South Plains Astronomy Club

Observing Under The Dark West Texas Skies

Who, what & where
Patrice & Rick Fay, 8” dob w/TV
Gary Leiker, 8” Edge SCT on AVX
Scott Harris, C8 on AVX
Mark Monk, after moving, just self
Your Humble Narrator, C130SLT OTA, GSO deluxe alt-az

Tech Terrace Park

Fortunately, I took the time before leaving to use my Seronik-modified collimation scheme. My method involves replacing his steps for secondary alignment with the aid of the 1.25” Farpoint secondary laser collimator.  Works well for me, and then finish up the primary with the $7.50 Agena collimation cap.  The whole thing took, maybe 10 minutes, which included mounting and un-mounting the tube (so probably 4 minutes for the actual collimation).  Since I had done this last time I used the scope about 4 months ago, it wasn’t too bad off, but worth the time.  As someone who was terrified of collimation for a long time, I found a technique that gets the job done quickly, with pleasing results the good reader will ascertain.

I arrived late, about 9:15 or so, at least from the time I’d recommended we get together, 8:50.  Rick and Patrice informed me that although they’d seen Mercury and Venus hugging the horizon immediately after sunset, the inferior planetary duo’d set quickly, even before Rick & Patrice had time to get setup, so that pair you’d better catch in twilight before it’s too dark! At least for the next few days.  Venus slowly drags herself out of the western horizon this year for a spectacular performance as the Evening Star this Autumn-to-coming-January, but the Goddess of Love rolls around the golden sunset, her beach, until October.

We were blessed with Rick’s relations and grand kids early in the evening, and they had a moon monitor display connected to Patrice’s Orion 8XT — a COVID safety approved configuration.  Fortunately Rick, Patrice, Scott, Mark and I are fully vaccinated, but it’s important to remember that not everyone has been.  Gary had tried but his single dose J&J was postponed, so maybe this week or the next his stars will align.

Gary was involved in a long-winded wrestling match with the Go-To on his AVX when I started setting up, and tonight would prove an excellent example of why Go-To can be a real PITA, and also why it can be a godsend — all in the same evening!

Once finally setup (enough), I plopped the Pan 24 into the focuser of the C130SLT ota for an expansive 27 power, 2.38º wide True Field of View.  Used that to line up my red dot onto Capella, and fortunately, they were already pretty well-aligned, needing only minor tweaking.  The celestial hunt was on, baby!

Having talked this up since right after the Club meeting a week and half earlier, I hoped to put Mars & M35 into my eyepiece, fully aware that my 2” APM UFF 30mm might be required to get all that celestial real estate into the same piece of glass at the focuser, but 2.38º proved to be enough on the evening of April 24th, the very date Mars bucked Taurus for Gemini.  The two objects were at opposite sides of the Pan 24, and careful observers might have complained about the coma, but I was giddy they fit into the same eyepiece, the glory of open cluster M35, 3,870 light years distant, and our most-earth-like-of-the-planets, Mars, in the same view — man, I like this C130SLT!  Knowing I had even more room to spare with the APM 2-incher made me feel proud of this little scope that could.  Mars was at 1.96 AU from us on Saturday night, April 24th, 2021, shining at +1.53 magnitude, slightly brighter than Castor (51 light years away), but slightly dimmer than Pollux (34 light years).  The God of War’s 2020 October opposition glared on us earthlings at -2.6 magnitude, only 0.41 AU distant.

Gary continued his wrestling match with his AVX, but Scott’s worked just fine, his image of Mars through his C8 simply amazing.  Gibbous Mars though Scott’s 13mm eyepieces, the T6 and Hyperion, both revealed a polar ice cap, blue atmospheric hazing, and dark mountainous regions, all while Mars is WAY past opposition, and getting farther away from us still in his orbit, presently moving towards Castor’s left foot in the Geminid sky.

Mark Monk had wanted to see some color, and I’ve been wanting to observe the “Winter Albireo”, h3945, for some time, late April being the end of the road for that target in the evening sky, so I raced over to the southern skies before Canis Major slipped below the trees, as Lepus had already run off into.  Even in the Pan 24, this beautiful pair demonstrates why it is the Winter Albireo, cause it is!  What a beautiful contrast of yellow-orange primary and blue secondary!  William Hershel’s object 3945 is more than a welcome sight, and for anyone wanting to see some beautiful celestial color, optically satisfying, indeed.

But I’d also wanted to test my collimation, and the double-star cracking abilities of the C130SLT.  Now I’ll be the first to admit that an F/5, 130mm mirror may not be the best type scope for this task, but when reasonably well-collimated, a 130mm mirror can do more than simply place gigantic swaths of God’s good heavens into the eyepiece, and should be able to handle some double stars on the celestial viewing menu, as any moon-drenched night had better have to satiate the celestial viewing appetite.

So I put Castor into the focuser and replaced the Pan 24 with the 7mm T6, for 93 power. And the mortal twin revealed his duplicitous nature, rather tightly, but a clean split just the same.

