2024-06-20

South Plains Astronomy Club

Observing Under The Dark West Texas Skies

January 14, 2023, 19:30 – 21:45

Ransom Canyon the Meadow

Tom Heisey                    5″ Mak, 30mm Mayusama clone, higher powered ones, too
Robb Chapman              14″ homemade, driven dob, 17 and 21mm Ethos
Your Humble Narrator   Orion XT8PLUS, AT 28mm UWA (~43x, 2°), 16mm T5 (75x, ~1°) and 9mm T6 (133⅓x, 0.59°)

I arrived later than I’d have liked, at 7:30 PM, but at least I’d made it.  With my wife out-of-town in DFW and me in charge of the kids, well, there was plenty of juggling that weekend, and I wasn’t sure I’d even get to make it.  As it was, I had to pick up my daughter sometime before 10:30 west of 112th and Quaker, so I had my hands full and night scheduled.  That I got off the observation list at all before I left was something of a miracle.

I was able to enlist the help of my youngest daughter, Sofia, who, in a few minutes, had my Orion XT8PLUS collimated perfectly.  Packed up everything into the car (didn’t forget a thing, including plenty of warm clothes, which served me well).  Of course, by the time I arrived and actually set up my gear, Venus had exited stage West while Saturn was so thick in the muck it couldn’t be found.  The western skies at Ransom Canyon are particularly blighted, given the location of our fair light polluting city, so the western muck there is thick and obscure, indeed.

I arrived and setup near Tom Heisey with his Meade 5″ SCT on homemade mount.  He initially had his TV up, but put that away after a while, the moon not out this evening till after midnight.  Robb Chapman had his new 14″ F/3.5 tracking dob setup, and Patrice came out and walked amongst us, talking to the guests we had.  It was a cold, windy, somewhat cloudy evening, so the public audience was rather small, two different mothers with their children, but we showed everyone what we could.

The first woman there with her kids, Patrice later informed me, was the main contact with the Ransom Canyon council that invites us out.  She was apologetic for the thin turnout but didn’t need to be.  The wind, cold and clouds were bound to make the crowd small, so the fact that it was so was no surprise to us.  We were glad to offer the heavens to the folks we could — besides that, we’re crazy in love with the night sky!

After aligning my finder scope and red dot, I popped in the 16mm for 75 power on Jupiter in Pisces, my first object, and in the eyepiece all four Galilean moons were attendant.  Ganymede was off to the far left, ivory Jove centered the view draped in various brown cloud bands, Io and Europa almost stacked on each other close to the right, and Callisto farther (though not, in appearance, as far off to the right as lonely Ganymede to the left).  Bear in mind this is a reflector, folks, so the image is reversed and upside down in reality, but you get the idea.  I put in the 9mm T6 for 133⅓ power, and we were as magnified as the skies allowed on this blustery, cloud-bedeviled night.  The Great Red Spot wasn’t evident, and this isn’t really such high power, but some nights you take what you can get.  And jolly ole Jove is always a treat to the eye, even on a so-so night.

Ken showed up soon to take a gander, and later, Mark would show up, too, so, for the Club, we did okay for support on such a lackluster evening.  After the first woman left, another mother with her two cute sons, one still in diapers and the other not much older, showed up and we had fun showing them various objects.  It was a fun evening, and Tom, Robb, Patrice, Ken, Mark and I simply let the night skies unfold (as we dodged clouds).

Mars was next on my list.  By Jove, how could it not be!?  It beckons you shining so brightly from the eastern skies in Taurus.  Some dark patch mountain ranges were visible, and I believed I saw the southern polar cap, but perhaps it was just clouds?  Patrice wasn’t so sure about the polar ice cap, but she confirmed the darker mountainous regions.

Staying in Taurus next up, M45, the Pleiades.  I went the other route on power, and plopped in the AT 28mm UWA for a nice 1.95° True Field of View and just under 43 power.  Boy, was that a nice view!  I showed the woman and her sons, first, with my laser pointer the twinkling bunch of stars in the Bull, then had them look through the eyepiece at the beautiful star cluster, like an upside down Little Dipper.  Tom put it in his Mak, too, and even claimed some nebulosity, which I can believe, given the high power, very contrasty Mak, and the momentary “ah-ha” moments we would get occassionally at the eyepiece.  I didn’t notice this myself at my glancing view, but once you’ve seen the Pleiades in a 2° field, it’s hard to go back to 1 degree.  Oddly, my 8″ dob was the widefield scope for the evening — ha!  I’d have preferred to take out my AT 102ED F/7 refractor for wider fields of view, but I’d looked at the forecast beforehand and knew in that kind of wind, a dob was the only real choice.  I was right.

In fact, when I put my dob on Mars, I had to adjust the balance with my Orion weight magnet because the wind wanted to blow my dob around.  Looking to the west at Jupiter, it hadn’t been an issue, but clearly the winds were coming from the east, and Mars was right in the crossfire of Mother Earth’s gusts.  Took some finagling, but eventually I got ‘er right.

Orion rising caught my eye and I continued south and east to Beta Orionis, Rigel, the Hunter’s knee.  Leaving the 9mm in the focuser, Rigel split rather nicely, the very uneven pair requiring a bit of patience to tweak out at 10 o’clock the much fainter secondary, but it was there.  Patrice caught it straight away, but took Mark a couple of tries.  Rigel A is VERY bright compared to Rigel B, but that’s just the way this blue-white pair is.  Our mother and her two young sons took turns checking out this nice double and everyone got their first taste of this celestial delight.

