “go to.” Instead my focus is downward on a keypad. But that’s me. Another person’s experience may be different.

3. Serendipity – when searching for one thing, I frequently stumble across others – and when trying to remember patterns for star-hopping I again frequently see things that I would have totally ignored had I been using “go to” – including some beautiful asterisms that are rarely, if ever, noted.

4. The part I thought I would miss the most from the electronics, however, is tracking – and I’m still not positive about this in my mind. There’s a real boon to locking into something and staying on it, allowing you to more closely examine it. Maybe. I’m not sure. I have an LX10 and an LX50 now and the equatorial wedges for both and both have clock drives, so it’s easy enough to turn on tracking. But I don’t. I’m tempted sometimes – and if I were in touring mode, showing stuff to a line of visitors, it would be helpful. But with the goal of trying to get our mind around what we are seeing, there are several advantages to having things drift through the eyepiece. It keeps us alert. It gives us different perspective on an object showing it with different surroundings as it drifts from one side of the view to the other – it is a constant reminder that we are on a spaceship that is spinning at about 800 miles an hour at our latitude – and I think you could argue that motion actually increases your awareness of what you are seeing – hey, it works for hawks – and may even make it easier to see faint details, though I have no scientific evidence of this last claim.

But again, the goal is is to really wrap our mind around what we are seeing and in that respect I find the result impossible to measure and nearly impossible to express – but i know I make great strides on rare occasions, while most of the time I find this goal way out of reach. :| I focused on just a few objects when observing this morning with the SV80S Lomo. I stayed on M51 most of the time, intrigued by how much I could see, even at very low power – then gave my eyes a break and switched over to M5, which I haven’t visited in a year – and then, as dawn was rising, I made a quick check on M12 and M10 – I could just fit them both in the same fov when using the 30mm (82-degree) Clearvue, my “finder” eyepiece. ;-)

It was an interesting journey, but I’ll be damned if I could get where I wanted to go, or bring anything back from it I’m able to communicate. Maybe tonight will be different.

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I know it sounds crazy, but I sort of feel responsible for the universe – especially when I send out an email inviting people to join me at Gooseberry to watch  a couple of things I’ve never seen and I’m not at all sure are seeable from this light-polluted region. Guess what – they are! Especially when the weather cooperates, and boy did it.

Temperatures were comfortable, the wind was calm, the ocean gorgeous. And ten of us got to see first Venus emerge in the twilight, then the slimmest sliver of a one day old – yes, exactly 24-hours old – moon. Now Venus is nice, but old hat.  I would have been very disappointed if we couldn’t see it. But that moon – well, I’ve simply never seen one so young. And this was topped by something I felt was even less likely – a clear view of the zodiacal light! But first, here’s a photo of Venus and the one-day moon. Click on it for a larger version and you can see the Moon over to the right of Venus and a bit below it. We couldn’t quite fit them both in the same binocular field.

Venus and the one-day-moon to it's right. Click image for larger view. Pucture was taken from Gooseberry Island, westport, MA, On March 16, 2010.

We all saw Venus and the Moon with an 80mm scope, with binoculars, and with the naked eye. (To get an idea how unusual this is – Spaceweather.com is urging people to go out tonight – the 17th – and see an especially thin, crescent moon. But it will be two days old then 😉

We waited until about 80-minutes after sunset – just as Venus was setting as a matter of fact, to  see the zodiacal light quite plainly – it was a beautiful pearly pyramid extending from near the horizon to the Pleiades. In fact, where it seemed easiest to see was just under the Pleiades – but the contrast with the dark sky to either side made it quite easy to detect. This was great because I really was afraid there might be a light dome from Newport, RI that would cancel it out. Not so. While there was some interference near the horizon, you could trace the zodiacal light from around the Hyades to roughly 15 degrees above the horizon –  and as a bonus we watched the ISS go across the sky from the northwest and vanish just as it reached the handle of the Big Dipper.

It’s hard to believe, but what we were looking at was perhaps one dust particle every five miles! For a more detailed explanation, see this post.

