Saturday, July 14, 2007

Dark Skies Delight

For those of you pying close attention, yes, this entry is backdated. I have a burning desire to get my astronomical observations (such as they are) up online, but have a lot of trouble actually typing them up because I'm usually so doggone tired for several days after I go observing that it's tough to keep my eyes open, let alone type. (And for those of you to whom I owe email, this is also my excuse for that lapse...)

This report actually covers two different viewing sessions. The first was Thrusday, July 12. On that day, Elise went to school, Andy and I kicked back and went to see the new Harry Potter movie, and then we all went our separate ways for the evening. With a going-away to-do for one of Andy's colleagues, eBay night at the local ballpark and monthly pizza night with the moms' group, we were triple booked. Because Elise actually managed to take a nap at school, I figured she and I would ditch all of it and go stargazing instead.

So, I packed up the car with telescope, small tent and padding, blankets, books, snacks, water, warm clothes etc. and off we went to Coyote Lake. (This is pretty much my default viewing site until something better/closer comes along-it's pretty handy.)

Elise didn't like the idea of coyotes, even when I told her we wouldn't see any. Finally, I settled for telling her that they run and sometimes swim and definitely take naps. Well, as long as they take naps sometimes they must be okay after all. We saw cows, horses, turkeys, donkeys and a good number of deer on our way to the park, so that at least was pretty exciting. It's also interesting to note that while Elise is very sensitive to loud noise, she is also weirded out by silence. The few times I persuaded her to stop chattering and listen to the birds and the crickets she was distinctly uncomfortable. Apparently, a mom can't win on this one.

The tent turned out to be a super idea. It's got mesh panels on top so Elise could lie back and look at the stars through the roof, but she didn't like doing that much. We brought a kid-sized folding chair and blankets which suited her fine, but really by dark she just wanted a familiar place to sleep. So, after a half-hearted attempt to see Venus and Jupiter, Elise asked to sit in her carseat. Where she slept for the next 3 hours while I looked at the sky.

I concentrated on Messier objects because it seemed like the thing to do. So, I saw M6 and M7 with no trouble. I had seen them when I was out with Lou before, so it was nice to know I could get back to them. Then I was proud to find M4 on my own. Tried for M80 but didn't make it, so will have to try again. In my notes I have written that I'm getting good at looking for smudges and then homing in on them, but I think that may have been overstating the case a bit. I also drew out my view of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which I'm sure dazzles nobody but me.

Elise and I were both tired and crabby on Friday, and she was doubly so on Saturday. We will not be doing these stargazing trips together on a regular basis as they could be bad for our relationship and for family harmony long-term.

On to Saturday, I went out on my own for my first night of new-moon observing. I met Peter there, and also Bill (who brought his wife along this time!) as well as Alex, someone else I never ended up talking to, and a guy named Michael who brough his very fun 6 year old along.

The clear sky clock is really handy for figuring out when to go/not go to a darkish sky site, but I am still learning my way around it. It looked like a potentially rotten night, but turned out to not be that bad. A lot of wind early on, and then a LOT of dew, but otherwise decent enough to be getting on with. Really, unless it's extra cold or clouded over, any night is a good night for getting out with the telescope, I'm deciding.

Venus and Saturn are setting too early now to really get a good look, and it was so windy and weird that they didn't resolve at all when I tried. Jupiter, on the other hand, was looking pretty good (but again a little wobbly due to the atmosphere). The fun part about Jupiter was seeing the shadow of one of its moons on the surface, always a thrill for me. Dunno why that makes it seem so much more "real" but it does.

Due to problems aligning my various finder equipment the last two times out, I had been having a lot of trouble finding the Ring Nebula. I finally managed it tonight! For some reason I remembered it looking neater than the fuzzy donut I saw, but that may just have been my own wishful thinking.

Then, I wandered around and found M71. It showed up as a nifty smudge and I could pick out some nice individual stars under higher magnification.

I really like the name of the "Wild Duck" which is an open globular cluster, so I set out to find that. And got thoroughly frustrated. It turns out that I was following the directions I had completely wrong. Luckily, Peter was there to rescue me from my folly and I finally got to see it! Didn't really see the resemblance to a duck wild or otherwise, but now that I know where it is I'll visit occasionally and see if I can improve my imagination.

Toward the end of the evening, as things were geting dewey and the glow from the Great Outlet Malls of Gilroy began to intrude, Peter introduced me to the Andromeda Galexy and to the great square of Pegasus. Looking over my star charts, I think I'm going to be spending a lot of time with Pegasus this summer.

And, I've decided that a worthy goal might be to give lots of confusingly named things my very own confusing names. Watch this space for exciting renamings of Messier objects, other catalog objects and creative new asterisms. I figure I should be doing my part to render name memorization obsolete and just focus on how cool stuff looks and what kinds of things science can discern about all of it.

The only thing that marred the evening was my attempt to leave the parking lot without lights on. This is usually not an issue since I've always been among the last to leave and then I'm following someone else. Alex kindly offered to point the way out with his red flashlight. If anyone else out there is looking for tips on leaving a dark parking lot by the light of a flashlight, let me suggest the following:

1. Get the dew off your windshield.
2. If you had the radio on when you arrived at the site, this would be a good time to turn it off.
3. Regardless of how cold/numb you are, a few minutes with the driver's side window rolled down might be prudent.

Luckily, the Santa Clara County Parks know how to construct a sturdy fence, and such fences don't do much damage at low speed. "Didn't you hear me shouting, 'Stop!! Stop!!!!'?" Alex asked me once I had cleverly stopped. I hadn't.

Astronomy teaches me so many fabulous new things! I'll be sure to keep you posted...

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