Saturday evening I headed south to Louisburg to volunteer for my second scheduled night of the 2012 Powell Observatory public season. My dad decided to tag along, to enjoy the show and help keep me awake for the long drive home. We left Lansing about twenty minutes after five and my car’s external thermometer reported 106 to 107 degrees, which has been our afternoon average for about a week now, give or take two or three degrees either way. We stopped in Bonner Springs to grab a quick, cool sandwich from Subway and returned to the highway just shortly after six o’clock. I needed to be at Powell Observatory by seven o’clock to help prepare the facility for the weekly public program and observing night.
As we approached Louisburg from the north, I noticed a definite increase in the wind, so much so that my car was jostled several times. At the same time, I noticed a significant drop in the external temperature. By the time I exited US-69, the thermometer read 92 degrees, and was still falling. Except for early mornings the past couple of weeks, I had not seen or felt such low temperatures while the sun still shone. I pulled into the west observing field parking area and realized I was again the first person to arrive. Since the temperature had dropped, I turned off the car and opened all the windows. The breeze felt incredibly refreshing.
My team leader arrived within a few minutes and I received my Powell Observatory ‘Staff’ T-shirt, which I changed into as soon as the building was unlocked. I helped setup the class room for the program, ‘Sounds of Space.’ Another ASKC member arrived and setup his ten-inch Dobsonian for solar observing and I caught a glimpse of some great sunspots before our public guests began arriving. The clouds provided some dramatic solar observing situations.
I repeated my role as gatekeeper and accepted donations from the public and queried them for their ZIP codes to record for future grant petitions. The first group of twenty-five guests began the ‘Sounds of Space’ program at 8:30 p.m., but I soon had at least that many waiting for the second showing. At one point as I sat waiting for more guests to arrive, what I thought was a stray dog wandered into the observing field, soon followed by three horses, two with riders and a third colt between them. They trotted across the field to the west, with the dog trailing after, riding off into the sunset … literally.
As the sky continued to darken, despite a few wispy clouds, we opened the dome so those waiting for the next program could observe Saturn and a globular cluster found in the constellation Scorpius. I didn’t get a chance to look at the cluster through the 30-inch scope, but I believe they looked at M4, which is near the bright star Antares.
We ended up having nearly ninety public guests Saturday evening and ran a third showing of our program. After the last two guests had left the dome a bit after eleven o’clock, I quickly snuck a peak at the Ring Nebula in the constellation Lyra, one of the Messier Objects I’ve been trying go get a glimpse of for quite some time. Lyra is also home to the very bright star Vega, one of the three stars that form the Summer Triangle.
As the final guests drove away, my team members and I began cleaning the building and storing chairs, tables and other items for the next Saturday. I signed myself out of the Observatory at 11:35 and gathered up my dad for the long drive home. He related information he’d gleaned from another team members about various types of Dobsonian telescopes and helped keep me alert as we sped north towards Leavenworth County.
Next week, we present a program on ‘Our Amazing Moon’ and the following week we’ll pose the question ‘Is There Life Out There?’ We look forward to showing you the astronomical sights (and sounds).
I stepped outside just before 9:00 pm to let the dogs out and shocked myself with the sight of actual stars, something I haven’t seen in weeks (it seems) with the unrelenting cloud cover, rain and thunderstorms plaguing the Heart of America this month. I grabbed my camera and tripod and setup just east of my mailbox, hoping to capture photographic evidence of the overwhelming light pollution saturating my neighborhood.
Not only does everyone on my court leave every outside light on, they feel compelled to illuminate their driveways, fences, sidewalks, trees, boats, etc., etc. The clouds in the above picture are actually illuminated by the glow from the Lansing Correctional Facility (just a half mile north of my neighborhood).
Again, the neighbors to my south, on the south side of Fawn Valley, seem to be in competition with the Bambi Court Extreme Illumination Foundation.