Mark, wanting more color still, and not content by Castor’s white-on-white, inquired about carbon stars.  Back into the focuser went the Pan 24 as I did my best to triangulate Cor Coroli and Alkaid, Eta Ursae Majoris, somewhat blindly feeling out the gray, moon-bedeviled sky in my red dot to attempt to manifest La Superba, Y Canes Venaticorum.  Took a bit of effort, but eventually, I found the right target, and the deeply orange star.  Was nice, but left everyone wanting more.

And the more is where Scott demonstrated the great utility of a Go-To mount, especially on a moon washed night.  Scott pressed Xi Cancri into the panel of his AVX and the database drove the slewing.  We all gawked at the more reddish hue of Xi Cancri, a carbon star’s carbon star.

Given the relative proximity of the 2-days-off-Full gibbous moon, the general vicinity of the constellation Cancer appeared an almost completely starless gray void, Gemini to Leo.  Finding much of anything there would be miraculous, save a functioning Go-To mount, like Scott had.  Hoping to get to Xi Cancri via the Beehive Cluster, I searched for M44 to no avail, an unsuccessful struggle with the uncooperative grayness.  Could that be Iota Cancri?  I hoped my hunch that a very, very faint star might be the one.  Put my scope on the hoped for wide double — and it split quite nicely, a yellow primary and blue secondary.  Another color mark for Mark.

While in the neighborhood and egged on by Scott’s further Go-To success with NGC 2392, the Eskimo Nebula, I took a peak through his red dot, and noticed it just off Wasat, Delta Geminorum.  Triangulating again in the gray, I successfully put the Eskimo in my scope.  Of course, my image was nothing like Scott’s.  In fact, Scott’s Eskimo Nebula was probably THE highlight of the night for objects.  Well, that or Xi Cancri.  His Mars was quite exceptional for the distance to the Red Planet, but his Eskimo Nebula had real detail, a central object with a genuine hood around it.

Patrice and Rick packed up, denying Gary a ride on their cart — no one over little Scooter’s age (4).  Gary feigned pouting and promptly went back to the last round with his AVX.

Algieba, Gamma Leonis, is a fairly bright star that manages to shine through even a super bright moon’s glare, and fortunately it’s an interesting double.  Pair of yellow-white stars, but an interesting split, just the same.  Here Mark noted Gary was moving his scope in a white flag of Go-To surrender.  So he manually pointed his scope to Algieba, and his Edge 8 did an awfully nice job cracking the pair, at least as well as my C130 with a Nagler 7mm T6, even though Gary had the Meade 25mm HD-60!  But it did a nice job.

And something with a little more color nearby was Cor Coroli, a star Mark told us is 15,000 times more magnetic than Sol.  Cor Coroli, Alpha Canum Venaticorum, is a nice double, with everyone seeing this a little differently, but I’d say Jeremy Perez’ rendering is as good as any.  The stars are definitely not the same color, but some see white and green, others blue and yellow.  Whatever, it is a pretty sight and worth the time.

And speaking of time, I wasted a HUGE amount trying to find M51, the Whirlpool galaxy with accompanying satellite NGC 1595.  Finally, Scott had mercy on me and Go-To’d to the target in his C8.  That was awful nice of him, because all one saw in his eyepiece was gray glare sky, courtesy of Luna.  So my wasting of time trying to find M51 was proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a pointless endeavor.  That revelation made me feel better.  A big thumbs down for M51 under this unrelenting moon — off to better targets.

And Epsilon Boötis, Izar, was now high enough to put in our scopes.  At 2.6 arcseconds of separation, Epsilon Boötis doesn’t flaunt her secondary the way a lot of double stars do.  I had to remove the 7mm T6 and put in the 5mm T6 to split that puppy, but finally, at 130 power, the yellow-white primary gave up her little blue secondary hiding behind her edge.  Very nice, colorful double, as well.  Struve christened Epsilon Boötis “Pulcherrima”, Latin for “loveliest”.

Mark figured that M13, the Great Hercules Cluster ought to be up by that time, but Hercules is hardly a bright constellation, and with Luna bearing down from nearby Virgo, that would take some finding.  Scott slewed to it, and in so doing, I could see from his red dot the top two stars of the Keystone.  Somehow managing to find my way amongst the gray, I plucked M13 out of the ashen heavens.

I even managed to put M13 in Gary’s.  Once you’ve got the Keystone (or at least the top half), finding M13 is a piece of cake.  But that Keystone business is critical.  Without Eta and Xi Herculis, you’re SOL, my friend.  But Gary’s M13, like Scott’s was quite nice.  No doubt about it, folks, a 200mm mirror sees more detail than a 130mm one.  Got TFOV all over them, but for M13, they just put up a better image.

It was late and we started to talk as we each internally summoned the energy to break everything down.  Started to discuss animals, perhaps from my family’s watching of the PBS Nature specials on the Chilean Puma and African Leopard.  Mark recounted how a zoo keeper taught him how to talk with the animals, and, Dr. Doolittle-like, Mark had the rhino in the Abilene and hyena in the Clovis zoos listening and responding.  Was a pleasant evening and welcome respite from quarantine, everyone ready to gather under the stars again.