South Plains Astronomy Club

Observing Under The Dark West Texas Skies

by Collin Smith

Gary Leiker, 8″ Edge Celestron SCT on AVX go-to equatorial mount
Steve Maas, Orion Maksutov 127mm. Not sure of his mount, but he was busily looking through it.
Humble narrator:
William Optics Megrez 110 F/6 FK-61 doublet refractor
Nagler T6 3.5, 5, 7, 9 &13mm’s. Pan 24, APM UFF 30mm
Stellarvue M2C Deluxe Alt-Az Mount
We arrived, Sofia, Maya, our cat Luce (Sofia ‘s insistence — not the cat’s idea) and myself, about 9:40 PM on Saturday night, the eve of Mother’s Day. The girls and cat walked about the grassy knoll, the Meadow, while I straightway set up my gear. Sofia was eager to look at something, but told her I had to get my finderscopes, Orion 9x50mm right-angle and Baader SkySurfer III red dot, aligned, after getting my WO 110 setup, balanced, and otherwise ready to roll. But I finally got beautiful, curvy crescent Venus into the scope, centered in my finderscopes and dead center in the eyepiece.

My, my, how slender and curvy she is right now, in her faster inside orbit about the Sun, passing us earthlings on her way to an early June Inferior Conjunction, and then dawn skies. In the William Optics FK-61 doublet, the curvaceous Goddess of Love has a distinct red color off to her side. The physics of this has to do with the color correction of the FK-61 glass, but the effect adds impact to this object of Botticelli ‘s masterwork, giving her crescent form a heightened sensuousness.

Moving up from Beta Tauri and Venus, I tried, in vain, to find M35, hidden from view by the glare of the western skies, still aglow from fiery Sol’s recent exit, and unyielding this otherwise bright Messier open cluster, but not near 10PM on May the 9th.

From the foot of Castor, I went straight up to the head and namesake of Gemini ‘s northern twin, armed with the 7mm Nagler T6 to split Castor, easily, at 94.3 power. The two white stars shining brightly, as uneven “headlights”.

Steve Maas was going to run back to his house for a while, and as he was packing up, Sofia asked where the “tiny guy” was. This was within earshot of Steve, so I informed her that Steve, although hunkered down low on his small-sized telescope, was actually taller than either Maya or Sofia, and was not “tiny”. Sofia clarified that she was talking about his telescope, and indeed, the Orion 127 Mak appears rather small compared to most other scopes of that aperture, even my WO 110, which is smaller, technically, in aperture. But Maks are much shorter, and we all enjoyed a chuckle. Steve took off.

A Ransom Canyon Police car stopped by and an officer paid us a visit, asking if we lived there. As it was, we told him, no, we did not, but that our Club President, Steve Maas, did, and had left shortly. Steve noticed the patrol car heading our way and decided to drive back. By the time Steve returned, the cop had left. Gary suggested we should tell Ransom Canyon people if we can’t come there, they can’t come to Lubbock. Although amusing, we concluded that wasn’t a good tactic to employ with a Ransom Canyon policeman.

I don ‘t know what happened with Kappa Geminorum, but I wasn’t able to split it, and Epsilon Hydrae wasn’t cooperative, either. But I had much better luck with Iota Cancri, which displayed a nice yellow primary and blue secondary, like this … http://www.perezmedia.net/beltofvenus/archives/000616.html, even at low power. Another easy catch at low power was open cluster M44, the Beehive, or Praesepe.

Gamma Leonis, Algieba, was a tighter split with 7mm T6, offering less color variation than Iota Cancri, two yellow stars. But they split cleanly at 94 power.

Although Ransom Canyon has much better skies than the City of Lubbock, I could only put M65 & M66 of the famed Leo Triplet into the eyepiece. There were hints of NGC 3628, but was it really there? The skies were not dark enough to reveal this otherwise beautiful “dunce cap” triangle of star universes.

Moving north, I put Cor Coroli, Alpha Canum Venaticorum, into the eyepiece. The blue-white primary contrasts with the yellow-white secondary, such that, although not the most color differentiated pair in the heavens, it’s clear they’re not the same color. Somewhat interracial? Oh well, you decide.

Being in the neighborhood, about two-fifths the way between Arcturus and Cor Coroli one finds the spectacular globular cluster M3. And right where I expected, bloomed like a dainty flower in my finderscope such that putting it into the cross-hairs positioned this astronomical wonder in my Pan 24’s eyepiece. I put in the Nagler 13mm T6 to go from 27.5x to 50.8x for a little closer look. Even the policeman who had stopped earlier, now returned, came by and took a peek through the 110mm at M3. What a wonderful, dense little star-world! Fortuitously Steve was back by this time.

In Ursa Major M81 & M82 showed themselves easily enough, but NGC 3077? Not really able to see it. Just below Alkaid, the tail end of Ursa Major, or the end of the handle of the Big Dipper, lies magnificent M51 with accompanying NGC5195, the Whirlpool Galaxy, so christened by the images the Earl of Rosse’s huge 72″ speculum mirrored “Leviathan of Parstonstown” telescope revealed in 1845. The core distinct and clear in Gary’s 8″, he depreciated the view of the SCT, given what he’d seen through the 30″ a couple weeks prior. Can’t argue with that, but it was a nice view under our suburban light bedeviled skies just the same. The swirling of the galactic arms manifest in his eyepiece, a mere 23 million light years to my lucky optic nerve — what a spectacle!

It was getting late, and the moon was threatening to rise over the horizon, so Gary began the tear-down process, a bit more involved than my own, but I pressed on to rising Hercules, early summer constellation, and back to the globular theme, with one of the best in all the heavens, M13. Another dense collection of beautiful stars, a mere 22.5-plus thousand light years, placed into my eye for the viewing from the time of the last great Ice Age, before human civilizations, and a North America of roaming mastodons and ancient equines unbothered by Homo sapiens.

Alpha Herculis, Rasalgethi, a yellow-orange primary, with light aqua secondary, would be the most excellent double-star split to end the evening. Something like this … http://www.perezmedia.net/beltofvenus/archives/001394.html

Rasalgethi is not to be missed. Coming into English from a corruption of Arabic, the “Ras” is from the Semitic root of the Hebrew “Rosh”, as in Rosh Hashana, “head of the year”. Ras Algethi, “head of the Kneeler”, as Hercules was known in Arabic mythology, is the head of a man in prayer, kneeling. Honestly, looking at the Constellation in the heavens, the Arabs have it all over the Greeks, appearance-wise. This is a mere 360 light years away, around the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy in England and Charles II’s ascendance. Thank God for Oliver Goldsmith.

We finished the night with M57, the Ring Nebula. In the 1996 movie “Michael”, John Travolta plays a rather unconventional angle, more akin to the Devil in Bulgokov’s Master and Margarita, puffing perfect smoke rings from a long drag on a cigarette. The Ring Nebula always reminds me of some celestial angel blowing one of those. Perhaps John Travolta in a 2570 light year distant cosmic past life? Well, okay, maybe just a white dwarf, but regardless, it’s important to fire the imagination of this complex primate species Homo. And the mesmerizing, beautiful Ring Nebula is a fine way to finish a waning gibbous moon May evening under the stars.

Hope you can join us next time if you ‘re interested. Buenas noches