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Archive for March, 2012

(Written one morning in late January 2012, a day or two after this event.)
SkySafari Pro screen shot of the Centaur and his wonderful globular.

Suddenly it is 3 am! And right up there where horse-meets-man is where I want to soar – but first . . .

I have been waiting patiently for hours, trying to sleep and not sleep – that’s the problem when you agree to meet someone. Or my special problem. I don’t have an  alarm that I know how to use and I don’t want to wake up others with it anyway  . . . so I sleep for three and a half hours, then wake up too early and have no choice but to lie there, resting but not sleeping for two and a half hours – then in the last half hour I fall asleep and wake up with a start realizing I have almost missed my appointment.

But surely, Victor, our host, either won’t be there, or he’ll be late. He didn’t show another night when I had invited him and thought he had accepted – and that was for 7 pm, a much more reasonable time to observe for most people. In any event, it can’t be helped. I should explain I’m somewhere a bit south and west of the Middle of Nowhere, as indicated on this map.

Indian Pass is where the red dot is – not quite as deserted as it might look here, but far enough away from civilization to have very dark skies.(Click image for larger view.)

The forecast was for 49 degrees this morning. I don’t know the temperature, but I pull on a sweatshirt, then another, then my light winter jacket and a scarf, and a watch cap, and gloves and I’m ready to face our deserted area of Florida’s Gulf Coast. I am in Indian Pass, an area a bit easy of Port Saint Joe that is sandwiched between a huge national forest to the north and east and the Gulf to the  south with a large, wildlife refuge – St. Vincent Island – to the southeast. In other words, a very deserted, very dark section. I love it.

Sure there are houses next door but there is only one light visible and it is well down the beach and a subdued yellow color not doing any harm.  I carefully make my way down the first flight of stairs coming out of the tree-house-like “Barnacle,” our vacation home for two weeks.  This is the last dark morning we will be here and a cold front has passed leaving clear dark skies that the local Clear Sky Clock say should by now have settled down so that transparency is a four out of five and seeing is above average as well.

The boardwalk first climbs up a dune, then reaches this point where you can look down on the beach and Gulf well below you.

Who knows – I do glimpse some stars overhead, but mostly I am in a canopy of Live Oaks and an occasional Cabbage Palm as I walk first across the stone of the driveway, then broken shells and past Vic’s house – a bigger version of our own circular structure sitting high on rugged stilts, and begin my first climb up a flight of stairs in the dark, dimly lit by the red light hanging from my neck.

There are 40 or 50 steps between me and the beach and fortunately a railing beside all but the last 10.  I’m 70 and although I’ve lost a lot of weight and feel in fairly decent shape, I have developed the older person’s fear of stumbling. This is just a tad crazy coming out here alone in the dark, but I’ve planned well, having carried most of my equipment out here in three or four trips around dusk. It is now on the last flat section of boardwalk in plastic boxes. All I have to do is take stuff out and assemble it – screw together the counterweight shaft to the mount, and add the counterweight, then carry the assembly in one hand while using the other hand on the rail as I descend to the beach. There is a rail here – it’s the other end that doesn’t have one on the last descent to solid – well, somewhat solid – sand.

Oh my god! Look up, Wait. I’m too involved in trivial details. Just look at those skies! Dark as I have ever seen in my life. Darker, really then I have seen nearly every clear night I have ever observed. Two weeks before when we first arrived here they were more transparent, though. Just incredible. Bren came out and loved it! A zillion stars. The Winter Milky Way brighter than the Summer Milky Way on my best night’s in Westport – and the Zodiacal Light. Now that was like the Milky Way reaching up in a huge cone to the west, easily surrounding Venus in the evening sky and licking at Jupiter high above.  I have detected the Zodiacal Light in Westport. At Indian Pass it couldn’t be missed. That was the first evening – a most welcome introduction to the darkest skies I’ve ever enjoyed in  more than half a century of sky gazing.

They were never repeated, though I had three clear nights – maybe four – in a row and I did some wonderfully simple and enjoyable observing. The most notable experience had been an earlier excursion to this same beach over the same board walk – but on that occasion I had a much simpler – and lighter – rig. It was my old parallelogram mount -a Charlie Funk special – on a light, Voyager tripod and these incredible – cheap, but very serviceable – 100mm , 25X Zhummel binoculars.

