Observatory 7 – Kitt Peak, Part 2

This post is about the evening program at the Kitt Peak National Optical Astronomy Observatory. For my post about the 3-tour daytime program, look >here<.

As I mentioned in that article, I signed up for both the daytime and nighttime programs for less than $100 total. They have several night programs, but the ones being offered that night were the Parade of Planets and Night of the Marvelous Moon. The former would enjoy the favorable alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn with, I think, a 20″ reflector in the dome at the visitor center, while the latter would probe our faithful sky companion, the moon, with a 16″ Ritchey–Chrétien reflector in one of the roll-off observatories up the path. I chose the Marvelous Moon based on the poor performance of planetary observing I’d had from the big scopes so far and on the forecast for a “mostly cloudy” evening due to the monsoon season. I figured if we were going to get to see much of anything, it would have to be big and bright.

The evening began before sundown with introductions and supper in the visitors center. Supper was a box lunch with a sandwich, chips, and a cookie (as I recall these several months later). There were about 16 people there for the programs, and it turned out that only two of us had signed up for the moon. The sky, which had been vacillating wildly all day between sun and storm, was still patchy, so there was hope. That made me feel a little bummed, though, because if there was hope, then there might be cool views of the planets, which I was going to miss. I had to discipline myself to enjoy the program I had chosen.

Sunset

Our first observing of the evening would be of the occultation of a nearby star behind the limb of a local planet, also known as “sunset.” (A little astrogeek humor there. Okay, very little.) We walked up the path to the rim of the mountain with a spectacular view across the valley to the west. The clouds were still hanging out but had broken up some, and as the sun got lower, they lit up spectacularly. Lots of reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and purples. There were places where I could see patches of rain falling miles away, even while the sun glinted off lakes and such in other parts. I experienced a good bit of it through my phone camera, I’ll admit, although I did stop a number of times to drink it all in directly with my own eyes. The good news is that you can share the experience since I was so digitally consumed. Click on >over here< to see my sunset pictures.

Marvelous Moon

Now that it was starting to get dark, we split into the two groups, going to our respective observatories, to respectively hope the clouds would respect us and dissipate. As we began our program on our Marvelous Moon, we had introductions, which was quick since there were three of us altogether. I have forgotten our instructor’s name, but my fellow participant was Jelena. It turned out that she works at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff as an event coordinator, and she was spying out what they could learn from Kitt Peak. Meanwhile, there was some lecture about our target that was clearly intended for astro-novices, so Jelena and I aced all the questions. I think Instructor was a bit new at that presentation, as he kept checking his notes and didn’t seem entirely comfortable with his patter, but he did a good job, nonetheless.

After our classtime to prepare us for looking at the moon, we went up to the scope, opened the roof, and …. well, crud. It was totally socked in. Of course. The clouds weren’t so dense that you couldn’t tell where the moon was, but they were dense enough that you could only make out the glow. We talked a bit about the telescope, its specs and mount and software and such. And we talked about some other stuff, stalling to see if maybe the sky meant to clear up after all.

It didn’t.

Plan B

Well, the various instructors and leaders were chattering away on walkie-talkies and arranging a rendezvous and a plan. It turns out the other group was also under cloudy skies and couldn’t see anything. Imagine that 😉 . So we all stood around on the patio by the visitor center for a while. When the leaders were firmly convinced we had no chance to observe anything beyond our planet, they revealed the backup plan. They had arranged a special opportunity for us. We would get to tour the 3.5 meter WIYN Telescope, which is usually not open to the public!

Of course, if you read Part 1, you know that this also ended up as the Plan B for my afternoon tour, so I had already had the rare chance to tour the WIYN. If you haven’t read Part 1, I recommend that you do, because I’m not going to repeat my description here, as it looked pretty much the same as it had a few hours before.

Epilogue

After the tour of WIYN, we returned to the visitor center and chatted a bit. I told Jelena about my pilgrimage and that I was planning to hit Lowell in a week or so. She gave me her card and told me to let her know when I was going to be there, and she’d show me around the joint. Cool!

Then came the part where we all would be driving down the mountain together with our headlights off, because, you know, astronomy was going on! Except it was socked in, so there wasn’t any astronomy going on. So we didn’t have to do that after all, but we still had to go down the mountain in the dark. That was still pretty exciting! And when you get down to the bottom, it’s open range, so you have to be careful, or a cow might jump out into the road in front of you! But none did this time. I made it back to Tucson in about an hour and a half, having had to stop for border patrol check point. I can’t find my journal at the moment, so I don’t know if I wrote it down, but it seems to me now that the skies over Tucson were clear.

