Sunday, May 12, 2013

Back from the Spring 2013 Mojave National Preserve Star Party

Drove out on Friday, and did two hikes, which I've done in the past (Barber Peak Loop and Table Top Mountain--But I'll blog with some updated info and new pics as soon as possible, though it may take a week. I took a LOT of pictures). That brings me up to 28 hikes for the year, four of which I still need to blog. Yes, I'm still well behind my intended schedule.

The star party was on Saturday night. Some time around 5pm, I set up my solar telescope. The sun was incredibly active yesterday, with a couple of HUGE prominences on the eastern limb. Even a few sunspots were visible in my h-alpha telescope, which means they were also huge. Together, they definitely conveyed the fact that the sun is not a quiet place.

After the sun went down, I replaced my Coronado 60mm with my C11. Five other telescopes were also out there for the night: Two 8-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrains, one 8-inch Vixen Catadioptric (modified Maksutov-Cassegrain), one 7-inch apochromatic refractor, and one really large Dobsonian-mounted reflector (probably 14" or so).

There were quite a bit of clouds as the sun set--high cirrus, and lower, puffy cumulus clouds. That was some cause for concern. Of course, even if they did not dissipate, we would still be able to observe the planets, but that would defeat much of the purpose of having an outreach event out "in the middle of nowhere."

The main purpose for the start party, by the way, is to provide an additional incentive for volunteers contemplating a long trek out to the desert for a service trip. This weekend, it was the Mojave Desert Land Trust, doing trash collection in the Lanfair Valley. Nearly 40 volunteers came out to work that hard work. The potluck social, star party, and a good conscience are the reward.

A thin crescent moon was the first night sky object we spotted. It would have been a bit under two days old at this point. Once the sky darkened some more, the earthshine dimly illuminated the shadowed portions of the moon's earth-facing side, giving a ghostly outline of the entire disc.

About twenty minutes after that, we could make out Jupiter. At that point, we noticed the seeing was very good. Despite its low altitude, I could easily see four bands on Jupiter with my C11. The big refractor showed those bands much clearer, of course.

Maybe 15 minutes after that, most telescopes swung over to the east to observe Saturn. You know, it's only as I write this that I realize I didn't get to look at Saturn last night!

Once the sky got even darker, the stars really became visible. Each observer jumped to their favorite deep sky object. I noted the large dob spent a lot of time up towards Coma Berenices, probably looking at both the large star cluster and the many "smaller" (more distant, but obviously much larger) galaxies in the distance.

I looked at the Beehive Cluster, the Leo Trio of Galaxies (M65, M66 and NGC 3628), the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), the Sombrero Galaxy (M104), and the globular clusters M4, M13 and Omega Centauri. I also let a couple of vistors "drive" the controls of the C11, so they could cruise along Markarian's Chain.

That's a surprisingly short list of objects for how long I was at the telescope under a dark sky. However, there were relatively few breaks in the the viewers, and I had no real observing plan mapped out ahead of time. I just wanted to make sure they saw things in my C11 that they were unlikely to be able to see as well elsewhere or before. Also, it helped illustrate the idea of why dark skies are valuable: Those small, faint fuzzy blobs in my pretty substantial telescope would in many cases be invisible from town, or much less "dramatic" than here, so this is an experience that's only possible from a dark sky location, like in Mojave National Preserve.

Of course, I have no pictures from the really dark sky observing. No flash photography at a dark site, and I don't have the time to set up a longer exposure that would be necessary under ambient light. Mine are "waiting for darkness" and observing the moon and Jupiter at twilight" shots. But I did see someone set up a camera for shooting at the pad, so I would not be surprised if I see pictures of that pad show up on someone's facebook page before too long.

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