I could barely see the handle of the big dipper, so I thought I’d try experimenting with long exposures using the Pentax K100D. There was no wind where I was standing, even though I could see the thin wispy clouds moving casually from west to east across the backdrop of the Big and Little Dippers. I set the camera to Shutter Priority Mode and selected a six second exposure for a half dozen shots of the northwestern, north and northeastern skies. The most dramatic shot, after autocorrecting with basic photo editing software (and I apologize for the greenness of the resulting photo), follows:
I packed up the camera and tripod and thought about heading to bed. I tried to read more from the Backyard Astronomer’s Guide but gave up around ten o’clock. I got up to let the dogs out one final time and, as I always do, I looked up when I stepped outside. I always look up. The clouds had cleared away more and I could clearly see the Big and Little Dippers from my back patio. I grabbed the tripod and camera again for some more experimental shots using an exposure of fifteen seconds. The following two photos show Ursa Minor and Major in one shot:
I rode the astronomical roller coaster yesterday. I started Wednesday with an e-mail from Celestron warning me of a week delay in shipping my new finderscope. Since the forecast for the rest of the week looked thunderous, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. Later, in the afternoon, I received the first of many calls from my father, reporting he had received the ‘new’ ETX-90 base motor drive he won on eBay last week. He hooked up the optics from the other ETX-90, trained the motors per the manual, and happily reported smooth, quiet operation. He trained the telescope on the Moon later in the afternoon to study the tracking capabilities of the drives.
I found one of my expected shipments when I arrived home from work. I ordered the Meade specific cable and serial adapter for the Autostar from a telescope/optics supplier. I also found a large manila envelope from the Astronomical Society of Kansas City. It included details about my new membership, upcoming meetings, local observation sites and other benefits and learning opportunities. The next general meeting, open to the public, is a week from Saturday (April 23rd at 7:00 pm), held in room 111 of Royal Hall on the campus of UMKC, about a block west of 52nd Street and Rockhill Road. A talk on Solar Astronomy entitled “Solar Observing Basics,” will be presented by Neta Apple.
My husband and I ate a quick easy supper of frozen pizza (yeah, so healthy, and we forgot to start off with a salad!). The band started arriving, so I settled down in the great room to catchup on three days worth of missed Jeopardy! episodes. Monday’s game, first round, included a tricky River City category that stung one contestant several times, since the first four of the five answers were ‘What is the Rhine?” Other fun categories were Homer (Simpson)’s Odyssey, Ends in “SS” and Measure This! which included the clue “Contrary to its name, this signature cowboy accessory would actually hold about 96 ounces.” Monday’s Double Jeopardy! round had some great categories, some of which I cleaned up on, including “EU” first, Blue Literature, Amendment Highlights and Ancient Egypt. Final Jeopardy! round: Goegraphic Adjectives stumped me but all three contestants answered correctly. Tuesday’s game had some tough first round clues in A Capital Idea? and the Autobahn Society. Double Jeopardy! Round fun categories included Fictional Movie Bands and Men in Pink. Final Jeopardy! Round: Baseball & The Presidency again stumped me and one contestant.
Midway through Wednesday’s game, I received my second call from my father, crooning about the moon. I knew I had some work to finish remotely last night and some more DVR cleaning to accomplish, and I thought the forecast for last night included increasing cloud cover, so I declined his invitation to come join him in lunar observation. Even though I had paused the replay of Jeopardy!, I didn’t really pay much attention to the first round, besides the categories Thinking Green and Virgin Berths. I paid more attention to Double Jeopardy! round including the fun category Lost Texts from Ben Franklin, Picture “D”is and You’re So Colorful. Yet another difficult Final Jeopardy! Round category: Nobel Peace Prize Winners, where all three contestants and myself could not guess the correct two Prime Ministers.
The band took a break from rehearsing and I decide to forgo working remotely. I changed clothes, hopped in the car and phoned my dad. I arrived at his house around half past eight o’clock, with a sky still showing after sunset glow and the moon diffused by some scattered thin clouds. I had brought the box with my cable, the USB/Serial converter cable, and a couple of Astronomy books with me: a small throw-it-in-your-purse Field Guide and a large lift-with-your-legs-not-your-back full-color Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, which I hadn’t even cracked open yet since I checked it out from the library a few days ago.
