Grasping at Stars

Sunday morning bracing autumn walkDespite a busy weekend of van maintenance (oil change/tire rotation), hair maintenance (shampoo, cut & style), yard maintenance (leaves, leaves and more leaves and now pine needles), home improvement projects (refinishing lower kitchen cabinets) and exercise (very long walk with Apollo), I squeezed in an hour of star gazing after a night out with Terry and friends at Jack Stack on the Plaza.  I’ve been wanting to get the scope out for a couple of weeks now, but the evening skies have not cooperated, remaining hazy at best or completely cloud covered at their worst.  Upon parking the car in the driveway Saturday night, I looked up and decided the skies looked good enough to attempt some star gazing.  I didn’t even take my purse into the house.  I drug the telescope out of the garage and began hunting down more targets on my Astro Quest observing award checklist.

I did make one trip inside to retrieve my binoculars, pocket star atlas, clipboard and checklist.  I used Jupiter to re-align the finderscope and spent several minutes enjoying an interesting moon alignment (see image above).

Using binoculars, I easily found the Andromeda galaxy and the Double Cluster (between Perseus and Cassiopeia). I checked off two stars from my list, Algol in Perseus and Gamma Cassiopeiae.  Since the constellation Pegasus was nearly directly overhead, I went hunting for the Triangulum galaxy, also known as M33.  I could barely see the three stars in the constellation Triangulum, but no matter how hard I searched (with binoculars, not naked eye), I could not find this galaxy.  I should have been able to trace a line from M31 through two stars in the constellation Andremeda (Mu and Beta Andromedae) to find M33, but I was defeated once again by urban (and prison) light pollution.  I had hoped to stumble upon it with binoculars, especially since M31 was so easily visible and found (almost naked eye Saturday night, but not quite).

Cepheus constellation
Cepheus constellation

I became more chilled as the evening wore on, neglecting to put on my sweater and just ignoring the 40 degree temperatures.  The lack of wind helped shore up my illusion of warmth.  I thought I’d try one last object before packing the scope up and returning it to the garage.  I went hunting for the Garnet star in the constellation Cepheus.  With my naked eyes, I could barely make out some of the stars that form the ‘house’ asterism.  I knew the general area to look for Mu Cephei so I aimed my binoculars between the alpha and delta stars.  Whoa!  Way, way too many stars visible, thanks to the backdrop of our own Milky Way galaxy.  Staring again with just my eyes, I squinted against the light pollution, but could still only see some of the anchor stars of Cepheus and no Milky Way stars.

I gave up, because I knew I would need to study several star atlases closely and device a star hop from Alpha Cephei to Mu Cephei, a trail I would need to memorize, so I wouldn’t have to take my reading glasses on and off while attempting to observe.

Pegasus constellation
Pegasus constellation

Another star trail I need to work on is finding M15 in the constellation Pegasus.  I really shouldn’t have had any trouble finding M15, since you can draw a nearly strait line from Theta Pegasi through Epsilon Pegasi to point to that globular cluster.  Either my skies were not dark enough, or I kept misidentifying  Enif (Epsilon Pegasi) in my binoculars.

If Only I Had a Retractable Roof Over My Bedroom

I couldn’t sleep.  Not surprisingly, insomnia occurs more frequently as I age.  Sometimes, an external force interferes with my snoozing, but I refuse to point fingers.

Laying in bed, staring at the vaulted ceiling in my bedroom, I wished I could wave a hand and temporarily retract the roof.  Then I’d be mostly above the treeline and able to setup the telescope for more comfortable viewing.

Sighing, I slipped on my clothes at 3:30 a.m. and retreated downstairs to the vaulted great room, grabbed the telescope I left mounted to the tripod there and took it outside.  I quickly realigned it roughly on Polaris and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  I surveyed the northern sky, quickly found Cassiopeia and Perseus, but the light pollution from the Lansing Correctional Facility and the tall trees in my northern neighbor’s yard didn’t help find Comet Hartley 2.  I think a field trip to Perry Lake may be in order for this weekend.

Turning to the southeast, I quickly spied Orion directly over my chimney.  I aimed the telescope at Orion’s belt and may have seen a monochromatic glimpse of the Orion Nebula in his sword.  Both Orion’s belt and sword contain many nebulae, but I need a darker sky to view them properly.  I survey Rigel (beta Orion – brightest star in Orion (left foot) and sixth brightest in the night sky); Betelgeuse (alpha Orion – 2nd brightest star in Orion (right shoulder) and 12th brightest in the night sky); and, Bellatrix (aka ‘the Amazon star’  (left shoulder).

If you draw a line through Orion’s belt, it points to two of the brightest stars in the sky:  Sirius (aka ‘the Dog star’ – the brightest star bar none and only 8.6 light years away) and Aldebaran (alpha Taurus and the 13th brightest star).

I turned the telescope to the west, where I found Jupiter peaking through the branches of one of my pine trees.  Yep, it was still there and still had moons, although one of the four I observed earlier was hidden behind Jupiter.

I forgot my sweater so after about thirty minutes I brought the telescope back in and should probably retreat back to my quiet dark bedroom.  Nah … my alarm goes off in two minutes (it’s now 4:58 a.m.)

Good morning!