(Written one morning in late January 2012, a day or two after this event.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!