Last week I posted about counting stars, assuming I’d have ample opportunities to star gaze any evening, thanks to one of the worst droughts since the early 20th century. And that same evening, a week ago on Monday the 8th of October, I took my binoculars with me to the backyard at 8:30 p.m. and let my eyes adjust for night vision for fifteen or twenty minutes. A few wispy clouds striated the night sky and a high school football game just a block away to my northeast made for less than stellar seeing. I estimated I could see fourth magnitude stars in the constellation Cygnus, but knew I could see better if the conditions improved bit. I’ve seen more stars in that constellation from the exact same spot in the past, including last year’s star count. I decided not to report my findings on the 8th to the Great World Wide Star Count web site, opting to observe on a succeeding evening.
As the week wore on, I began to despair. Clouds rolled in on Tuesday or Wednesday and stubbornly blocked the sky, but didn’t drop much rain, until Sunday morning. I am overjoyed for the rain, but disappointed at the lost observing opportunities. Rain all day, but please dissipate when the sun sets.
My next opportunity to observe came Sunday evening, after a long day of hanging garage doors. We called it quits around 8:30 p.m. and sent my dad home to get some rest just after 9:00 p.m. I didn’t remember about the star count until Monday morning, when I stepped outside and saw Venus, Jupiter, Sirius, the Pleiades and Orion for the first time in a week. I went back in and got my binoculars for a quick fix of planet, star, open cluster and nebula observing before leaving on the morning work commute.
Monday evening, I got home to more progress on the garage doors and wispy clouds during sunset. Grrr. I took Apollo on a short walk after eight o’clock. During our walk, I kept trying to look up at Cygnus, but with it being directly overhead, I risked tripping over something if I tilted my head back far enough to observe. Once back home, I went right back outside and laid down on my patio. After fifteen minutes or so, I determined I could see fourth and possibly some fifth magnitude stars in the constellation.
I texted my husband, asking him to bring me my binoculars. I didn’t want to get up (still very sore from the garage door project and my strength training exercise class at work) and/or ruin my night vision. He graciously brought them to me, and I went looking for the double cluster in Perseus. I think I found it, but I couldn’t’ confirm it because my star atlas was locked in the backseat of the car on the other side of the house, where I’d left it after my final stint as a volunteer staff member at a Powell Observatory public night. Saturday night, the one where thunderstorms and lightning further discouraged star gazing.
Tonight, after raking the front lawn under the odious burr oak tree, I will try to catch the new moon just after sunset and then drive to northwest Leavenworth County to places I frequented in my youth. I will repeat the star count and compare notes, so to speak.
If you haven’t observed and reported your star count findings yet, you still have four days. The deadline is this Friday, October 19, 2012.
My dad contacted me Thursday to coordinate conveyances for our weekend astronomical adventure, thinking we would be attending the monthly ASKC club meeting, but he was a week early. Since I had mentioned earlier in the week a desire to see the glorious summer spread of our own Milky Way Galaxy, he had called me several times the past few days to see about driving to northern Atchison county to escape the Kansas City area light pollution. Both Wednesday and Thursday evenings turned out to be hazy and cloudy, so we nixed the road trip north.
Instead, I suggested we attend the monthly star party at Powell Observatory. I received two confirmation e-mails from David Hudgins, the club’s star party coordinator extraordinaire. I decided to leave my scope at home because you don’t really need a scope to take in the Milky Way Galaxy. If the skies grew dark enough, it would stretch from the southern horizon, up over the top, clear to the northern one.
I thought perhaps I was reliving last Friday (that would be the 13th) because when I got home early (by ten minutes) I walked into some surreal drama. I won’t go into the stressful week at work (we’ve all had weeks like that), but I looked forward to forgetting work and ignoring the excessive heat by reading books and watching movies in a quiet, air conditioned home with my hubby and two Rotties. I came home to find our satellite on the fritz and Terry needing me to pickup a prescription before the pharmacy closed at seven. While he cooked dinner, I did some preliminary troubleshooting of the satellite system with little success and decided to call DirecTV customer service, knowing I’d probably be on hold for several minutes. The technician wanted us to disconnect, check and reconnect all of our cables, which seemed a ridiculous request since the cable runs are static and have not been touched, moved or manipulated in years. After almost ruining supper in an effort to jump through DirecTV tech support hoops, we hung up on them and sat down to eat.
By now, I had less than an hour to pickup the prescription, so I grabbed my purse and drove to the store. I got as far as the pharmacy counter, where the assistant recognized me and had the prescription ready for me, but when I opened my purse, my billfold was missing. I had left it in the van because I stopped at Starbucks after work for a mocha frappacino treat for the drive home. Now I had to return home for my billfold and repeat the trip back to the pharmacy, a wasted trip, time and gas. When I returned home the third time, Terry had solved the satellite system glich. With our excessive heat and drought conditions, the ground supporting our satellite dish pole has dried up so far down into the ground, that the pole can now be easily moved back and forth and twisted on it’s concrete base. One of our dogs could have bumped into it and messed up the alignment. Terry used the signal strength meter diagnostics channel on the satellite receiver to dial the dish back in.
