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Posts Tagged ‘M11’

Remember a summer evening when you were maybe 12 and you stayed out past sunset? And sunset faded into twilight which faded into night and you knew your Mom would be worried, but you just lay there on the grass, looking up, fascinated as the stars came out?

For me those evenings were filled with a mixture of wonder and confusion. They still are, but on a deeper basis. Last night was such an evening – only colder 😉

But I rediscovered for the umpteenth time the deep pleasure of simply looking up – and I enhanced this by adding a comfortable, swivel beach chair, a parallelogram mount, and a very nice pair of 10X50 binoculars – which in sum led me through a space walk in my new and much larger “backyard.”

It began close to home shortly after 8 pm with Saturn high in the southeast, Mars high in the south, and memories of Venus and Mercury, now well below the treeline, if not below the horizon to the northwest.  Together the four did a beautiful job of defining the ecliptic.  This is particularly true of Saturn and Mars, both just a tad north of it.  But Saturn also is a reminder these nights of where the southeast-to-northwest arc of the ecliptic crosses the more easily defined arc of  the celestial equator. Yes, I really do think about this stuff when I’m out there because I’m trying to develop an intuitive grasp of where we are in the universe  and this helps.

Suddenly it all fit together so nicely. The projection of earth’s equator is an easy one – but the ecliptic I usually find more elusive, but not last night. Then it  just seemed so obvious that these little dots of light – Saturn and Mars – were sitting on a disc – the same disc on which I was lounging in my beach chair in my little gem of a spaceship, Earth.  Here we were on the plane of our solar system where almost all the local action is. I wish I knew how to bottle that experience so I could take a sip of it whenever I wanted. Most of the time all this talk of planes and arcs and planets remains in an abstract world. I understand the words, but they have no meaning at the gut level – last night they did. Last night they they left the realm of mere words and  numbers and were real.

That’s the sort of thing I always seek – but too rarely find. But it didn’t end there. The night before I had enjoyed a brief tour with some 10X50 Pentax PCF WPII binoculars I had picked up recently on Astro-Mart. They give a crisp, five-degree field of view that stays sharp to near the edges. But I quickly tire of holding them up, so for tonight I had brought out the “Suntracker” swivel beach chair – my favorite for binocular use – and a rather battered parallelogram mount made to my specs by a guy in Tennessee  several years ago.  At the time I wanted something fairly short that didn’t crowd my observatory, but now I use it on an old Meade field tripod and in the open.

But what was important here was a new lesson in patience.  I not only was staying away from the DoubleStar mount which had scopes already to go, but I really took the time to get comfortable in my chair,  and get the binos well-balanced.  This is absolutely critical.  I want them to float in front of me and when looking straight up, they should not put any pressure on my face. Then I went out in space. It was a real trip!

My tiny backyard vanished – everything around me vanished – thanks to using both eyes – and I felt I owned the universe. It was my new backyard and I was just roaming around from one familiar spot to another –  M35, 37, 36 and 38 of course – then over to M44 and Mars spinning past, splitting the two donkeys – then down to ancient M67 and eventually over to the Leo Triplet where I settled down for a long look. Yes, I could see M65 and M66 in the 10X50s, but I had to pretty much imagine NGC 3628. Maybe others can pick it up with 50 mm? I feel good if I can see it with an 80mm scope.

And that’s where I eventually went – to the 80mm APO  which I gradually worked up from 16X to 37X. It was on the UA DoubleStar mount with a C8 and I switched to the bigger scope and I swear I saw these galaxies better than I ever had before and I think the reason was simple. No, it was not because transparency was excellent and seeing pretty darned good as well, though that certainly helped. It was because I had had the patience to get totally – and comfortably – immersed in the universe the way I know I should, but too seldom do.  I always seem to think I can cut corners.  What was important for me was to mentally and emotionally get the context down pat using naked eye and binocular, then slowly inch up on both power and light grasp, making each instrument deliver all it could before moving on. Delightful! When it works the way I think it should, this experience is way beyond my skill to express it.

In the final analysis I don’t think any of the equipment matters. What matters is simply learning how to relax.  I’m not talking meditation here – though that’s important to me – but learning to accept the fact that you’re going to take a beautiful night like this and really devote it to just a few objects. (Think of it as going to the Magic Kingdom and instead of hitting every ride in a marathon day, you just go through the Haunted Mansion – several times. [-)

And what was the best lesson of the night was learning – or maybe relearning – how to sit in a chair.  No kidding. I think lying back in the grass and looking up is the most natural approach to the night sky and I’m sure our species has been doing that for thousands of years.

