I took advantage of clear skies and a relatively dark Q3 moon (it rose at 1am) to observe Friday night from the Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society Henry Grieb Observatory in the Sierra Nevada mountains north east of Sacramento.
I had my 22 year old daughter Halina with me. She decided to tag along, knowing it would be relatively short night, to see what her old man actually does with all this astro stuff.
It was a blast to observe with her. She enjoyed pushing the 10" dob around, just looking at random stuff in the Milky Way.
I also wanted to test out some new equipment (vehicle, deep-cycle battery, new laptop extra-darkened red plexiglass light shield) before the Great Lassen Expedition over the July 4th long weekend.
There was an astronomy class from American River Community College there, using a battery of C8s. Dave Kenyon was there helping out. I fondly remember the first college astronomy course I took at the College of Marin in the Bay Area. It was designed for non-science majors, but since I was very interested in astronomy, I took it anyway, in spite of the fact that I was a physics major. It was taught by Stan Hawks, my differential equations teacher, and he was very surprised to see me. But that's another story.
(Why is it that college students seem younger and younger to me with each passing year?)
Shortly after arriving, I experienced an equipment disaster: The 10" mirror had come out of its mirror cell during transport. That's the first time that that has ever happened to me. When I stood the scope box on end, getting ready to remove it, I heard a sickening sound of metal on glass from within. It sounded like the mirror was breaking.
Upon examination, I determined that the mirror was intact, but cocked at a crazy angle on top of the cell (instead of in it), and one of the triangular 3 point supports was sitting in the box. I decided that the only safe thing to do was remove the cell and mirror from the OTA, and possibly attempt to put it back in correctly. When I saw it, I decided to give up on getting any observing done, especially since we had arrived just at sunset and the light was fading fast.
The mirror cell finished falling apart as I removed the entangled cell and mirror from the OTA. Fortunately, both my daughter and I had thought ahead, and the mirror and the disassembled cell wreckage tumbled onto a pillow my daughter had brought with her in case she got bored.
It's a Novak cell, and I think I installed it incorrectly the first time a year ago. It had stayed in place (by sheer luck) until last night. I also ignored some warning signs during collimation last month that something was wrong with it. I'm not ignoring warning signs any more!
I spent the next hour fixing the mirror cell, and then re-collimating from scratch under the rapidly darkening skies. Fortunately, my daughter had a Swiss Army knife, which supplied two kinds of screwdrivers I needed to repair it (and didn't have with me)!! I installed it correctly (I am sure), and it is now very secure. Those screwdrivers saved the observing session from being a total loss.
The mirror suffered some scratches, unfortunately, but nothing that seriously impeded its performance.
We had fun observing the rest of the night, after that harrowing experience. Some high cirrus clouds covered some of the south initially, but these went away after a short while.
We first looked at a couple of bright stars of differing color: Spica, glowing actinic bluish white, and brighter golden-hued Arcturus. Next I showed her Polaris, the North Star, a wide double star with a considerably fainter companion. Next we looked at that great summer showpiece, the Great Cluster in Hercules, also known as M13, a globular cluster with at least a million stars. Another showpiece, M57, the famous Ring Nebula was easy to find even though it still wasn't even dark yet. I gave Halina an lesson in astrophysics as I explain some aspects of the formation of planetary nebulae.
We then turned our attention to the galaxies in Virgo, beginning with Galaxy Central, the M84-M86 bright pair. I like galaxies. When I found these (it was still not dark yet), I lost control of myself and I began jabbering relentlessly about how bright they were, and how cool galaxies were, periodically apologizing that galaxies were often not the best looking or brightest objects.
Halina must have been a little dumbfounded by my excitement, because she commented that she thought I said they were "bright", so she must have been looking for something that looked more like open star clusters, globulars or nebulae. When I went to the scope, I described the galaxies as gray smudges of light, and also discovered that she had actually started her way down Markarian's Chain, and was looking right at the pair NGC 4438 and 4435, also known as "The Eyes". There is a great photo of the start of Markarian's Chain in Burnham's Celestial Handbook, on page 2077, in the Virgo chapter.
We continued down the chain, and I was helping her pick out some of the fainter members.
When she got tired of looking at galaxies, we went back to Scorpius and M4, a sparse globular cluster about a degree west of the bright orange star Antares, the Rival of Mars. I noticed the stars were twinkling pretty bad in this area of the sky, so I decided to check the seeing by looking at Epsilon Lyrae, the famous Double Double.
We achieved a definite, but nearly marginal split at 142x. The stars seemed blurrier than average. I decided to interrupt the festivities by checking my collimation. The collimation was still good, so I concluded that the seeing was poorer than what I am used to.
Needing another galaxy fix, I decided to check out the spectacular Whirlpool Galaxy, M51. I rarely look at big, bright galaxies at dark sites, since I'm usually focusing exclusively on dim small ones, and it took my breath away when I saw it. Halina seemed less than impressed with it, and was ready to just look at the sky without visual aids, so she put her pillow down and laid on her back, looking up at the sky.
She was constantly impressed by how much of the sky she could see and how good the horizons were.
I took this opportunity to find 4 new small, dim faint galaxies near M51: NGC 5198, 5169, 5173 and 5229. At magnitude 13.7, 5229 was extremely difficult to hold.
Halina began to grow tired, so we finished up with some of the showpieces near Sagittarius, and the gorgeous double star Albireo.
It was a fun night observing with my daughter at a remote site. The night stayed deliciously warm and comfortable.
Technical data Date June 23, 2000 8:30pm-12am PDT (0330-0700 June 24 UT) Location HGO (east of Sacramento in the Sierras) Altitude 5284 ft. Instrument Orion DSE 10" f/5.6 dob-newt Oculars 10, 26mm Sirius Plossls Seeing 7/10 OK, but not great Transparency 7/10 Clear, but quite a bit of skyglow
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