That was my introduction to Omega Centauri and I was blown away.

NASA image of Omega Centauri – not quite what I saw, but what I saw certainly was mind boddling enough. Clcik image for larger view.

I had SkySafari 3 on my Ipad and had it with me in red light mode and so I knew where and when to look. But I was amazed at how easily I found it, just scanning the southern horizon with  10X30 binoculars – geeeeze, it’s as big as the full Moon – bigger actually – just a huge, bright puff ball that can’t be missed in the smallest binoculars. There’s simply nothing else like it. Sure, I can detect M13, M3, even M98 in these same binoculars – but only because I know them so well and know what kind of a tiny, blurry spot to seek. This – this was different. And in the 100mm binoculars it was simply awesome.

OK – maybe this screen shot from Sky Safari Pro is closer to what I actually saw with the 25X100 binoculars – but by any measure, an amazing sight!

I sat in a beach chair and drank it in, sucking down those photons from what? Five million stars, 15,000 light years away, jammed together  in a compact globe – a globe with a rough texture at 25X, hinting at the individual stars which made it up. Incredible. Simply incredible.

Where are the words for this kind of experience? How do you capture the gestalt of being on this gorgeous beach, the waves rhythmically lapping the fine sand providing a muted, base section that even my poor hearing can detect – and nothing and no one else – not that can be seen – in any direction. Nothing – nothing but the whole bloody universe and this gorgeous globular cluster – the largest in our galaxy and almost the largest we know. (There’s one larger in the The Great Andromeda Galaxy, well-known for its globular clusters, but of course it takes a huge telescope to see that one.)

No this is incredible and what will follow – one of my early goals for this trip, though seeing Omega was the main one – is visual wanderings among the local family of galaxies – what is known as the Virgo Cluster.  It’s a confusing patch of sky containing dozens of  galaxies within reach of these powerful binoculars and I figured this was a great way to get to know it better. I have wandered there before with scopes of all sizes ranging from 80mm to 15-inches. But while I have identified some individual galaxies, I really have not had a firm grasp of this section of sky – of which galaxy is which and how to quickly find my way to one of particular interest.

Talk about a Star Trek! How easily we bend our minds around the absolutely astounding. Each galaxy – each small, barely visible even in the large binos – fuzzy dot represents 100 billion stars or so, their light having travelled something in the order of 30-to-50 million years to  enter my eyes and ping my brain as I sit comfortably on this deserted beach. How do you experience it? How do you convey feelings you can’t name?

And here I was again, the sky gods opening things up for me on the waning hours of my two-week visit. How nice. How gorgeous. How startlingly bright is Sirius, over in the west – the gleaming nose of the Big Dog as he dives behind some distant trees, chasing his master, Orion. (The hunter was there earlier and it is not hard for me to imagine him. I spent several evening observing sessions with the brilliant Orion Nebulae as a major target of my binoculars and scopes.)

I had come to Florida well-equipped with binoculars and new binoviewers for two scopes – the Televue 85 and the Celestron C6.  I had a drive system for this mount as well. But for this last look on this starlit morning – the Moon had long set, unlike that first look at Omega Centauri when a last quarter Moon had challenged it, yet dimmed it surprisingly little. Anyways – for this last look I had stripped things down to just the C6 and the EQ mount, sans electronics. I did so both because I needed to pack most stuff for an early departure the night before and because there really was only so much stuff that I was willing to drag up and down that boardwalk over the dunes.

And now I was assembling it – the C6, the eyepieces, the . . . wait – here’s Vic. A white light on the path, dim – I say hello, and he says something. Who knows what. I tell him if he waits until I’ve set up the scope and put in my hearing aids I might understand him. He helps, carrying the observing chair and a few odds and ends and shortly we’re in business.