But put binoculars in front of your eyes – binoculars held firmly in a very steady mount –  and it is still so easy to strain just a little and not even know you’re doing it. The position of the binoculars isn’t perfect, so you just raise your head a tiny bit and maybe twist it. The big mistake is you are, perhaps  subconsciously,  trying to bring your eyes to the binoculars  instead of bringing the binoculars to your eyes. Well – at least that’s been my problem in the past. I always thought that when I grew up I’d learn to be more patient. Maybe I’m growing up. 😉

In any event the evening session lasted a couple hours.  If I were younger I probably would have made a night of it. Conditions were terrific. But instead I came in and eventually got to sleep around midnight and didn’t get up again until 3 am. Still, this gave me a chance to repeat the process and extend my vision from the solar system to the galaxy. For once I was back on the observing deck and my eyes had reasonably dark adapted, the summer Milky Way was quite high overhead. The northern parts near Cassiopeia were lost in the light dome from New Bedford and North Dartmouth, but from Cygnus down through Scutum it was terrific. What really struck me was the varying intensity – the big rift you get between Cygnus and  Aquila, then the really bright clouds you find as you hit Scutum. My treeline blocked off the best parts that go down into Sagittarius towards the center of our galaxy, but what I could see was enough to give me a vision much akin to the one in the evening session where I could really see our planet sitting as a lonely speck on the great disc of our solar system with a few other lonely specs, Saturn and Mars.

Now the planets were mostly out of the picture, but that greater disc – this one much puffier, but better defined –  was obvious. And again I found it easy to envision our tiny star as one of millions in these clouds that spiral out from the galaxy core.  In a sense it was disc against disc – one in my memory from a few hours before and running across the sky from southeast to northwest – and a much puffier one now cutting across at a much different angle from northeast to south. Both these define our home – our place in the universe.

I spent more time in the chair not using the binoculars – just captivated by the naked eye vision.  But I at last did a little exploring of the familiar.   I looked for M57 but with 10X I could not decide which faint dot among several was a little blurry, so I swung on down to Albireo.  But  with 10X I could not split it. (Have others been able to with small binoculars?) It showed some gold, but no blue and nothing I could call two stars. So I kept moving eastward until I hit M27 which was certainly large enough to make an easy target.

Next I played with my own little piece of mythology – using the well-known Coat Hanger as a jumping off point. I think it was Bren who suggested that this belonged to the Fox, for the obscure constellation of Vulpecula is nearby – and we have always had fun thinking about this worn out little fox, returning to his den, a bit sweaty, but happy that he had once more eluded the hounds – and, of course, hanging up his red hunting coat on this starry coat hanger.  Having invented that – and I’m laughing at myself here because I am really not a big fan of constellation mythology – I can appreciate how ancient people, sitting on the ground at night, looked at the stars, connected the dots, and let their imaginations go wild.

From the Coat Hanger it was a short slide down past Altair to one of my favorite open clusters, M11. And with the first hints of dawn showing I moved quite quickly to the 80mm, got M11 in view, and then shifted to the C8. This fascinates me. At one moment it looks like a printed circuit board – at another, the streets of a well-planned city. There is something very regular, almost rigid, about the pattern of stars in this cluster that belies its nickname of “Wild Duck.”

The circuit board metaphor works for me, but this morning I liked the city one even better. The single bright star that dominates felt like the Empire State Building to me – and the dark lanes – a blotch really – that enter from the west could be a celestial version of Central Park – and at that point I have exhausted my very limited knowledge of the Big Apple.  But twilight was really taking over and I just had to check on the Double Double to see just how good the seeing really was.

Very good. So good that with the 24mm Panoptic in the C8 – 83X – I was getting a nice clean split of both stars. And they were perfect round dots at higher power in the 80 mm with as textbook clean a split as you can obtain.

Yep – and there’s more of this weather in the forecast for tonight! We’ve been building towards it gradually. Saturday gave clear skies for a while, but really horrendous seeing and not that good transparency. Each night since I’ve had  some hours that were better than Saturday, but none as good as last night. For me, it’s a few hours like these that define amateur astronomy. May we all have many of them!

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