Sunday, September 16, 2007

One of the Guys

I've been taking my telescope out a lot lately, just to my front yard. But last night I went to the Astronomy Club's In Town Dark Sky Observing Session on Palos Verdes to see what the viewing would be like from there. The guys in the club have found a spot that is close to the top of the peninsula and is at about 900 ft. above sea level (the peninsula goes higher to 1,000 ft. but that is behind the gates of Rolling Hills). From this vantage point you have a good view in all directions with no trees or buildings in the way. I was very impressed with what I could see with my naked eye even before I got out the scope.

The night was clear but breezy. The wind died down finally at about 10 pm, but the fog horn blowing offshore kept us all mindful that the fog could roll in at any time. The indications on the Unysis Weather site showed that the wind speed at 300 mb was just about the worst it could be for astronomical viewing, but I have learned a curious thing. When the jet stream is right over us (in Los Angeles) as it was last night, the air is very clear of particulates, ergo the sky appears darker because the city lights are not being scattered so much (my theory). The winds are supposed to cause twinkling and jiggling of the tiny objects you are trying to look at, but in our case the trade-off is worth it. But it reminded me of another factor to consider when you are buying a scope—get a good, sturdy tripod!

There were about eight guys with telescopes at the site and me. I am one of only three women in the entire club of 30+ people. I have been shy about saying anything at meetings, or going to one of these observing sessions, because I didn't feel confident that they would be interested in anything I had to say and because I still didn't know how to operate the scope that my late husband left me. But after hours of practicing at home plus my trip to Joshua Tree, I felt I was ready for the Big Time. I can now set the scope up, level it, point it north, initialize the computer controls, and what's most important, I have learned what to go look for (at least in our late summer skies). In fact, I introduced the guys to a few new things—my good filter for bringing out nebulae, and some Messier objects they hadn't tried to find yet.

My best viewing of the evening was with globular clusters. These are small, gravitationally bound collections of stars that usually look like clouds of gas in my telescope, if I can find them at all. Last night I was able to bring into focus some of the individual stars in M22 which contains over 100,000 stars! Alas, M13 remained a hazy blob and I couldn't even find M4 (it was too low and into the city light haze). My scope does better with nebulae which are more spread out than these tiny fuzz balls. M11, the Wild Duck cluster, is an open cluster but looked like a hazy ball in my previous attempts until last night when I was able to bring out the individual stars in that one also. The Lagoon Nebula (M8) was spectacular and the Butterfly Cluster (M6) really looked like a butterfly last night.

But the highlight of the evening was when we were about to pack up and call it a night and one of the guys invited me to look through his 14-inch telescope. This huge monster made my five-inch scope look like a baby version of the same thing since they are both Meades and of the same basic design. Within seconds he whirred his scope around to show me NGC 869 (an open cluster in Perseus, part of the Double Cluster), Caldwell 55 (the Saturn Nebula), and one of my all-time favorites, M 57 (the Ring Nebula). We could both see the tiny diamond on the ring which in his opinion indicated a good night for seeing.

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