Cold Night at Star Party

Last night I went out to the Star Party at the Riverside Astronomical Society‘s GMARS dark site. Note: there are three links in that sentence for you to follow if you want to check out RAS.

The author, bundled up against the cold, desert night, taking a break from the Star Party to warm up, use the litter box, and selfie.

Being that a Star Party happens in the dark, I don’t have many pictures. My iPhone doesn’t take great pictures that don’t have at least some light. And stars are best viewed in the deepest dark possible. But, in case it’s interesting to you, here’s a shot I took in September 2016 at the first Star Party I went to. In it, my sons were learning to use the telescopes while it was still light out. Last night I only took my 10″ dobsonian last night, which is the larger of the two telescopes seen here (in case you didn’t know).

This was our setup at the first Star Party we attended back in September.

Temperatures were hovering at or just above 40 degrees last night and there was a light and variable wind. It was enough to chill you but not enough to keep me from a few hours of viewing celestial sights. The club’s site is called Goat Mountain Astronomical Research Station, and is located in Landers, CA, the Mojave Desert. At night, in the winter, temperatures regularly drop into the 40’s and the 30’s have been common in the last month or so. I dressed in layers to try to stay warm and was mostly successful, but not entirely. My fingers and toes were cold, a bit, but I also had some Hot Hands warmers in my pockets, too. Those were not very expensive but totally worth it.

It was already dark when I got there. I wasn’t able to leave home until close to 4pm and by the time I got some gas and on the road, traffic meant the trip would take 2 hours. Sunset was about 5:15pm last night so twilight was complete as I pulled into GMARS and started looking for a place to set up. The club rules are that you can use any of the empty concrete pads if they are not being used by sunset. I’d prefer to arrive a little earlier, but it worked out. I got my gear set up, collimated my telescope, and had a little coffee and pan dulce as I let my scope cool down to ambient temperatures.

I honestly should have prepared a little more for the trip. It’s a good practice to study star charts a be familiar with what’s in the sky before you get out there in the dark. For me, the dark sky is kind of overwhelming. Unlike the skies I’m used to at home, there are so many stars apparent when there’s less light pollution. The Milky Way isn’t as bright in the winter sky, but it is definitely still a feature. As Orion is the first constellation I learned, well probably besides the Big Dipper, I started my observations with the Orion Nebula. It’s a very bright nebula any time. 

For a lot of people, nebulae are probably kind of disappointing when looked at through an amateur astronomer’s telescope. They are often called “faint fuzzies” because that’s what they are! A smudge, a “wisp of cloud,” a faint, fuzzy patch that isn’t always very impressive. Because of our advances with telescopes in space like the Hubble, people are familiar with seeing amazing, colorful, detailed images of deep sky objects and that’s what they expect to see in a telescope. Hell, even I get the Hubble effect when I’m looking.

Orion’s nebula is a good place to start, though, because it is, actually kind of impressive for a “faint fuzzy.” But, still, it looks like a bright cloud, grayish-green and wispy. Our eyes are just not adapted for seeing color in the dark. The parts of our eyes that detect color need more light to work.

So, I looked at the nebula for a little bit, then slid up to look at Betelgeuse, a Super Red Giant star that makes up Orion’s left shoulder. It definitely had a reddish-orange color. If you want to see color in the night sky, you’ve got to look at a star. The brightest one’s are usually a white or sometimes bluish color. To me, they look most like the sparkle of a high-quality diamond. It’s an overused cliche to compare a star to a diamond, I know. But, it’s quite apt nonetheless. My favorite star for seeing color is actually a double star called Albireo. It’s easy to find in the summer sky and clearly shows a gold and a blue star right next to each other. But, Albireo is gone for the winter. Betelgeuse is a great way to see a colorful sight during this time of year.

Then, it was like my ADHD kicked in. I moved my telescope over to look at the Pleiades and switched out my 18mm eyepiece for the 30mm. The 30 gives a much wider view. For the Pleiades, you want a wide view. I was using an Explore Scientific eyepiece with an 82 degree view. It’s a huge eyepiece and requires a coma corrector in my scope. Maybe one of these days I’ll write more about that, preferably when I know more about what I’m talking about! For now, I’m mostly just going off of the recommendation of astronomers with more experience than I who say that the focal length and mirror I have in this scope, combined with that eyepiece, needs the coma corrector to keep the stars from looking like “seagulls”. So, remove the 18mm eyepiece and the focuser tube extender and put the 30mm with the coma corrector into the focuser.

The Pleiades is an open star cluster of bluish-white stars that are quite beautiful. Under dark skies, I was able to detect a little bit of the nebulosity, the glowing gas, that surrounds some of the stars. Cameras show the nebulosity pretty well.

Then, I moved over to the Andromeda Galaxy. Usually I enjoy looking at Andromeda (also known as M31). For some reason tonight, it didn’t look as good as I was used to. I spent a little time looking. Some people say they can see “dust lanes” where interstellar dust blocks the light of the galaxy’s stars, but I couldn’t. M31 looked like a dim ball of light surrounded by an oval glowing haze. After that, I found the “double cluster” in Perseus. I’ve looked at this object a few times. It’s very pretty as two open clusters of stars are in close proximity. With the 30mm, I can pretty much have both clusters in the view at the same time. Tonight, something about the stars gave a 3D effect, as if there was depth to the image. Normally stars look as if they are all on the same plane. But, I think the proximity of the stars along with the variations in brightness and size caused it to seem as if some were closer to me than others. It looked really great.

