5/30 Astronomy Report

The weather looked promising last night, and the ClearSkyChart was reporting good news.  At around noon, I shot a quick e-mail over to a few of the people I’ve viewed with before, and was happy to get a quick response from Barry (who lives near Rattlesnake) that the skies were in fact clear.  I cleared my calendar for the night, and packed up my gear.

I arrived at Rattlesnake at around 9pm, and was surprised to see 3 other people already set up.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one with the great idea of stargazing tonight!  By the end of the night, we had 9 people and telescopes: Sam (Dobs), Skip (SCT), Jim (SCT), Barry (SCT), Jon (Refractor), Denis (Dobs), Mohammad (Dobs), Marius (SCT), and Michael (Newt and Refractor).  I’m pretty sure that’s everyone that was out there, and if you happen to stumble across this and I left you off – I’m sorry.

I hadn’t planned on staying out terribly late tonight (told Diann that I’d start breaking down my gear at around 1am), and with the sun setting at 9:15 that gave me only a few hours of actual darkness.  By 10:15, you could just start making out the Milky Way overhead, and then we were greeted by the ISS passing over.

Last night’s viewing breakdown:

Favorite objects of the night: M4, M94, and M101.  M94 had a super-bright central core to it and on M101 I could just start making out the spiral pattern of the galaxy.  I think it’s fair to say that my night viewing is steadily improving over time – I was also able to make out individual stars in most of the globulars I looked at last night.

64 Messier objects down, and 6 to go before I can file for my Astronomical League Messier Certificate.  46 to go until I hit all the Messier objects.

The weather is warming and the clouds are vanishing

Seattle in the summertime, oh how I love it.  Today, the temperature breached the 80°F mark, and there hasn’t been a cloud in the sky.  A sign of things to come.

M31, M32, and M110 As has become common practice for me now, anytime there hasn’t been clouds, I’ve been out at night with the telescope and last night was no exception.  I decided to take Friday morning off from work, so I could stay out late on Thursday.  I headed out to Rattlesnake Lake and set up my telescope around 9pm, and arrived back home at 4am.  The moon was nearly full last night, which put a damper on finding a lot of things – faint fuzzies are hard to spot in moon glow.  I did manage to knock a good deal of objects off my Messier list, and was shown some phenomenal views in Barry’s brand-new 11” Celestron.  Consider me jealous of telescopes with goto capabilities: I’m tired of manual setting circles. :)  I’m also exceptionally jealous of his 41mm Tele Vue Panoptic.

A few awesome things from last night, before I get into the technical nitty-gritty of my viewing.  The moon set at about 3am.  Simultaneously, we noticed three things: coyotes starting howling, the milky way suddenly showed up overhead, and Jupiter came up from over the hill and tree line.  Awesome stuff.

Last night’s viewing was primarily spent hunting open clusters and globulars, as they were the most visible.  I did manage a few nebulas and galaxies, too:

Not a bad night of viewing: 19 Messier objects I hadn’t seen before.  I was particularly impressed that I was able to star-hop to M63 and M64, as they were buried in moon glow by the time I got to them.  M64, in particular, was tough: I could just barely make out a slightly brighter spot in the moon glow than the surroundings.  I’ll definitely need to go back to it on a darker night.

The atmospheric conditions weren’t all that great, and this was obvious when Jupiter came up.  If I slightly defocused the telescope, I could see major air currents over Jupiter; even when in focus, I couldn’t make out any of the cloud bands.  I can’t wait to get better views of it later in the year when it’s higher in the sky.

I’m now up to 54 Messier objects viewed, with 56 to go until completion of all Messier objects.  Only 16 more until I’ve completed basic work required for the Astronomical League’s Messier Club.  A good portion of the 56 remaining are winter-only items, and I hope to wrap up the rest of the summertime items at various star parties this year.

I’ve got my process for stargazing pretty well locked down now.  I create a list of the Messiers (or whatever I want to look at that night) in AstroPlanner, and print out the list.  I also take with me a list of alignment star coordinates (so I can set my manual setting circles), and a pencil.  As I’m running through the printed list, I check off things I find and make any relevant notes or quick sketches.  I’d like to supplant this with a digital audio recorder at some point so I can talk through observations rather than writing them down – it would be nice to be able to document things without leaving the eyepiece.  The next day, I log my observations in AstroPlanner, and write up a blog post with lots of Wikipedia links.  I’ll also often compare what I saw to imagery in the WorldWide Telescope to make sure I saw what I think I saw.  I’ll probably put together a post in the near future about what all I bring onsite to aid others that are learning this stuff, as I am.

