A Night To Remeber at Blue Canyon
To sum it up, last night was one of those rare nights where the skies opened up to us and gave us a show we will never forget. Fellow TAC-SAC member Gregg Blandin and his son Stephan joined me at the SVAS's HGO observatory at Blue Canyon for what turned out to be one of the finest nights of observing that either of us have ever experienced.
After a grueling hour and twenty minute ride in Friday rush hour traffic, I arrived at the site around 7:50pm and civil twilight was well under way. My first clue to what was about to transpire this evening was as I returned to my car after opening the gate to the tarmac, I looked to the north east sky and saw that although the sky was still fairly light from twilight and the almost first quarter moon, Cassiopeia was jumping out at me and the double cluster was glowing ever so brightly. The seeing appeared to be very steady, no twinkling. Not a single cloud or trace of smoke in the sky. The temps were typical for BC in the late summer early fall, mild in the low to mid 70's and very low humidity. There was a slight breeze, maybe 1 - 2 mph, very comfortably blowing in from the east. The conditions were so outstanding that at one point I even called Randy and unsuccessfully tried to convince him that he should get up there.
Gregg was already there and had his 25" and 8" home built dobs ready for action. We still had over two hours before the moon was to set and even though I had intended to do a little lunar viewing once I'd set up, I changed my mind and decide to save my retina's for the real dark skies. I took my time as I set up my equipment by the light of the moon, constantly looking up at the skies which were becoming more spectacular as the night progressed. By 9:00pm, M32, M13, and most of the Messier's in Sagittarius were naked eye despite the fact that the moon was bright enough for me to read my observing plan notes by. My equipment for the evening was my 12" LX200 with my TV-85 mounted to the LX200 by means of a custom Losmandy dovetail mount and counterbalance system along with a telrad, my new 12v wet cell NiCad battery and my box-o-Naglers and Barlow's. I also brought along a copy of the Gottlieb 500 to guide my observation plans for the evening.
I began the evening's observing by giving Gregg's son Stephan a quick naked eye tour of the southern sky, pointing out Mars and constellation Scorpius, along with the infamous Antares, or "Anti-Mars". The Ring Nebula, m57, was the first object we tackled with scopes. Using his beautiful homebuilt 8" dob, Gregg showed Stephan and I a very nice view of the ring. Gregg went to bring his 25" to bare on it and noticed his mirror was showing a bit of astigmatism, so he went to work on it and brought it up to standards for the evening. Apparently, the recent modifications he made to it in order to install his new digital setting circles and semi-goto involved moving the primary up in the box a bit, so I asked him if he moved it enough to allow him to use a 31mm Nagler in it now. (The 31mm Nagler type 5 needs about .4" more "in travel" to focus than a type 4 or earlier Naglers which precludes some Dob owners from using them without shortening their truss poles.) He said that it probably would work, so I grabbed mine and we gave it a try. It worked great, with a little focus travel to spare. We took a quick look at the Veil, with and without an O-III. Then it was on to M81 & 82 before they got too low in the northern sky. Not the best we'd ever seen them (due to their relatively low altitude), but both objects fit neatly into the 31's FOV and were fun to see. Andromeda was next on the tour and filled the 31 with as breathtaking a view as I'd seen it last July at Lassen through Randy's 18". The huge dust lane in front of it gave us a striking 3-D look that exposed it's spiral arms and really gave us the proper perspective to see the angle to which we view it at. Next, the double cluster was absolutely dazzling. Hundreds if not thousands of stars could be see in Gregg's massive light bucket.
As the moon set and the skies really darkened, Gregg and I made estimates of sky to be around Mag 6.5 or slightly better. Transparency was an unbelievable 9.5 and the seeing was at least a 9 or better. These numbers bore out a little later when we observed Saturn through Gregg's 25" at an unbelievable 2500x! Yep, that's right, 2500x. About 2:00am, Saturn had risen high in the eastern sky and we decided to take a look. We started out with Gregg's 12mm Nagler (about 235x) and went up from there. Next, we tried my 9mm Nagler (312x) and the view was stunning. Gregg suggested we try some outrageous magnification just to see how high we could push it, so I tossed my 4X Powermate in front of the 9mm Nagler (1250x). The view just about blew me off the ladder. Wow, 3-D. It was a striped ball rather than a flat featureless disk. The shadow cast by the Saturn on its rings looked like a velvet black crescent against the colorful belts and surface of the planet. The Cassini division looked like a bicycle tire running around the belt it was so clear. Usually, the surface of Saturn appears mostly whitish with only subtle hints of color banding. At 1250x the colored bands were as visible and well if not better defined as I've ever seen, including the ones on Jupiter! Moons were visible as well. To be honest, I don't know how many moons we saw, because I was so enthralled with the view of the planet, that I hardly paid attention to them. Gregg couldn't believe his eyes either. After staring at it for almost 10 minutes, he suggested we do something totally insane, since we were already in the range of magnification that no one would believe, and we tossed in a 2x Big Barlow into the mix for a total of 2500x! It was now Gregg's turn to fall of the ladder. He couldn't believe his eyes. At 2500x, the image was huge in the eyepiece and was still holding up! Even more color was detected in the bands and the Cassini division looked like a blacktop freeway running around the rings. The views looked more like a Hubble photo than anything I'd ever seen through any of our scopes on any planet. No kidding. It was a view of a lifetime. We really did it!
With my TV-85 now mounted on a goto mount, I took the opportunity to take in some of the wide field objects. First was the Veil Nebula. With the 31 Nagler at 19x and with an O-III filter, I was able to get the entire super nova remnant in one FOV. The longer I looked at it, the more I was convinced at how important is was to have a high quality refractor in one's arsenal of astronomical instruments. It was mesmerizing to see and take in this perspective. The longer I looked, the more impressive the view became. Not to take anything away from the view of it as seen through Gregg's beast, but I must say that you really don't get the feel for how huge and beautiful it is until you see it fill a 4 degree FOV, with the witches broom on one side and the waterfall on the other. Buoyed by my success on the Veil, I keyed in the North American Nebula, NGC 7000, and brought the little TeleVue to bare on it. I was not disappointed. I could easily make out the entire nebula in the 31's 4 degree FOV with the O-III. I had never seen this object until last night. The FOV of the 31 Nagler in my 12" LX200 is only about three quarters of a degree, so I had no idea of the tremendous beauty and grandeur of this object. I also attempted to see the California Nebula, but it was just too faint for the little 85mm to see without an OHC filer. I guess I'll have to add one of those to my collection in the near future.
At one point in the evening, Gregg and I decided to test the limits of the sky by hunting some faint galaxies. I suggested that I'd like to see Stephan's Quintet, an easy target in his 25" and we went off from there. We keyed in NGC 507 as a starting point and promptly set a new record for faint objects seen through his scope. There is a 16.87 mag galaxy near NGC507 which we were able to find and according to Gregg, is the faintest object he has conquered to date. We thought we might have a chance at a glimpse of a mag 17 galaxy, but our efforts went for naught and we eventually gave up on it in favor of the many other wonderful views that were available this spectacular evening.
There were probably at least 30 or 40 other objects we saw last night, but the views of Saturn kept us up and going till the morning twilight began a little after 5:00am, ending one of the most memorable nights I ever spent. If there was one important lesson learned from the evening, it was that if you don't get out there, you'll never see it. Luck plays an important role in observing and you must stack the deck in your favor by going out as often as possible. Isn't that right Randy?
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