Moving up and to the left a bit, M42, the Great Orion Nebula, was the next target.  I put the 28mm UWA in for my maximum field of view (a tad under 2°) and we saw the glory of M42, M43 and environs.  I told the mother and sons this was a stellar nursery, where stars were being born, and we all took it in.

Robb called everyone to come see IC 418 in Lepus.  The Spirograph Nebula was quite the sight in Robb’s 14″.  I will have to try for it in the future, located about half way (and a little “up”) between Arneb (alpha Leporis) and Rigel.  At magnitude 9.6, this 3,588 light year away planetary nebula should be “reachable” in my XT8.

Tom said he’d put Uranus in his scope, so we gathered ’round for that.  It was faint and unimpressive, but it wasn’t a very good night, and Uranus is often a ho-hum target.  Robb called it “doubtful”, but Tom’s scope did seem to be pointed at Aries so who knows?

Next, with the 9mm T6 (133x) I split the beautiful double Almach, Gamma Andromedae, with bright yellow-orange primary and small, blue secondary.  These are such a beautiful pairing, nice for all to see.  Jeremy Perez has a nice rendering of this on his site.

While in Andromeda, I returned to the AT 28mm UWA and placed the wonderful Andromeda Galaxy complex, M31, M32, and M110 into the eyepiece.  In Ransom Canyon M110 is very faint.  Fortunately this evening, with a tap on the tube, one could see the elusive M110, and of course, M31 was a nice spiral.

Back to 133 power, and I split Castor, alpha Geminorum, the two headlight doubles a nice sight.

Going down to 43 power, again, I framed the ET Cluster, NGC 457, rather nicely.  Unfortunately, in my dob it appears upside down this time of the year in the early evening, but ET seemed to know how to phone home upside down in space, a rather versatile chap.

As the mother and her sons began to leave, I put in the 16mm T5 at 75x for a quick split of Eta Cassiopeia.  Jeremy Perez has a nice rendering of it.  Going back to the AT 28mm UWAN and 43x in my scope, we all put M42 back in the scopes for one last hurrah and said goodnight to the mother and her boys.

Next, I moved on to the four-chain open clusters in Gemini and Auriga, M35, M37, M36 and M38.  They’re out of sequence in the middle, but start and end in sequence, and the ends each have a unique, faint NGC open clusters farther away about them.  M35/NGC 2158 starts things off in the foot of Gemini.  M37 in Auriga is probably one of the most, if not THE most, beautiful open clusters, with a bright orange-ish star in the center and a plethora of blue-white stars in attendance.  M36 is nice, but M38/NGC 1907 in Auriga duplicates the faint, more distant open cluster pairing of M35/NGC 2158 in the foot of Gemini.  These four open clusters are a highlight of the winter sky, and were this night as well.

By now the galactic pair of M81 and M82 were up, and they looked nice in the 28mm UWAN.  I couldn’t find nearby galactic neighbor NGC 3077, the skies in Ransom Canyon just not dark enough.

M1 was a cotton ball in my XT8 in the AT 28mm UWA, but looked a bit nicer, with hints of greater detail in Robb’s 14″.  On July 4, 1054, astrologers of the Sung Dynasty in China, as well as a pictograph from the Native American people of Chaco Canyon, recorded the supernova which created the M1 planetary nebula.

Mark, Patrice and Ken took off, and it was getting late.  Robb and I put globular cluster M79 in Lepus into our eyepieces.  Robb asked if it was a globular, so he already recognized it.  I first used the AT 28mm UWA in for a nice, wide-angle 2° vantage.  Needless to say, it was a nicely framed, put poorly resolved image, which Robb’s scope easily bested.  I put in the Nagler 9mm for 133 power, and Robb enjoyed that view.  I did, too, of course, with a much richer rendering than before.  Perhaps not as good as a 14″, but pretty nice for an 8″.  Robb complimented my mirror, and I agree, I think I have a good one, but I know that my daughter’s help in collimation made a lot of difference, with pinpoint stars the hallmark of my dob that evening.

We were getting tired and cold, and my time to leave to get my daughter approached, so we quickly put back M36 and M38/NGC 1907 open clusters in Auriga into our eyepieces for one last, glorious view.  Packing up my scope, and helping Robb out a bit with his hefty 14″, we were loaded and ready to go.  I zipped off first toward south Lubbock to pick up my daughter from her friend’s house.

I finish this one week later, Saturday the 21st, with we SPAC members discussing going out to a dark sky site this evening.  The skies were clear but the northerly wind was right unfriendly.  Neetu and I even bundled up to take a walk.  We tried to walk around the local Elementary School near our house, which puts one into a flat, open area with no defense from the northern wind.  We quickly returned to the neighborhood roads and cul-de-sacs, where the east-to-west streets, lined with houses and trees, provided a lot of relief from the north wind.  I thought of Tom Heisey’s words, “Emma and MNWR are flat open spaces”.  Indeed, it would’ve been an unpleasant attempt, stargazing in those locales this evening, as Neetu and my walk proved beyond doubt.

But we had a nice outing Saturday night the 14th, and I look forward to more such events in 2023.  Our next First Friday Art Trail on February 3rd corresponds with the Day the Music Died, when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, the Big Bopper and their pilot died in a plane crash 64 years ago on that evening.  I plan on driving to the First Friday Art Trail, and if the Fates allow, will see you there.