I can’t see Omega Centauri yet. My eyes aren’t well enough dark adapted because the set up took too much light. But I know where it should be and using only the red dot finder, I quickly get the scope trained on it. I’m using a 24mm Panoptic eyepiece – maybe a one degree field or so – I’m not sure exactly. The diagonal is the “power switch” from Denkmeir that I got primarily for use with the binovciewers. But I’ve packed them. Earlier experiments had shown that they dreadfully unbalance the little 6-inch catadioipric, forcing the electronics to work too hard and me to come up with a real Rube Goldburg balancing scheme involving strapping the battery pack to the front of the scope with a bungy cord. That worked one night. But I wasn’t about to screw around with it on this last clear morning.

No – here I would return to Cyclops mode – one-eyed viewing and the Denkmeir “power switch” would provide some reduction of power and thus some widening of the field of view – so let’s call it one and half degrees. Whatever it was, it was perfect! There was Omega Centauro looking exacty – I mean exactly – like its picture in SkySafari Pro – but blown up now from the binocular view with plenty of individual stars visible – about like this. (Less the crosshairs – could find the right button to click to get read of the danged things in the software.)

And can you get your mind around it? I can’t and I’m not at all sure Vic could. He looked. I think this was his first look through a telescope at the night sky.  How could anyone taking their first look appreciate Omega, the end-all of globular clusters? I don’t know. We get so little visual information actually reaching us and we are so dulled to the wonders of the world by the drum-beat of wam-bam television and computer games and whatever – well, I just don’t know how to convey it.

You need to experience it – but there’s more. You need to experience it with deep awareness. And I find that a challenge because truly deep awareness isn’t something you can find – it’s something that finds you. It wasn’t finding me – and I had no real good indication it was finding Vic. So I showed him Saturn, riding high in the morning sky next to Spica – a blue and yellow pair that looked for the world like the Gemini Twins on this morning, though I knew that famous pair were well behind me and headed for the ground.

Saturn got his attention. I mean, who can resist the ringed planet in a small telescope?  It has the biggest wow factor of anything up there. But Vic doesn’t seem like the wowed type, though he did seem impressed. And he also was impressed  by Mizar and Alcor – split it with his naked eye, too – wish I could do that. I need to get my eyes checked when I get home and I definitely need some distance glasses that correct this astigmatism.

By the time we had done Omega, and Saturn, and Mars, and M13, and Mizar, though. Vic had had it. “I’m freezing my ass off,” he said. “I have to go in – thanks!” Well of course he was. He was wearing shorts and maybe a sweat shirt or something – what he used, he said, for running on the beach. And he learned the hard way that observing the universe isn’t nearly as warming as a brisk run. You stand around a lot, barely moving and 49 feels like 39 or maybe 32.  Even through the gloves my hands were getting cold.

But I persisted. I now had two hours of observing to myself – as I did on that other morning when I used the big binos to track down a dozen or so of the galaxies in the Virgo cluster, I really know that skyscape now. That is, I have the main outlines of it in my head and am sure, without reference to a chart, I can easily find M84/85, M60 and M58, and M – well, you get the idea.

By the way – I had begun that galaxy hunt by first looking at the Leo triplet, high overhead. OMG! I mean, usually when I look at the Leo Triplet to see a double – M65 and M66. I think it’s M66 that seems much brighter and it leaps out at me – M65 is clear. But that third galaxy – bigger and dimmer – is something that falls in the “detectable” category. You find it. You sense its presence, but you don’t observe it.

Not so that morning-of-the-interfering-Moon-and-huge-binoculars-and-very-clear-skies. No that morning I would go looking for the familiar “J” of stars that usually lead me to these three galaxies and I would find instead the three galaxies and they would lead me to the “J” – incredible.

That little experience in very familiar territory led me to explore the Virgo Cluster and get a map of it in my head – something I won’t lose or forget to bring with me another time 😉

And I went elsewhere, too – to M81/82, of course. I mean never better. And to the Whirlpool – M51. It was really astounding. What was it? The clear skies? Or the 100mm binoculars – perhaps the equivalent in light grasp of a 120mm scope? I don’t know. But something sure was different foir me that morning. It was simply the best feast of faint fuzzies I have ever consumed.  Yeah, I even saw M108 and M97, the elusize Owl Nebula – and M101 was spectacular as well, high in the northeast. Oh – I even quicly found M95/96 and what is it – M105 with its companions in Leo’s forepaw – or shoulder – or maybe rib cage. Anyway – magnificient.,

But tonight I had a scope. And Vic had gone in. And I was once again alone with the universe and I could let the sight of Omega seep in – Omega, which scientists now think may actually be the core of a dwarf  galaxy that got  gently ripped apart over the course of millions of years as it a careened into our Milky Way. That would help explain its size and the different colored stars in it indicating different ages. I looked for those colors – felt they were there, but I cna’t say as they screamed out at me.