[edit May 19 – fixed a bunch of grammatical errors.  I must have been tired when writing this!]

Cold weather and more viewing

I looked at the Clear Sky Chart for my local viewing area a few days back, and I noticed a wonderful combination of things: Friday night was scheduled to be clear and the moon wasn’t going to rise until 2am.  Friday night being a weekend meant I didn’t have to get up early the next day.  I quickly sent out a few e-mails to the local astronomy group to see if anyone else was planning on showing up at Rattlesnake Lake.  Sure enough, a bunch of people said they’d be there:  I needed no more reasons.

Boaz tagged along, and we headed out there at about 8pm, just around the time of sunset.  Starbucks coffees in hand, and covered in several layers of wool, we waited.  Other people started showing up around 8:30pm as it was getting dark, and by 9:30pm we probably had a half-dozen telescopes setup.  Around 11pm, most people left, but a guy named Jim, Boaz, and I stayed out until 2am.  It was well worth it!

Last night’s bounty included:

And that’s just the stuff that I saw through my telescope.

Items I found new appreciation for last night:

  • Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas.  My observing still is maturing: I started off looking at only things I know (i.e., Orion nebula, Pleiades); I moved up to understanding celestial coordinates and using R.A. and declination to locate items; and now I’m star hopping with the Sky Atlas.  I found that a few times, I would like at something (using R.A. and dec) and then move on to the next object on my list — only to find that there were other objects just barely out of the viewfinder.  Using the Sky Atlas last night was great — we got every Messier object in the Virgo Cluster by starting with Vindemiatrix (? Vir) and ? Vir and then jumped from galaxy to galaxy.
  • Green laser pointers.  I’ve got to get me one of these; two people out there last night had them, and they make it amazingly easy to point out things.
  • Hand/Toe warmers.  Those little chemical packets you stick under your socks and in your gloves.  They’re very handy at 1am when it’s literally freezing outside.
  • Double stars.  You might think looking at two stars very close to one another is boring, but it’s pretty cool when the two stars are of vastly different color spectrum, like Albireo.
  • We’re tiny, and life is short.  All the stars you see in the sky that are so far away?  They’re all in our galaxy.  I saw other galaxies that are over 60 million light-years away.  The light from those has been traveling for 60 million years before it reached my eyes.  That’s astounding.

Telescoping in the Cold

M51 and NGC5195 Last night we had some clear skies, and the Seattle Astronomical Society called an impromptu star party at Rattlesnake Lake.  Rattlesnake is much closer to the Cascade Mountain range, and farther away from the bright city lights of Seattle.  Since it’s closer to the mountains, it’s also a lot colder than the low-lands: it was about 40°F when I arrived at 7pm, and had dropped to 32°F when I left at midnight.  There were about 6 telescopes setup at peak (I remember seeing a TeleVue 76, Vixen ED100, a vintage Celestron C8, my Meade LX50, a 10” dobsonian, the behemoth: a 20” Obsession Dobsonian) and a bunch of super-friendly amateur astronomers that were happy to help those of us that were newer to the field.

I was one of only three people not using either digital setting circles or a go-to mount, and things were complicated for me around 11:15pm when my motor drive stopped working for some reason.  I was able to knock out 15 Messier objects all by hand (using RA+Dec or star-hopping), including: M3, M36, M37, M38, M42, M43, M44, M45, M51 (and its companion galaxy, NGC5195), M58, M67, M81, M82, M86, M99, NGC4438 (Eyes Galaxy).  Favorite view of the night has to be M3, my first globular cluster.  Second favorite view of the night was M81/M82 within the same field of view: my first galaxies.

We also were treated to some phenomenal views of the ISS flying overhead twice: once just after sunset, and once around 9:50pm.  The second fly-by was amazing: pitch dark skies, and the bright ISS flying overhead – and then I noticed something much smaller following it at a distance of about 20°- the Jules Verne ATV, which just docked at the ISS this morning.  Lots of satellites/space debris flying by, including several at polar orbits.

Great night of observing, overall.