A productive and enjoyable observing session burst out of nowhere last night, like well-oiled rags piled up next to the water heater. Some quick emails between Bill Ferris and Max Oelschlaeger and myself set us on the road to the US Naval Observatory a few miles west of town. Max has a contact there, so we got the ok to set up shop in one of their parking lots (do not attempt this unless you know you have permission :). Amanda and the kids joined us for the first couple hours. Visions of freezing to death did cross my mind repeatedly, so we dressed in heaping layers. We arrived about 15 minutes after the sun had set, and Max was well on his way to having his impressive C11 scope set up.
As I set my scope up, Amanda and the kids went on some short exploring treks around the observatory buildings and road. While I chatted with Max, I was absentmindedly propping open the legs to the tripod, and casually thinking to myself 'hmm, this leg should spread wider' --K-CHUNK--and it did spread wider, while at the same time nipping a gruesome window into the meat of my thumb by way of a carelessly placed hand and hinge. Oh man did that hurt. And it made me mad too. Stupid, deadly tripod. Stupid clumsy hands. Fortunately, it was nice and cold, so everything clotted up pretty quickly. Maybe I should set up with the gloves on next time.
Well, after getting things put together, I started off homing in on some quick, easy targets so the kids wouldn't think they had been brought out to suffer in chill and darkness. We got some bright and sparkly views of M31 and satellites, the Double Cluster in Perseus, M45, and Albireo. Meanwhile, Max had pulled up the veil nebula in his scope with the benefit of a nice OIII filter. Scanning along its twisty, smoky trail with the control paddle was a memorable experience. What a sketch that would make. He had a great finder mounted on the scope, and I managed to catch the barest hint of the nebula there too. It gives me some hope that when I take time to do it, I might be able to pick it up in my scope (prior to the future acquisition of an OIII filter).
After about an hour, Bill showed up. 'Wouldn't it be something if he brought the Obsession,' I thought to myself. When suddenly, as if summoned by my thoughts, the large rocker platform appeared in his setup area. Woohoo! I couldn't believe it. We were only going to be out there for another 3 or so hours. I didn't think that bad boy would lend itself to setup & teardown for short sessions like that. But Bill made short work of it, and in the time it took Amanda, Giselle and Harrison to say their teeth-chattering goodbyes and drive down the road, he had it set up.
While Bill and Max fiddled with some drive issues, I decided to hunker down for a good close look at M33. So far, my observations of it have shown it as a faint haze with some vague hint of mottling. Having listened to plenty of good advice and various discussions about using higher magnifications on objects like this, I homed in with my 10 mm eyepiece for a 120X magnification. My first thought was 'I'm lost!' But I took a deep breath--and coughed as ice crystals formed inside my lungs--and just took my time scanning the glow of the galaxy. After a little panning, I came across what appeared to be a tight knot of fuzz next to a star. I started to get an exhilarating feeling, and asked Bill or Max would lend me an opinion of whether I was seeing an emission nebula in M33. Bill walked over, took a peek, and said 'oh yeah' and guessed we were looking at NGC 604--a huge HII region in M33. We pored through some M33 plots and photos that Bill carries around with him and verified it in relation to some nearby stars. That became the first distinct object in another galaxy I had spotted with my own scope. A 6" newtonian. I thought that was pretty stinking cool. I decided I would hunker down for a sketch to capture the moment. After spending time at this new magnification, other features in the galaxy started to rise out of the mist. The arms on the north and south sides started to make themselves known. They didn't show well defined edges, but they were there.
Before I got too far into it, Max called me over to take a look. He had pulled M33 up too, and what a sight. There was NCG 604 again, at the tip of one arm, and on the other side, 2 armlike extensions wrapped themselves out of the core. One thing that caught me off guard was the mirror image in his scope. Left and right were the same, but top and bottom were swapped. So at first I was thinking, 'wait...I thought the arms were twirling counterclockwise when I looked through mine, but now they look clockwise.' After a little stress and doubt in my observing ability, I realized the image was flipped. I took turns with Max describing the features we could make out. I think Max is worried his vision isn't what it used to be, but it seems top notch as far as I can tell :D
I eventually made my way back to my scope, and was pleased to see that my view was still centered. Taking time with polar alignment makes a heck of a difference. (Orion's polar alignment scope is a worthy partner to the SVP mount, if you like that sort of tracking...which I do, since I'm easily spoiled that way...) And so here is where I started to make some uncomfortable discoveries about sketching in the bitter cold. Which is to say, it hurts. Well actually, it doesn't hurt at first. First all exposed fingers go numb. Still mobile, but numb. That frightened me. I've never suffered frostbite, and I don't know how long after numbness sets in before the skin and underlying tissue starts to die. So I made the call that I was going to put a little handicap on my sketching if it meant I get to keep my fingers. So I flipped the mitten ends of the gloves onto both hands and mitten-sketched. As long as I slowed down and took my time, I was actually able to get the kind of accuracy I wanted. Pencil pressure is harder to feel, so I just had to be a lot more careful and deliberate when swirling in the shading on the galaxy. Oh, and this was the part where it hurt. As the feeling returned to each finger, the fire of a thousand flames swept across them. Yikes. Anyway, here's the finished product:
At intervals I got to see some Herchel 400 targets Max was looking up, while Bill invited us over to the mighty Obsession to take a look at some other cool and distant objects. Such as a globular cluster in M31. It formed a tight, tiny triangle with 2 other stars. While looking at this tiny object, I had my first experience nudging a huge dob around. There was a certain rush of 'look what I'm doing!' that came with that. Maybe not as cool as the first time driving a car, but still.
We also took a look at M1 while Bill swapped filters in and out to get different impressions of the supernova remnant in UHC, OIII, and either Hydrogen Alpha or Beta--I can't remember which. Each filter brought out different aspects of the Crab which I thought was a very cool way to get an impression of what you're looking at.
We also checked out a 3 stars in M45 that I've been trying to understand. When I first looked at M45, a double star in the middle caught my attention. Its designation turns out to be Burnham 536. I later found some hints on the web that the stars are actually part of a triple system (search for Burnham 536 in that linked page). I since then have tried to figure out where the 3rd star is. One night, I finally found a very faint candidate in a 240X view, and made a sketch.
Bill was looking at the sketch, and brought the stars up in the Obsession. Sure enough, there it was. But after some discussion, it began to look doubtful that the dim star was the actual 3rd companion I was looking for. It is very dim--Bill estimated 12 or 13th magnitude. But the Burnham 536 trio have magnitudes listed as 8.1, 9.4, and 7.7. Way brighter than that dim little booger. So, on the search goes. I never thought I'd get fascinated by the identity of some obscure companion star hiding in the midst of something so much more magnificent. Strange.
Before long, the moon was starting to rise, and as much as I would have like to scan its cratery surface from one of the big scopes, it was miserably cold, and we were pretty wiped out. So I took a quick look at Saturn and M42 (beautiful) before beginning to pack up. OK, so I thought I would speed things up by taking my gloves off to twist the knobs and put on the protective caps and such. Woah. Big mistake. It hurt like the dickens. The cold biting air, the frosty metal components. Brrrrr. I was really sloppy with my packing, I was in such a hurry to be done. Heh. I haven't even unpacked the trunk yet. I'm afraid it'll be like one of those sit-com gags where the closet gets opened and junk spews everywhere.
On the way out of the parking lot, I passed the main observatory dome as it was bathed in the cool rising moonlight. It was incredibly serene and beautiful. So I grabbed a parting shot before heading home.
Here's to chilly nights!