Just a perfect observing session with lots of wonderful folks to share it.

Addendum: My friend Bob Magnuson, a keen and experienced observer who was home sick unfortunately, commented:

The zodiacal light has always eluded me, and I thought it was the fault of the area’s light pollution, too, but the low humidity in the upper atmosphere and dead-calm air last night must have done the trick. The only icing on the cake would have been some distant auroras, which were forecast as a medium possibility last night. Well, congratulations, you’ve introduced some folks to a sight seldom seen even by enthusiastic amateurs around here. Nicely done!

Ted Blank, an experienced observer form north of Boston whose on my email list for these notification wrote:

I saw it too! Venus  with the sliver of moon (cheshire cat grin?) under it. Very neat!

Cheshire Cat indeed!

Rose, one of the star-hoppers, observe from Tiverton RI and writes;

It sounds like you had a good time at Gooseberry. The weather was near perfect.  Though I didn’t see the zodiacal lights _ at least as far as I can be sure _ Venus, the moon and a few long thin horizontal black clouds put on quite a show. Because I could easily pop in and out of the house, I was able to keep track of the time line. Here’s my version of the show.

7:26  –  Venus and the smiley face moon were surprisingly visible. I could see them as I stood in my kitchen finishing up the dinner dishes.  I went out with my binoculars and could see the entire moon above the smile with my binoculars while a plane flew right through the body of the moon on it’s way to Warwick.  There was a thin black line moving north to south (from my perspective) under the moon and at first I thought it could be a flock of geese, but later realized it was a cloud.  I noticed a couple more thin clouds forming below the moon.

7:48  –  I thought I had lost the moon but it dropped out from behind one of those thin clouds falling toward the colorful sky near the horizon.  It didn’t take a very wide cloud to conceal it. The smile looked more reddish orange than yellow now.

7:54  –  The moon was about 1 diameter from the horizon and looking like an orange smile passing through the last strip of black cloud.

7:58  –  The “smile” touched down and quickly disappeared.  The moon appeared to be further north when it set than when it first came into view and the distance between Venus and the moon appeared to increase as they headed for the horizon.

I did a little more prowling around  reinforcing my memory of all the objects that I am familiar with, while hoping to get a glimpse of the zodiacal lights. I did notice that the sky seemed to be a bit lighter but decided that it must be light from the sunset still coming through. It’s possible that it was the lights that I saw but because I didn’t realize it, then it doesn’t really count  – to me.  I will try again tonight.

Thanks for the heads up,

I’m not sure how much  going in and out she did, but to see the zodiacal light you need perfect wetaher, minimal light pollution and complete dark adaption -preferably for half an hour or so.

After that, the key for us was to look at the sky behind Orion and Canis Major and compare it to the sky beneath the Hyades and Pleiades – moving your head back and forth among these two views shwed a remarkable difference in contrast. The sky beneath the Pleiades was much like the sky to the east of Canis Major where the winter Milky Way dove for the ocean.

Paul, another star-hopper, summed it up nicely it was not just a

homerun..it was a game winning grandslam!!
It was a night to remember and savor for a long time!

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This morning was the kind of session I love – no real agenda, no set up – and I was very well rested. The last is because  I went to  bed at 8 pm, too exhausted to take advantage of the clear skies – and right after about 90 minutes of napping. I didn’t get up until about 1 am, so I felt great.

Adding to the cheerfulness was this little note from Paul doing some missionary work in Honduras:

. . .   Honduran charts have really come in handy!
Where I am staying here in Honduras I have access to the roof where last night I saw Canopus!
and this moening Alpha Centauri! Spectacular sky with mountains just far enough back not to interfere with the view!

That’s terrific. I’ve prepared charts before for folks going on trips, but too often either events or weather or light pollution cancels out any star gazing. Good to know that isn’t the case for Paul.

Temperature was a balmy 42 when I started and skies were both steady and clear – average to above average on both counts.  First out was the 50mm. I’m really enjoying putting this little scope to the test. This morning it began the session by delivering a charming rendition of Castor – as a double. I could not see the 9th magnitude, more distant “C” companion. I used the 6mm Plossl to  achieve a nice split, but I have trouble holding my  head in position for that eyepiece. I found I could split it just as well with the 18mm Meade and a 2X Shorty Barlow.

