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.

Friday Night Lights and Monday Highlights

Waning Moon
Waning Moon approaching Jupiter (Fri Aug 10, ’12)

Very early Friday morning, I caught the waning moon approaching Jupiter and Aldebaran. You could draw a line from Venus to Moon and cross over or near Jupiter.  The skies were clear and should stay clear throughout the day and into the night, with a forecasted high in the mid-80s, twenty degrees below what we’ve been experiencing for the past several weeks.

Derek and RoynaFriday at work was a whirlwind of meetings, including one held off site at another local law firm.  I got home a bit early because one of my vanpool riders took the day off, but within fifteen minutes of getting home, my son and daughter-in-law arrived from their all-day road trip from North Texas.  We visited with them for an hour and half, when they left to drive into Kansas City to spend the evening with several of their friends who still live in the area.

Terry cooked an excellent southern comfort food type dinner of chicken-fried minute steaks, organic green beans with turkey bacon, mashed potatoes and home-made white gravy.  Too bad the kids didn’t hang around long enough to chow down with us.  Terry and I let our food digest a bit, watching the Olympics until the skies darkened enough for some star gazing.

I grabbed the XT8 (affectionately known as ‘Dob’) and carefully carried it out to the lower backyard.  This time I took a small table to put my charts on.  I set my case of eyepieces on the ground.  I brought out the Intelliscope handheld device to attempt an alignment.  This device, unlike my ETX-90’s AutoStar, is only used to identify objects, not ‘go to’ them (since the XT8 does not have any motors).  The Intelliscope can help you find objects with a warm/cold kind of seeking system.  I still haven’t bought a stool to lean against, so my back aches a bit this morning.  I did a two star alignment, finding and centering Arcturus first, then Vega.

I wanted to revisit the Double Double in Lyra to both confirm that I could find it by star hopping and to attempt to see the double within the double.  I asked the Intelliscope to ID what I had centered in the eyepiece and it claimed I’d found the Crab Nebula.  Hmmm.  That’s in the constellation Taurus, which isn’t visible until early morning hours in the east.  I must have done something wrong in the alignment process.  I powered off the Intelliscope device and made a note to myself to re-read the manual in the morning.  Since I’d already found Vega, I spent several minutes comparing my star atlas to what I was seeing in the finderscope.  I found Epsilon Lyrae and observed it with 26mm, 15mm, 9mm and a 2x barlow (using the 26mm and 15mm).  Despite the apparent clearness of the skies, I did detect some haziness and thin stratus clouds overhead.  That may have inhibited my ability to split the doubles within the doubles.

I hopped over to Albireo in Cygnus, just to make sure I could find it again without referring to my star atlas.  I used a trick I had read about from some artists who do astronomical sketching where you defocus the stars, especially doubles, to discern their different colors.  I did this while observing Albireo and I could clearly see the red and blue for each star in the double.  I stretched my back for a few minutes and stared off to the northeast, at Cassiopeia, which I could clearly see as a distinctive ‘W’ shape.  I could not see the constellation Perseus, but I did see one or two meteors radiating from the space between Cassiopeia and where Perseus should have been visible (but wasn’t because of the haze and light pollution from the prison just north of my location).

I returned to the scope and began a star hop around Lyra in search of M57, also known as the Ring Nebula.  This was a test, for me, not only of my ability to find this fuzzy smoke ring, but also of an 8-inch telescope’s ability to cut through the obstacles inherent at my closest observing site (my backyard).  I surprised myself.  I found the nebula, quicker than I thought I would, and I even saw it through the finderscope.  It probably helped that Lyra was almost straight up above me and the telescope, meaning I had less atmosphere to peer through.  Using averted vision, with the 9mm, I could clearly see the ring.  I used the background stars to focus, because you can’t really focus well on a smudge that’s fuzzy and faint.

Since I found and saw a nebula with the XT8, I wanted to see if I could find a globular cluster next.  And I just happened to know where one was.  M13 in the ‘armpit’ of Hercules (see chart above) happened to be overhead, somewhere between Altair and Arcturus.  I had some trouble locating the stars that make up Hercules with my naked eye.  I took several minutes, stretching my back, to peer overhead, but towards the west, and Arcturus.  Eventually, the star dots connected in my mind’s eye and I found the constellation.  I oriented the XT8 to the general vicinity where I thought M13 would be.  I think I saw it through the finderscope, although I can’t remember specifically.  Using the 26mm eyepiece, I centered the globular cluster in my field of view and proceeded to observe this large dense cluster for several minutes with various magnifications.

I stared off into the northeast again, still trying to find Perseus and also Pegasus.  If I could see the Andromeda Galaxy (also known as M31), I would achieve a triple crown of astronomical observing from my backyard with the XT8 (1: nebula; 2: globular cluster; 3: galaxy).  I spent nearly a half an hour, roaming around my backyard, changing my point of view and line of sight to the northeast and east.  I found Cepheus, but no matter how hard I squinted or averted my eyes, I could not clearly identify the box that makes up the body of Pegasus.  Frustrated, and with an aching back, I decided to call it a night at about half past eleven o’clock.

I returned the telescope to the band room and replaced all the dust caps.  I hugged my hubby, for he had brought me a refreshing freshly made strawberry lemonade to enjoy while bending over the telescope for hours.  Off to bed and sleep, at least until the dogs started barking when Derek and Royna returned home (sometime after midnight and before five – not exactly sure as I tried to sleep through the commotion).

My alarm only fires off on weekdays, but most days I wake up fifteen minutes early.  Not Saturday morning though.  When I cleared the sleep from my eyes and checked the clock on my cell phone, it read 5:45 a.m. and I could already tell the eastern horizon was brightening.  I grabbed the tripod and camera and went out to the driveway to take a photo of the Moon approaching Jupiter.

Waning Moon Approaching Jupiter
Waning Moon Approaching Jupiter (Sat morning Aug 11, ’12)

If I happened to live in the Pacific, today I would be able to observe the moon occulting Jupiter.  But I won’t be too disappointed, since I can observe the moon occulting Venus next Monday afternoon, between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m.  I plan to take a pair of binoculars and my camera equipment with me to work.  I will setup on the top of the parking garage and hope I have a clear line-of-sight through the buildings to the west to see the occultation as it occurs.

But tonight I plan to find a dark sky location and take in as many meteors as I can, raining down from Perseus.  I better take a nap this afternoon and set an alarm for one o’clock Sunday morning.  Don’t want to miss the best meteor show of the year!