Hoping that would be the final challenge of the week solved for the moment, I called Dad just after seven o’clock and told him to head my way. I gathered up my camera equipment, my pocket star atlas, a large hardcover edition of Backyard Astronomy (to review Milky Way info), my purse (with billfold) and a lidded glass of cool water. I asked Dad to drive this weekend, volunteering to drive next weekend for the July club meeting. The hour jaunt to Louisburg passed quickly and we arrived at Powell just moments after sunset. The evening cooled off nicely, but remained calm, clear and surprisingly dry. In fact, we experienced no dew (the bane of telescope optics) until after midnight.
Several club members were already present and setting up their scopes in the East Observing Field (click photo above for photos taken upon our arrival). One member, Mike Sterling, introduced himself to me (asking if I was ‘the’ Jon Moss … apparently my name is known, if not my face or gender, from my blogging). He was in the process of collimating his 20-inch Dobsonian. My dad provided an extra pair of eyes to help finish. Mike also gave us a color brochure published by Astronomy magazine of the illustrated Messier catalog. This will come in handy in the future when I really get serious about an observing award.
The theme for this month’s star party centered around star charts and atlases. David Hudgins setup a table displaying several popular and easy-to-use books, visual aids and posters. I indicated to David I already owned the Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas and a smaller version of the wheel night sky star guide (the circular atlas resting on top of the poster in the upper left hand corner of the table shown in the photo above).
Dad and I wondered among the scopes, waiting for twilight to fade and the stars to emerge. Saturn and Mars, along with Spica and Arcturus appeared very early and most of the scopes honed in on our ringed neighbor. By 10:30 pm, the skies had darkened enough to begin hunting for some of the brighter Messier objects. Mike graciously asked me (several times over the course of the evening) what I wanted to observe next. I drew a blank every time because my goal had been to see the Milky Way, not any specific object viewable in a scope. He obligingly filled in the blank by touring through clusters, nebulae and a galaxy found in the constellation Sagittarius, Scorpius, Hercules and Ursa Major. I tweeted the objects as we found them so I would have a record of what we saw and when.
My dad and I also used his binoculars just to see what we could see with them (as opposed to a scope). The highlight of that side project included finding Brocchi’s Cluster (more commonly known by the asterism ‘the Coathanger’). One of the other club members used the Summer Triangle as an aid to locating the Coathanger. As stated in the Wikipedia article: “It is best found by slowly sweeping across the Milky Way along an imaginary line from the bright star Altair toward the even brighter star Vega. About one third of the way toward Vega, the Coathanger should be spotted easily against a darker region of the Milky Way. The asterism is best seen in July-August and north of 20° north latitude it is displayed upside down (as in the picture above) when it is at its highest point.”
* Update * (added after original publication):
I completely spaced out tweeting during the eleven o’clock hour. During this time, Mike disconnected the Goto electronics on his telescope and set me to star hopping for objects near Sagittarius. The first one he tested me with was finding two small globular clusters a small hop away from the gamma star in Sagittarius (the star the delineates the spout of the teapot). If I could find these two clusters, Mike told me I should be able to see both of them at the same time in the eyepiece’s field of view. After about five minutes, I spied a couple of small fuzzy balls, not as distinct as the surrounding background stars, but I thought they might be the clusters. Mike confirmed I had found them by doing a ‘happy dance’ and sing-songing ‘she found them, she found them’ for all to hear. The designations for these clusters are NGC 6522 and 6528.
Mike next set me to finding either M69 or M70 (also hanging out in Sagittarius, but in the bottom of the Teapot). I glanced at his star chart and used his excellent Telrad finderscope (which had a nice large field of view and an easy-to-use red bullseye) to quickly locate one of the Messier objects (probably M69). Again Mike did a happy dance and song.
Mike went looking for another globular cluster, this time between Sagittarius and Scorpius, designated as NGC 6380. I found this one especially interesting because of it’s apparent close proximity to a star.
The third test proved my undoing. Mike moved his scope to Antares in Scorpius and set me to finding M4. I didn’t review his star chart and spent several minutes attempting to find it. Eventually, I gave up and Mike located it.
Despite all the mesmerizing Messier distractions, I did succeed in observing the vast sweep of our Milky Way Galaxy. I learned a couple of cool memory aids and bits of trivia about finding the ‘heart’ of the galaxy and the path it takes. Cygnus, the swan constellation, also sometimes known as the ‘Northern Cross,’ flies along the Milky Way, pointing directly to the heart of the galaxy. To find the Milky Way’s heart, locate the Teapot (an asterism for the constellation Sagittarius), visible along the southern horizon during July and August, and imagine steam rising from the spout.
I even attempted to photograph the Milky Way using my simple tripod and DSLR camera, but without an equitorial mount of some kind with a tracking system and the digital photo editing software (to stack multiple repetitive exposures), the best I could accomplish was a three or four second exposure (using ISO 800) and fiddling with the brightness/contrast after downloading:
I also took photos of Cygnus swimming in the Milky Way, the Summer Triangle, the Big Dipper over the dome of the observatory and several of the southern horizon. To see the entire album, click on the photo at the top of this blog.
Soon after 12:30 a.m., Dad and I thanked Mike Sterling for the guided tour of the summer sky. We packed up our gear and drove the hour home, where I finally drifted off to sleep after two o’clock with visions of Messier objects dancing in my head.
Dad and I had a blast and my husband is now having second thoughts about staying home last night. Many thanks to David Hudgins, Mike Sterling and the other members of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City for throwing a fun mid-summer star party.
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).