Sunday, September 20, 2009
Miracle Dark Sky
It didn't look too promising when we were setting up our scopes last night for an evening of viewing the stars at Ridgecrest School. There were wispy high clouds with fog blowing in from the west. All in all, it has been a miserable summer for stargazing. Every time there has been a new moon, we have had cloudy, foggy, even rain-threatening weather. In desperation last night, four of us set up our scopes despite the odds that we wouldn't even see enough stars to get a proper alignment. One person joked that we ought to rename ourselves the "Optimists' Club."
As the sun set, things seemed to be getting worse rather than better. At one point, we couldn't see each other any more so we all just sat down and waited. More optimism. I was set up and ready to go by 7:10 pm, but didn't even turn the scope on until 7:30. Right away I could tell there were problems with the motor in my tracking device. I use a 12v battery to run the Goto computer and keep the object I am looking at in the field of view as the Earth turns. I hadn't checked it before packing the car and it looked like it was in need of a re-charge. Fortunately, the drive can also operate on 8 ordinary AA batteries, of which I had plenty with me. But to install them meant taking the scope off the tripod and then re-aligning it after screwing it back on, something that is much easier done in daylight than after dark. Plus, the high humidity had everything soaking wet and feeling very clammy.
Suddenly, the sky cleared and everyone set to work. But I had to deal with the batteries and setting up again. By the time I was done, yes, the fog was back. But at about 10:00 pm, the wind died down, the sky cleared once more and even better, the fog stayed below us blocking the city lights. It had turned into one of those magical nights when the seeing is clear and steady, and even in the city you can see things like the Milky Way. Jupiter was spectacular, the best I've ever seen it with its red bands going across and four moons all in a line, two on each side of the planet. It was a jewel. I was able to see M57, the Ring Nebula, actually as a ring and not just a gray haze. And last but not least, M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, which I had never seen before with my little scope, shone through. After all the delays and false starts, the motor was purring like a kitten, my alignment was spot on, and the sky was dark and clear. At 1:00 am, I hated to pack up and leave.