All I can say is it looked just like its pictures – and yes, I also went and found nearby Centaurus A – a special galaxy whose specialty I couln’t remember, but myf riend John had urged me to check it out, so I did. It looked like a dim star enmeshed in a very uneven – was that a dark lane – faint haze. Quite large and at 11-oclock and perheaps six degrees away from Omega. In fact, it would be less than that because in the 10X30IS binos I could see both Omega and  the faint haze that was Centaurus A – need to do some research. What exactly was I seeing?

Oh – and I couldn’t resist splitting Porrima – wonderful Porrima – easily split at a moderately high power by the C6. This evenly-matched pair is getting farther apart, but they still presented me with battling diffraction rings on this morning.

I also did a survey with the small binoculars. I saw how Omicron looked in them – then I looked at M13, the most spectacular globular I usually see – it looked like a toy – I couldn’t get that word out of my head – a toy – it just couldn’t hold a candle to Omega. But I continued the survey. I looked at M92 and M3 and then one I wasn’t too familiar with, M4 in Scorpius now getting nicely up in the southeast.

Oh my. Nothing will compare with Omega. And when I return to Westport I’ll have nice skies and I’ll explore with these instruments and I may – on occasion – I hope – be wrapped in awe.  But Omega will be over the southern horizon – well, maybe it will just peek up if I got down to the ocean at just the right time and have lots of luck. I’ll have to try.

As I packed up about 6 am I looked at the rising glow in the east – the first hint that we were turning towards our Sun – and there was the full Scorpion completely above the horzion with wonderful, hooked tail. It was a great sight to leave – formed a bookend with the setting Great Dog in the west as I carefull climbed the steps, the C6 in one arm, one hand for the rail, and plunged down into the darkness past Vic’s darkened home and to the half-packed car under our own little Barnicle.

What a perfect morning. What a perfect vacation retreat. What an icnredible star trek!

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OK, I wasn’t born yesterday, and the number of scopes I’ve owned and used extensively is well over 100, so why am I getting excited about  a cheapy version of a SCT “go to?”

SE6 after an enjoyable first hour of exploring the universe through the clouds and cold.

And I guess the answer is it just proved itself to be a very acceptable performer optically and electronically – and for my particular needs at this particular stage in my life, it’s a very good fit. Of course there are better optics available – and in a modern SCT.  But the combination of my old eyes, plus what I expect out of an astronomy experience, plus price, ease of use, and ease of transport and set up makes this little scope hard to beat. It is just what I was hoping it would be.

It arrived late yesterday afternoon from Amazon.com in one big box and was simple to unpack and set up – but it was raining of course – freezing rain. So I read the manual. Even though I was pretty familiar with the system from past experience,  I needed a refresher. I put some batteries in the scope and played a little to get the feel of it, pumping in my latitude and longitude, a one-time thing –  and I decided that the two-star alignment would work best for me because I know the stars – I don’t need the scope to pick them for me – and because I planned to use it on the deck where only about 40 percent of the sky is available to me, so stars the little sand brain choose would likely be behind a tree or house that it didn’t know was there. Then I went to bed with not much hope of using it in the morning.

But I was wrong. I awoke around 3:30 am and when I peeked out the bedroom window, there was Mars & Company screaming for me to come out. Without getting dressed I went down stairs and put the scope out the sliding glass doors onto the deck to cool down. Then I relaxed, put on some long underwear and made some tea. By 4 am I was entering the time and date and choosing Arcturus for my first alignment star. Of course I hadn’t had a chance to align the red dot finder, but it wasn’t that far off. A little scrolling brought the orange brilliance of Arcturus into a 32mm Plossl (46X and a tad over one degree FOV I suspect.) I then choose Vega and through  a hole in the clouds, found it, though by this time Arcturus had been smothered.