I switched to Algieba and found the same combination worked wonderfully – just a charming white star with tangerine companion.

These two encouraged me to go after Porrima, high in the ssw.  Not wih the 50mm, of course, but with the 80mm/ 8-inch combination. I had some success. With the 2.5mm Nagler in the 80mm I got a very clear figure eight. With the 5mm in the C8 I got a dancing “8” that wasn’t nearly so satisfactory. The two stars also aligned themselves roughly north/south – leaning a bit to the east – hmmm, that would be a PA of about  – well really, close to 0  or 180 depending on which is the primary –  I’ll have to check and see if that’s right – right now I’m tired and need to go back to bed.

OK – just checked and it’s PA is around 23 which is in keeping with my “roughly north-south leaning a bit to the east”  description.  So I feel confident saying I saw a figure 8 – but this is not what i consider a true split.

Once in this general vicinity I decided to go galaxy hunting. I stumbled pretty quickly upon  some of the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies, though I still don’t know this territory well enough to name what I found from memory.  I was reminded of the last time I cruised this area mapless and was fooled by M53 and the Black Eye Galaxy. So this time I went to the charts, took a quick peek as to where these two should be, and quickly found M53 which has a chain of fairly bright stars leading down to it. Examining it with the C8 I don’t know how I could think it was anything except a globular cluster – but then, my mind was sure I was in galaxy territory, so  I saw what I expected to see.  I also found M64, the Black Eye Galaxy, a bit northwest of it. I studied it trying to discover from where it derived its name without much luck.I know it has a dark, dusty area near the center, but while I kept seeing things I thought might be dark lanes, I saw nothing with certainty. Have to try again another time – be a nice task for the 15-inch with its recoated mirror – when it comes back.

Having moved to this general terrirtory I couldn’t resist using the 50mm to take a look at Cor Caroli (I love the sound of that name!)  the “Heart of Charles,” a favorite and easy double. It was high overhead, but I found it quickly and while I first checked out the split with  the 18mm eyepiece (33X), it was really quite easily split – and charming – with the 32mm. (19″ gap)

I need to make a list of “best” objects to see with the 50mm.

M13 was quite nice this morning, but while it looked sort of like a pudding at 66X, I could not resolve individual stars in it. In a way the most satisfying sight was M51. I could clearly see that there were two objects – but to be honest, I think a beginner would skim right over it and even if I pointed it out to them, they would stare and see nothing. Observing galaxies with such a tiny scope is definitely an acquired taste. The only ones thatbelong on a beginner’s list with a small scope of M31, M81 and M82.

I tried to split the Double Double and with no success – even with a 3.5mm Nagler. (171X)

At this point my tea was cold, my hands were cold, and it was time to come in. But I had  had a great two and a half hours. Interesting. My tea in its insulated mug seems to last exactly as long as I last on any given night. That is, once it gets cold, I’m cold – and, of course, when the temperature is 20 that happens much more quickly.

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Rose and Joe came out last night for a couple hours of star-hpping. They both used their ownbinoculars,  the 50mm Tasco, and the  80ED/C8 on dual mount.

First target was the Beehive, which shows well in the 50mm at low power. ( I switched froma  40mm Plossly to a 32mm Plossl which seems to give about the same field, at slight higher (19) power.) The next step up is the 18mm Meade wide angle which gives about 33X and works beautifully on M42, just barely reveal the Trapezium.  Barlowed,  it does even better.

Joe found the Beehive witht he dual scopes, then Rose did and Rose also found M35. I showed them NGC2158 right next to it – but much,much fainter since it’s about five times farther away.

High clouds came in just as we were wrapping up, but before they did Joe was able to locate M37, M36, and M38 with his binoculars.He had been having a frustrating time with them earlier, but I think that was because they were straight over head – an uncomfortable and idfficult situation,

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