March Madness


After being socked in by clouds for the last week (without seeing much of the needed rain), the Sunday sky cleared and a group of six of us showed up at the Gott Observatory to give our photon-deprived brains a good healthy dose of starlight.

As I arrived, a visiting farm dog came by to see what we were up to. He was very friendly and stayed with us the entire evening. He was well-behaved for the most part, but did have a tendency to try to lick your face whenever you would sit at the telescope and bend over to look through the eyepiece. No eyepieces were buried in the dirt, no telescopes were “marked” as dog territory, and when a few coyotes showed up in a nearby field (or were they chupacabras?) his growls gave us comfort in having a safe night of observing, so for me at least, he was a welcome addition to the group.

One person was a first-time visitor to our group, so of course, the rest of us were happily showing him the gems of the sky. He was soaking it all in and asking lots of great questions, so I think we’ll be seeing more of him at future events.

Strangely enough, everyone brought reflectors tonight, ranging in size from 6 to 12 inches. We starhopped to many perennial favorites, including the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter. We also saw highlights in Canis Major (h3945, M41, NGC-2359), Orion (M42/43, Rigel), Gemini (M35, NGC-2158, NGC-2392, Castor), Auriga (M36), Taurus (Hyades, Pleiades), Cancer (M44, Iota), Perseus (Double Cluster), Leo (M65/66 Triplet), Canes Venatici (M51), and Ursa Major (M81/M82 Triplet, M97, M108, M101). Rather than make this report any longer than it already is, I will only go over a few of the more memorable (to me) sights of the night.

As darkness descended, the pairing of the Moon and Venus stole everyone’s attention. With the naked eye, the earthshine on the Moon was incredible, and the darker the sky became, the more surreal it looked. By blocking out the thin sunlit crescent, the top half of the moon looked similar to what you would see during a lunar eclipse, except it retained a gray color. Very cool!

Through the telescope, Venus was very bright, but its gibbous phase was distinctly visible. The Moon showed a lot of craters that popped out in 3D.
After showing the newcomer the big obvious targets (Venus, Moon, Jupiter, M42), I showed him the beautiful double star h3945 in Canis Major. He already knew many of the constellations, so I showed him more precisely where it was located by letting him see where my Telrad was pointed. We agreed this was a flea on the dog’s back.

The double itself did not disappoint. He was impressed at the obvious double nature of the star. Then I told him to look closer and tell me what colors he saw, or whether both were white. He took a second look in the eyepiece and reported the same orange and blue colors that I normally see. I think this exercise actually made him get more enjoyment out of observing some of the later and fainter objects, because he was already learning to observe carefully and soak everything in, rather than just take a quick peek.
NGC 2359 (Thor’s Helmet)
One of my nightly targets tonight was Thor’s Helmet. I cannot see it at all from my backyard and wanted to take advantage of the darker skies to try to nab it. The southern skies at Gott are hardly pristine, as the sprawling city of Lubbock lies only about 10 miles to the south, but it was still a lot better than what I could see from my house.

Unfiltered, I “thought” I could see something very dim in about the right spot, but I threw in an O-III to make sure. Pop! Now I could easily see the half-circle helmet shape, but the horns still eluded me. Still, it was larger than I thought it would be, and even as dim as it was, I could make out a few details within the nebula. I can’t wait to see this from a truly dark site.

NGC 2158
I also enjoyed trying to tease some detail out of NGC 2158, an open cluster very near to M35 in Gemini. at low power, it was detectable as a hazy smudge off to the side of M35. I was able to squeeze out 203x out of my telescope and could barely start making out a few faint stars within the haze. Not that impressive by itself, but considering that NGC-2158 is about twice the distance away as M35, it makes for a cool comparison.

M97 and M108
Using one of the other club members’ 24mm Panoptic in my 8″, I was barely able to squeeze M97 and M108 into the same field of view. This made for a great sight, seeing a large planetary nebula and an edge-on galaxy at the same time. Although at this low power, no real details could be seen, it still was a great image.
Everyone had a great time and we reluctantly started heading home around 11:30 as we all had to go back to work the next morning.

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