Rather than traipsing through his house, which appeared to have many bright lights on in the living room, dining room and perhaps the kitchen, I slipped through the east side gate and made my way cautiously past the thorny rose bushes to his backyard. Even though last week was the ‘official’ Global Lunar Week, we gazed at the moon, watching the clouds pass quickly in front of it’s bright surface, still giving us ample detail to review. I noted the quietness and ease of movement in the motors and looked forward to attempting an actual alignment, if the clouds cooperated. Eventually, the northern celestial hemisphere cleared enough for us to dimly spy Polaris (the clouds, the streetlights and the US Penitentiary conspire to enhance the glow north of my father’s house). Once we could see Polaris, we adjusted our polar mounting and attempted an alignment (as best we could since Arcturus was obscured by thin clouds and trees to the northeast and Capella was the only star visible in it’s constellation, making it difficult to determine if in fact, it was Capella).
To test the alignment, we told the Autostar to “goto” or find Sirius, colloquially known as the ‘Dog Star’, the brightest star in the night sky in the constellation Canis Major, and a near neighbor to our solar system at a distance of only 2.6 parsecs (or 8.6 light years). Considering we were unable to confirm the actual alignment through Arcturus or Capella, the Autostar still managed to get Sirius in the viewfinder scope field of view, allowing us to fine-tune and center Sirius in the eyepiece of the telescope. We had difficulty finding Orion, not usually a problem since Sirius and Orion’s belt ‘line up’ in the night sky. Dad finally spotted Orion’s belt, among the trees to the west and partly obscured by the clouds. So, continuing our alignment test tour, we selected Betelgeuse as our next stop from the Autostar. Again, the viewfinder held the image of the star, but not quite in the eyepiece. We centered and synced again.
The only other star visible to us, thanks to the moon’s continued brilliance, was the last point of the Winter Triangle, Procyon in the Canis Minor constellation. Yes, in honor of my two Rottweilers, Roxy and Apollo, we spent some time in both the ‘greater dog’ constellation Canis Major and the ‘smaller dog’ of Canis Minor. While we were in this section of the sky, I pulled out the Field Guide to see if there was anything worth hunting to test the telescope and Autostar alignment further. Using the red flashlight, I found the appropriate star atlas and read the accompanying paragraph of local attractions. The Beehive Cluster, also known as Praesepe (and so listed in the Autostar, but we used it’s Messier objects number (M44) in the menu system). This cluster, in the constellation Cancer, can be viewed under dark skies with a low power telescope or even binoculars. However, the Moon’s brightness and the hazy thin clouds were conspiring to grey-out everything in the area, except lone Procyon.
By this time, Saturn had risen high enough in the east-southeast, and the clouds had receded, for us to observe it. Again, the Autostar successfully re-oriented on the ringed gas giant and we spent quite a while and several eyepieces basking in the glory of it’s rings. Using the 9mm eyepiece, I was able to see the shadow of the rings upon the surface of Saturn and the gap between Saturn and it’s rings (but not the gaps between the rings). A large tree limb interfered for ten or fifteen minutes with our further observation, during which I never really did find Titan. In checking Sky & Telescope‘s web applet for Saturn’s Moons this morning, and subtracting about twelve hours, Titan may have been behind Saturn or it’s rings for me to find it in my telescope.
We returned triumphantly to the lunar landscape, glowing gloriously almost directly overhead by this time (sometime after ten o’clock or even half-past ten). I again used the Field Guide to locate a map of the moon so we could identify some of the craters near or on the terminator. We gravitated towards the craters around Mare Imbrium, spotting Plato (the dark ‘spot’ in the upper right-hand portion of the picture), Archimedes, Artistillius, Autolycus, Copernicus and Kepler (perhaps … not completely sure and it’s not strictly near Mare Imbrium). As the clouds were closing in on the moon, Dad and I started tearing down the telescope and relocating all the equipment, lenses and books inside and I finally headed home for a mere six hours of sleep, dreaming about rings, impact craters and distant binary stars.