Tonight was clear and unseasonably warm. And with the Moon not scheduled to arrive until after 10pm, it looked to be a promising night for observing. A group from the SPAC decided to meet out at the Gott Observatory to take advantage.
Most of the evening was spent going from favorite to favorite, comparing the views in different telescopes. We saw dozens of objects throughout the night, but I am only going to list some of my favorites here. They are in the approximate order that I observed them:
COMET 2014 (Lovejoy)
I wanted to make sure I took a final peek at Comet Lovejoy before it faded out of sight once again. The comet appeared large and round, with just a tinge of color left in it. The best part, though, was that the sky was dark enough to see parts of the tail, which I had not yet been able to see from my backyard.
M42 (Great Orion Nebula)
Although the nebula looked great as always, with dark green, billowy filaments of gas and dust fanning out across the entire field of view, we spent most of the time concentrating on how many stars we could see in the Trapezium cluster nestled inside. Five stars were easily visible most of the time through my 8″ dob, but in moments of good seeing, I could make out the sixth star.
This is always a treat, but through Jerry’s 10″ dob with 100° 20mm eyepiece, it was flat-out gorgeous. The large clusters fit nicely in the field of view, with hundreds of stars visible.
M31 (Great Andromeda Galaxy)
The Great Andromeda Galaxy looked great tonight, with its spiral arms stretching out for miles, or rather, light years. The most fantastic view of it tonight, however was again with Jerry’s 100° eyepiece, where its two companion galaxies, M32 and M110 could also be easily seen within the same field of stars.
H3945 (Canis Major)
Collin pointed us to this pretty double star, nicknamed the “Winter Albireo” after its famous counterpart in the summer sky. One star was a deep orange and the companion was a medium blue, making a striking sight in even a small telescope. The stars were far enough apart to be easily split in a small telescope, yet close enough together to be visually appealing as a double star. This was definitely added to my “favorites list” tonight.
FLAME NEBULA (Orion)
This was the first time I had seen this awesome nebula. My first view was through the TTU 18″. After nudging the bright nearby star Alnitak out of the field of view, it was obvious, shaped a lot like a Christmas tree and even appearing green, with a dark interior.
The King of the Planets was definitely the highlight of the night. It was absolutely fantastic. Many cloud bands were visible, and the Great Red Spot was obvious as well. During moments of good seeing when the atmosphere settled down, the details were incredible.
But even Jupiter was about to be outdone by his own court. The Galilean moons twirled around the planet tonight, each one easily identifiable by their slight differences in size. Callisto appeared larger than either Io or Europa, and Ganymede was larger still. Through the 18″, you could even discern that Io was slightly paler and more of a creamy color than Europa.
Most of the evening featured Io (and its shadow) crossing Jupiter’s disk. The shadow appeared as a very tiny black dot crossing between the equatorial bands of Jupiter. As the moon approached the edge of the disk, Io became visible as a bright dot in front of Jupiter, with its black shadow following right behind. Around 11:30pm, Io completed its journey across the face of Jupiter and eclipsed Europa. It was interesting to see two moons merge into one and then split apart again. As they came together, the two moons looked like what Collin termed a snowman.
Shortly after this, you could see Europa become noticeably dimmer for several minutes as it slipped behind Io’s shadow. The dance of the moons was lovely to behold and made a great finale to a wonderful night under the stars.