Sunday, March 02, 2008


Spring Fever

It’s spring. Well, it really ain’t, not on March 1st, not even down here on the Gulf Coast. But, pards, you’d never know it. Birds a-chirping, fragrant breezes redolent of greenery, temperatures in the 70s. Might as well be. And what happens in the spring? Well, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, right? Maybe for the young set. But for a middle-aged astro-hillbilly? My thoughts turn to visual observing.

I don’t make any secret of the fact that I spend most of my observing time imaging these days. What’s usually on the eyepiece end of my scope—which is usually a CAT—is not an eyepiece but an SBIG, a DSLR, or a webcam. Howsomeever… There’s just something about this time of year that urges me to close that laptop screen and actually look at the sky. What kinda something? Well, other than the fact that the rebirth of nature makes me long for a more direct communion with ol’ Ma N., this is just a splendid time to be looking at her chef d'oeuvre.

Look to the west and all the marvels of the winter Milky Way are still on offer. Orion is a-riding high, culminating just as it gets good and dark. And Gemini and Auriga are there too, cruising the zenith, handing out their secrets with a will. If the horizons ain’t too bad you can even can even catch the tail end of fall represented by Andromeda and the butt-end of that big, ol’ flyin’ horse. Most of all, though, there’s the eastern sky. Leo is well up over the edge of the world, heralding the return of the great forest of galaxies that stretches from northernmost Canes Venatici to southernmost Virgo.

One other thing made last night, Saturday night, special. I was accompanied by my daughter Lizbeth. Years ago, when she was a grade schooler, she was my regular observing buddy. But the process of growing up in 21st century America made those wonderful runs mostly a thing of the past. As middle school came on.  that cheerful little sprite (“Daddy, let’s call that one the Exploding Cigar Galaxy!”) waved goodbye forever and a young woman took her place. I don't mourn for those evenings, though I do miss them. It’s the way of the world, my friends.

Some losses aren’t forever, though. With college-time approaching, Lizbeth has returned to the observing field with her old man for a last-bow reprise of those wonderful deep sky nights. It was literally as if the last ten years never intervened. And some things never change. To her embarrassment (no doubt) I found myself telling my fellow club members the story they’ve heard a thousand times before, of Lizbeth and the beautiful 6-inch Parks primary dob Pat Rochford and I built for her. How she used it happily until one night when we set it up next to my C11 and she quickly chirped: “Daddy, I like the C11 BETTER! Let's TRADE!”

I hardly wanted to spend my time fiddling with a CCD with Lizbeth at my side, so, as the Sun began to say his adieus yesterday afternoon, we packed up my newly restored 12-inch truss tube (see the May ’07 blog entries) and headed for the club dark site off to the west. The sky was not perfect: damp and hazy—not unexpected for a Gulf “spring” night. Nevertheless, Lizbeth and I persevered. With the aid of my Sky Commander DSCs, object location was effortless. These things still amaze me; whatever I requested was always in the field from horizon to horizon. Knowing that a DSO was “in there” encouraged Miss and me to push the scope’s limits on this somewhat punk night and put up with damp chilliness longer than we otherwise would have. What did we see? LOTSA COOL STUFF. The following is but a sampling.

M35 and Little NGC 2158: The view the 12.5-inch f/5 and a 16 UWAN offered was superb. Couldn’t see the whole of M35 despite the UWAN’s spacewalk field, but NGC 2158 was perfectly presented. Its stars were like the proverbial tiny grains of sand amid M35’s outlying starfields. The depth was incredible; I felt I was literally falling into the more distant cluster.

M37: The impression was of a distant reef of stars with a reddish lighthouse (the cluster’s central red star) shining bravely against the night.

Abell 21: The somewhat notorious Medusa nebula was not a problem once I remembered this was one big mutha (about 10’ in diameter), and switched the 16 UWAN for the 35mm Panoptic (with OIII). This 14th mag planetary not only showed itself readily, but going to the 28 UWAN, which yielded, Lizbeth and I thought, slightly better contrast, gave hints of the “crescent” non-round shape of Medusa.

M81/82: Despite fairly low altitude M82 showed good detail, which Lizbeth picked up readily though she had not been deep sky observin’ in many a moon.

NGC 2371: The wee peanut nebula was easy enough to see in the 16mm, but really strutted his dual-lobed stuff in a 7mm UWAN. The addition of OIII and UHC filters didn’t seem to help him too much.

M42: What can I say? At times, we were picking up color. Not just a vague greenishness, but hints of deep red/browns.

NGC 1977: The Running Man’s reflection nebulosity was visible, but the dark lanes that form his body were exceedingly fleeting.

M78: Was spectacular, showing off its irregular form. Several of the outlying patches of nebulosity were also easily seen.

NGC 2024: We checked this to see what our prospects would be for a Horse Hunt (not good). The Tank Tracks was there, but not to the extent that indicates it’s time to head for the B33 Coral.

M79: Was down in the murkiness extending up from the horizon, but showed many stars anyway.

NGC 2022: This small round planetary stood out marvelously well.

M65/66: Despite being a bit low in the east (in that direction lies the Mobile, Alabama Light Dome), Lizbeth and I thought these two actually looked better than 81/82. Was it a Trio in Leo night? Not quite? NGC 3628 was visible, but hardly prominent.

M105 and company: M105 and NGC 3384 were incredibly prominent, but increasing haze made NGC 3389 a sometimes thing.

We ended the evening on a REAL spring object, that glorious globular M53. Glorious? Maybe not on this night. He was way close to the horizon down in light pollution hell. Nevertheless, he was there and showed off plenty of his minute stars. With that, it was time to play AstroWimps and head on back to good, old Chaos Manor south.

I can’t promise every spring and summer night will be spent with Miss Lizbeth and Miss Betsy…I sure am having fun with that Canon 400D, but I was WAY too hasty in relegating the dob to my past as I did in my May blog entry. This is a powerful tool, an engine of wonder, and it will suck up plenty of starlight this summer, of that I am sure.

Rod, enjoyed your post, as always. My old eyes have led me to take up imaging, although I still miss the eyeball looks. Thanks for the observing notes. And thanks for all the good advice you've freely given to so many, including moi.
Thanks for the kind words, Max. Yeah, my eyeballs ain't what they once were either. ;-)
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