Dark Skies Make a Difference!

June 11, 2009

Last night, I finally got a chance to set up the telescope and view the night sky. The clouds were mostly gone by nightfall, and the temperature was cool but not cold. I was pretty wiped out after yesterday’s trek to the Gila Cliff Dwellings so I only observed for a couple of hours. Since I didn’t set up the webcam, I don’t have any pictures, but I have inserted a couple of Hubble telescope shots of the main things I did see. Unfortunately, my views were not so spectacular as the photos here, since my telescope has only a 6″ aperture, and I’m looking through miles of atmosphere, but you get the idea.

My first impression upon looking at the night sky was amazement at how many stars are visible. After years of living in light-polluted cities where only the brightest stars are visible, the panorama of a truly dark sky reveals a myriad of bright pinpoints of light. Details become visible even in faint deep-sky objects which would be impossible to discern in the city.
Unpacking, setting up the scope, changing the latitude and longitude settings, adjusting the mount alignment, and finally aligning the scope took a lot longer than I expected last night. Tonight will be a lot easier and I should be able to get more done.

I started with Saturn (no photo yet) and was amazed at how sharp it appeared, even at high magnification. I’m hoping to get a webcam exposure of Saturn tonight.

I ran a sky tour to get acclimated to the clearer sky view, and was particularly impressed with these objects:

M81 - Bode's Nebula (NASA Hubble Telescope photo)

M81 - Bode's Nebula (NASA Hubble Telescope photo)

Bode’s Nebula is a spiral galaxy that usually appears as a faint fuzzball in light-polluted skies. Here, I was able to discern the shape of the galaxy and the bright stars around the rim, but I couldn’t make out the spiral arms. With a larger scope, these would have been visible. Increasing the magnification actually made things worse, as it often does with faint objects. However, this is an object I’d be lucky to find from my backyard, much less see any detail.

Sombrero Galaxy - M104 (NASA Hubble Telescope photo)

Sombrero Galaxy - M104 (NASA Hubble Telescope photo)

The Sombrero Galaxy has the shape of, well you get the picture. Through my telescope, the shape was apparent, and using averted vision, I could make out the dark dust lane through the middle of the galaxy. Medium magnification (100X) gave the best view.

Globular Cluster in Canes Venatici - M3 (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Globular Cluster in Canes Venatici - M3 (Wikipedia Commons photo)

This globular cluster consists of a half million stars, most of them too far away and apparently close together to resolve separately. The view of this cluster is the best I’ve ever seen through this telescope. Quite a few of the stars could be discerned separately, and the brightness of the object (compared to what I usually see at home) is amazing.

All in all, last night was a fun start. I only have one more night to observe, so tonight will be a long session. More to come!

Headed for the Dark Skies of New Mexico!

June 4, 2009

My newest avocation is amateur astronomy, so when my wife, Sally, suggested we vacation in New Mexico this year, I was overjoyed.  The night skies of New Mexico are some of the clearest and darkest to be found in the United States.  Given the opportunity to spend 7 nights observing under these most coveted conditions, I resolved to be ready to make the most of it.

 I quickly decided that I needed a larger telescope for this trip, since my little 60mm go-to scope simply wouldn’t gather enough light to do the job.  My larger scope, a 5” Newtonian on a Dob mount, was a bit too heavy to transport on an airplane (mostly due to my inept carpentry and a heavy dose of over-engineering), and besides, I wanted a tracking mount for astrophotography.   The ideal scope, I decided, after much research, is the Celestron C-6S Advanced GT, a 6” Schmidt-Cassegrain on an equatorial go-to mount.  For those not familiar with telescopes, this model has a computer that can locate objects in the sky, and then “track” the object, keeping it in the field of view by compensating for the apparent motion caused by the rotation of the earth.  But this telescope was, frankly, beyond the bounds of my meager budget.



 Fortunately, however, I am a bit of a packrat.  Some sympathetic souls would call me a “collector”, but my wife clearly prefers the less respectable term.  I have managed to accumulate a collection of photographic material that dates back to my 13th birthday, a number of coins, knives, firearms, and, as luck would have it, a few toys from my childhood 45 years ago or thereabouts.    One of these toys was a spaceship known as Fireball XL-5 in its original box.   Off to Ebay it went without a moment’s hesitation. 

One of my former interests was scuba.  Unfortunately, I now suffer from asthma, so diving is prohibited.   Off to the auction site went my regulators, bags, dive light, gauges, weights, BC vests, and another full set of equipment that had belonged to Sally, who was quite happy to see it all go (she never cared much for scuba diving)!

 Now there was lots more room in my storage space, but the auction results would determine whether or not I could afford the new Celestron.  As luck would have it, several collectors were very interested in the spaceship, and the scuba gear sold quickly as well.  I ordered the Celestron as soon as the payments cleared the bank.

 After much practice assembling and disassembling the scope, mount, tripod, and controls, I think I’m ready to venture forth.  We’ll be flying out of Cleveland on Sunday morning, connecting in Houston, and arriving in Tucson, AZ on Sunday afternoon.  We’ll spend the night in Tucson and drive out early Monday, with a short stop in Tombstone (who could miss a chance to see the site of the gunfight at the OK Corral?) and thence to Los Pinos Altos, near Silver City, NM. 

 If you are reading this, and you have any suggestions about what to see in the daytime, where to eat (we love southwestern food), or anything else that strikes your fancy, please post!  Also, if you’re experienced with astrophotography or webcam astro-imaging in particular, please post any suggestions you may have.


Dana Kennedy  June 3, 2009  9:44:59 PM

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