The King’s Ball

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.

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.


  1. Another courtier’s perspective at the King’s Ball

    Mostly what Tom said, but …

    I arrived about 7:15 with my two 4″ refractors in tow, the Celestron 102GT on the Synta AZ-4 with wooden Hands On Optics legs, and my Orion 102 ED F/7 on a Vixen Portamount. Muchos eyepieces — I used the 7 & 13mm T6’s, along with the 5.5mm Meade UWA cum Baader M&SG filter on Jupiter. I loaned Tom Campbell my 9 & 11mm T6s at various times. I was very interested in the views in his 8″ Discovery, and wasn’t disappointed in what I saw. Trying out my new Baader Hyperion Aspheric 31mm, I loaned Tom my 25mm XCel Celestron eyepiece — too busy going from the superwide field 31mm Aspheric and planetary Nagler and Meade UWA to stop in between. Fortunately Tom was agreeable to using the eyepiece, and in his dob, it performed quite nicely. Setting up my scopes, I called out that I had the February and March Sky & Telescopes should anyone want to refer to one. Tom announced he had January’s. “We’re set for 2015″ I noted, but no one needed them, too fascinated by the events we found on our own.

    I was so busy with my two scopes, Jerry’s, and Tom’s that I never even looked thru Gary Leiker’s 12″ dob or Mark Smith’s 6″ SNT. That was a shame, cause I’m sure they both brought quite a lot to the field, but managing two telescopes is, well, a little crazy. I was fortunate to meet Ron Hedden of Chem E, who just happened to show up for some imaging, and Father Malcolm Neyland who works with Jerry Hatfield in the chaplaincy at UMC, and has the capacity to grasp the magnificent in a telescope of the visual astronomy cognoscenti.

    Jerry caught Comet Lovejoy very early & very well. The view was surprisingly good given how light it still was when he first found it, with a fair amount of residual sunlight from dusk still graying down the sky’s contrast. Still, even with the background light, good tail. Didn’t know he had one! Too much dragonfly influence, I suppose. But seriously, Jerry’s scope put one nice view of a comet that I’d have thought would be pretty much gone since last month’s Emma outing, pre-MLK weekend. But here it was, with a distinct tail, and not nearly as dim or distant-looking as I would have thought. Not very impressive to the naked eye, unlike out at Emma in early January, but excellent in Jerry’s 10″ Orion, and very nicely framed in his new ES 30mm 82* eyepiece.

    Jerry put M35 & NGC 2578 in his 10″ with the ES 20mm 100*. The pair was fantastic, as usual, with M35 nicely resolved, and NGC 2578 a ghostly neighbor. Father Neyland was impressed with the beautiful sight, and I erroneously told them that the NGC was twice as far as M35. Actually, M35 is 2,800 light years away, while NGC 2578 is 11,000 lya, just nigh 4 times times farther. But a beautiful pairing it is.

    M81-82 & NGCs 3077 & 2976 framing in the Hyperion Aspheric 31mm 72* & Tom’s Discovery dob was quite nice — all four in the same field of view. Woo-hoo!

    The Great Orion Nebula, M42 was a must see. The Trapezium only yielded the E-star for me. Tom mentioned catching the elusive 6th, but I never saw F. The seeing was inconsistent. Sirius was a whirling, pulsating blur of bright white-blue, with Sirius B not seen or even hinted at. In contrast, Rigel split rather easily in my refractors, the little blue B star at between 6 & 7 o’clock in these scopes.

    The Eskimo (NGC 2392) in Jerry’s 10″ was quite nice. The Andromeda Galaxy group M31/32/110 looked good in mine & Jerry’s, as did NGCs 884/869, the Double Cluster.

    Maurice brought out his personal (not TTU’s) 18” dob and put the Flame Tree off Alnitak. Bright and vivid.

    It was late, and Scott, Gary, Jerry and Father Neyland had all left. Monday awaited us, but Maurice beckoned us to stay and catch the Jovian Mutual Event to take place around 11:30 ( I was at first hesitant, knowing how desperately my old body needs its rest, but the curiosity he put into us about the event inspired Mark, Tom, Ron & I onward. Although these Jovian mutual events happen in 6-year cycles, they are not so common near opposition, and the last series Dr. Clark has observed like this was back in the 1970’s. Wow!

    Luna broke the horizon right on schedule, and at 22:51, her brilliance cresting the horizon. She rose with her gibbous, Last Quarter-ish terminator side, and appeared flat and almost sandwich-like between the sky and land. Amazingly, a wave of humidity hit us with her arrival. Luna’s dampening would presage the steamy goings on about Jupiter.

    Jupiter’s Great Red Spot was pink, but quite visible with the white band evident between GRS & the South Equatorial Belt all evening long. Early on, Io abandoned the side with Ganymede & Callisto into the globe of Jupiter, effectively disappearing into his Lord Creaminess. Ganymede & Callisto would be distant voyeurs for the rest of the evening. Europa was at the moment far across the other side of the King of the Gods, but would find herself quite entangled with volcanic Io as the evening progressed. Io’s belly-dance transit across the enormous girth of Jove’s mid-section was clearly visible in all the telescopes, her curvaceous black shadow distinct over the broiling striped atmospheric belts of Optimux Maximus. As Io neared the edge of mighty Jupiter’s corpus, her distinct brightness and coloration caught the eye like a beauty on the beach. Space was vast, but you couldn’t take your eye off this spectacular creature shining so against all the muscular Jovian bulk. The magnificence of Io’s return to space and parting with Jove’s body we blessedly absorbed.

    And no sooner had Io departed her Master and blazed into the blackness of space one could easily see her b-line toward awaiting Europa, patiently biding her time as Io danced across Jupiter’s body. As they approached, I called out, “Folks, we’re T minus”, as the stage was set and all the players making their moves. At 11:26, Io first met, then held, then consumed Europa in a brief, tight occultation lasting only a few minutes. In no time, their unity disentangled first into a figure 8, a “snowman”, then separation. Finally, 6 minutes after the occultation, Io’s shadow dimmed Europa as the two went their separate ways around their Jovian perennial center stage. And it was over.

    Such a night! I was tired all week, and never seemed to catch up on the lost sleep, but it was worth it. A Jovian Mutual event is something to behold. Catch one before the season ends.

  2. Awesome report, Collin!