At this point, I switched back to the 18mm eyepiece. Then, I took a short break to use the facilities and warm up inside the house. I found a neat bulletin board in the house with RAS memorabilia. I took a picture under the red lights in use to help preserve night vision.

RAS and GMARS memorabilia on a bulletin board inside the GMARS house.

Back at it, I decided to be a bit more methodical. I bought a great book called Turn Left at Orion that helps new astronomers like me find their way via “star-hopping” or using stars as sign posts to find your way to interesting objects. It’s helping me learn the sky. I used it a lot during the summer to help me find things to look at, like Albireo that I mentioned earlier. So, I got it open and started with the January skies section. The book is mostly organized around what you can see in the sky during different seasons. Orion was listed first, so I went back and looked at the nebula again. This time I was looking more carefully at Trapezium, the collection of four stars at the center of the nebula. Actually, there are two very faint companion stars so it’s more like a cluster of six stars, so it was neat to see that as I had never really observed it very carefully.

In the neighborhood were Iota Orionis, a “triple star” and Struve 747, a double. A great thing about this book is that it names all of these for you, helps you find them, and explains what they are. So, then I looke at Sigma Orionis, a quadruple star near to Alnitak, the left-most star of Orion’s Belt. It’s a little less than a third of the way toward the nebula, so it’s not that hard to find. With my 18mm and 10″ telescope, I was definitely able to see that what looked like a single star in my finderscope (a very small “telescope” that is mounted on top of my telescope to help aim it) was actually four star that are part of the same system of stars as the rest of Orion’s Belt and nebula. Near to that is Struve 761, a triple star system that makes a very narrow triangular shape. Fun!

This is from the book Turn Left at Orion, showing the star systems I was looking at in Orion.

For me, I might see stars like this close together if I was just scanning. But, I wouldn’t know that they are actual binary stars rotating around each other, merely an apparent double (meaning they look like they are near each other but aren’t really, they just look close from our perspective), or what. Honestly, I’m the worst kind of astronomer, I guess. Theoretically, I know that astronomers can observe the stars and measure their color to see if they are red-shifted or blue-shifted so they can measure speed and then, somehow distance. I don’t know how it really works and I’m pretty sure there’s some higher order math involved. So, I need a book like this to tell me what’s what up there.

I was starting to get tired by now. It was about 11pm. I flipped a couple pages of the book and decided to look for M79, a globular cluster in Lepus. I don’t know what Lepus is. I mean, I know it’s a constellation but if you asked me to point it out in the sky, I wouldn’t be able to without assistance. But, the book hooked me up! A globular cluster is a really tight collection of stars. One of the best to look at is visible during summer, the Great Cluster in Hercules. This one is small, dim, and was hard to find, but I did it. I wanted to because eventually I plan to make a deliberate observation of each of the Messier Objects, which are the things that Charles Messier, an astronomer from the 1700’s kept track of because he wanted to find comets and didn’t want to keep looking at nebulae and clusters in his hunt for the comets. A lot of amateur astronomers use the Messier Catalog and go find these things. Some people even do a Messier Marathon in March when, I guess, if you stay up all night, you can observe all of the objects during that time period.

So, I found M79 finally. Then, I decided to try for M1, The Crab Nebula. It was the very definition of a faint fuzzy. I had trouble finding it because it was so dim, just a gray smudge in the blackness. Along the way, though, I learned to identify Aldebaran, a big bright orange star near Orion, and also Zeta Tauri and El Nath, two other stars. It was after 11:40pm now. I was tired. My brain felt tired from learning and looking for stars and trying to look carefully at them. I was cold. My toes and fingers were cold. I was still sniffling as the night air made my nose run (don’t worry, I had a handkerchief with which I wiped it). My back had been hurting for a couple hours and stretching my hamstrings didn’t seem to be helping. A warm bed next to my wife was calling my name and I decided to pack it all in finally. I’d been out there for near to six hours, observing for at least four hours. That’s a good night for me.

I took down my telescope, putting away the finderscope, the Telrad, the eyepieces, and putting all of the covers and protectors in place. Zippers zipped, latches latched, and it all went back into the Prius. Now, you have to understand, there’s no light out here. There are very tiny solar lights in places to help mark some paths. But, there’s no streetlights, no porch lights. And, since all of the people there are trying to keep their eyes dark adapted, I can’t turn on my headlights. In fact, I dim all the lights in my car, keeping the console screen off, as well as the dome and interior lights. I even back in so I don’t have to turn on my reverse lights when I leave. I have a small red flashlight that I shine out the window to help me try to see where to go, but it’s still an adventure to get out to the road.

I did make it but I very nearly drove off the path and into the bushes at one point. Did I mention it’s dark? It’s dark. But, once I was away from the telescope field, I turned on my headlights which blazed into life, like twin suns and burned away the inky blackness ahead of my car. I drove away after setting my destination into the navigation app and having a drink of coffee. I made it home after an hour and a half of wind-blown driving. It was good to get back into a warm house see my favorite star, my wife. I think some people enjoy certain hobbies because it gives them time away from a spouse. But, for me the time away from her is one of the impediments toward me engaging in the hobby. One day, I hope we can live somewhere with sufficiently dark skies such that I can have backyard viewing sessions on par with what I can see at GMARS. But, even still, I had a great time and got to see some cool stuff. And, here I will resist making a joke about hot stars and cold nights. You’re welcome.

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