Did I mention the bright stars that beckoned me were  in a  sucker hole? If not, you now know the derivation of that term – they sucked me right out into the 30-degree night – had me walking gingerly, as flat-footed as possible, over a deck that had  a fresh dusting of snow on it. And yes, there were clouds moving fairly quickly across the stars, covering a significant percentage of the sky at any given moment. That’s why the first “go to” failed. I tried for M57 and immediately found it covered. It may have been barely visible, but I thought this is a silly choice for these conditions and 46X. So I went to M3 which was in the open at the moment – and darned if it didn’t put it pretty much in the center of that 32mm eyepieces – and I loved it! Well, loved it for the next 30 seconds before the clouds took over again.

But I pulled up my observing chair and started going through my small collection of cheap Plossls – nothing fancy here – that I had put in the eyepiece tray/spreader  – the 25mm Plossl that came with it, plus a 20, 15, and 10 of mixed heritage that came out of the box of long-ignored eyepieces. I never did try the 10 – nor the barlow. I just didn’t get the conditions and I was too enthralled with the view of M3 followed by M5 to want to fool around with changing eyepieces. I was comfortable sipping my tea and enjoying the sights both in the scope and with my naked eye. Passing clouds can be fun sometimes, first revealing, then hiding, then revealing again.

My last target was Mizar and while it didn’t place it dead center, it certainly worked – and the view was surprisingly sharp. I mean, classic, bullet-hole stars as long as I placed my head directly over the eyepiece. ( I don’t know if this is a symptom of old age, SCT optics, or the particular  Plossls I was using, but getting your head position just right sure does make the difference between flaring stars and good crisp ones. )  In any event, I used Mizar to do at least a rough alignment on the red dot finder.

Oh – and I wasn’t using the AA batteries I put in it – I was using a Power Tank I had handy and that’s obviously the way to go.  And with the Mizar sightings the clouds really got serious. But I had an hour of off-and-on viewing and  enough time to feel really impressed with the scope, though I never even checked collimation which, after its journey from wherever the heck these are made, is probably off, though the view of Mizar seemed to say it couldn’t be too far off.

Here’s what I liked:

1. Convenience. I can leave it set up next to the sliding glass door and at 21 pounds I can pick up the whole thing – including eyepieces – and have it outside in seconds. Another few seconds for grabbing the Power Tank, my observing chair, and tea and I’m home free. Putting it away is every bot  as easy.

2. The “go to” system. Until very recently I had sworn off these entirely.  Now I’m wondering why? What the hell am I trying to prove and to whom? That I know how to connect the star dots? That I don’t need a computer to find stuff for me in the universe?  Sure, that’s true – but with “go to” I can dispense with the connect-the-dots games. There’s a danger of losing a sense of context, but my continued binocular use gives me plenty of that.  And heck, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide in my head pretty well – but I would still rather use a calculator most of the time.

3. Tracking is right on and I love it. I went   and out several times when the clouds came over. I spent plenty of time in  a warm room with a red light on, giving my hands a chance to catch up with the rest of my body – they do get damned cold, damned fast. And when I came out the object I was viewing was right there int he center of the eyepiece waiting for me.

4. Optics. The sharp stars in the globulars and the bullet hole stars of Mizar were evidence enough for me that I was not making a huge sacrifice here. Yes, the contrast is down a little and yes, I wouldn’t mind having a little more light grasp. but six inches is enough to show me the kind of major deep sky objects I enjoy – the ones that have the power to develop that coveted sense of awe.

And that sense   awe has a better chance of finding me if I’m not all wrapped up in simply finding the next object, or  toying with complex eyepieces – or for that matter, binoviewers. Yeah, I’m cooling on them again.  We’ll see – but right now I’m thinking they add weight, instability, and complexity to the system and that all may be more than its worth to use two eyes at the scope. But we’ll save that for another day – or night, rather.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to trotting down to Gooseberry with this modest scope and taking on Mercury – hope it will be high enough and I can see it soon enough to get a clear picture of its phase.

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