So all in all, the night program at Kitt Peak was fun and enjoyable and even useful for making a contact or two, but ultimately, in terms of its intended outcome, it was a bust. But I can say I spent a night observing on Kitt Peak, and not very many people can. And I can say I’ve seen the WIYN Telescope – twice! And not very many people can say that, either. So, take that, very many people! I’m an astro-nerd!

Observing from Home – June 3, 2019

Conditions

  • 23:15-01:15
  • cool – low 50s F, maybe into the 40s
  • still, no wind
  • no clouds
  • no moon (+1 day)
  • humidity 75-80%
  • seeing: poor – 2/10
  • transparency: good

Equipment

  • Celestron NexStar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Eyepieces:
    • 32 mm = 62.5 X
    • 15 mm = 133 X
    • 9 mm = 222 X
    • 8.8 mm = 227 X
    • 2 X Barlow

Objects

  • Jupiter
  • M104 Sombrero Galaxy
  • M58
  • M60
  • M59
  • M51
  • Saturn
  • a wee satellite going past M104
  • a wee satellite going past M51 (don’t think it was the same one)
  • a flaring satellite drifting through Ursa Minor
  • a fireball, due south, just above the trees

Observations

Jupiter

I’ve really been wanting to see Jupiter lately as the GRS is “flaking” and doing weird stuff and shrinking. It’s been months since we’ve had decent night weather when I was free, but tonight was good. Well, clear. The seeing was crap. Any way, I debated going out at all because it’s a pain to take the scope down to the pool, and the deck is full of plants for the garden. I hit on the idea of setting up in the front yard. At 11 p.m. this would give me about an hour on Jupiter before it hit a tree, so to speak. Lots of trees in the front yard. So, that’s what I did!

Quick sketch of Jupiter, ex post facto

Did I mention the seeing was lousy? I could watch the waves of atmosphere rolling over the face of Jupiter. So it was mostly fuzzy and indistinct, even though I was well below the useful minimum magnification for planetary detail. I started at 62.5 X (32mm) and could identify 3 moons (Io was occulted, and I had just missed its disappearance) and the NEB and the SEB. As I’ve seen in pictures lately, the equatorial zone is relatively dark with a tan color. I have to admit I still get confused about image orientation. I think, from pictures, that S was up, but it should have been corrected by the diagonal. But when I pushed the scope toward the N, north was at the bottom. It doesn’t help that I had turned the diagonal to about 4:00 so I could sit and observe. I think that changes the orientation. Well, let’s say S is up. In watching for about an hour with increasing magnification (133, 227, 266, 444) I could see the NEB was thicker and darker, and I thought I could see some gray blocks along the SEB. The polar regions were quite washed out. The GRS was on the flip side, I think. It may have been just on this side about to roll over, but I couldn’t make it out if it was.

I did manage a few pictures holding my phone up to the eyepiece at 133 X and 444 X. Higher power was better for those.

I processed a bunch of pics into this one image using GIMP and Preview. Not very high tech, but it is my first attempt at planetary image processing. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it right.

Flaring Satellite

While I was looking at Jupiter I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. I thought maybe someone turned on a light in the house and it caught in my glasses. Then a few moments later, there was another flash. I looked away from the eyepiece. I was facing north. A third flash, and I found it just to the right of the “handle” of the Little Dipper, Ursa Minor. As I watched, this object, which I surmised to be a tumbling satellite, flared at least a dozen times as it moved from NW to NE until it went behind some trees. The flares varied in intensity from … I’m going to guess magnitude 1 to -4 or more! (The smaller the number the brighter the object, and each magnitude is a factor of about 2.5). That brightest flare got me to exclaim, “Holy moley!” out loud. It was just a few seconds between flares, and the difference in brightness wasn’t uniform, which is why I think it was tumbling rather than just rotating. Any way, this was very cool. I also noticed how clear the sky was, as I could see all the stars in the Little Dipper.

M104 – The Sombrero Galaxy

Quick sketch of M104 ex post facto.
That’s a star on the left, not just a random dot.

Once Jupiter got into the tree, I went looking for galaxies. My observing spot was not ideal, as I’d be looking just over the house, which can produce heat issues, with some lights on in the bedrooms, but it turned out okay. I used 62.5 X and 133 X mostly. M104 is a longtime favorite and was still just visible from my position. It never appears very large or much at all like the pictures, but I like it anyhow. Sitting next to a 6.5 magnitude star (going by the Pocket Sky Atlas), it was more radiant than I remember seeing it before. Still best seen with averted vision, there is a bright core – really quite bright tonight – surrounded by nebulosity, but it did appear to have rays of light shining to the … I don’t know.. South? I’m not sure how to explain this. Perhaps a defect in my eyes or optics, although nothing else gave this effect over the night’s observations. Maybe it’s just a really, really bright core, seen on a really clear night. Having spent a long time on fuzzy Jupiter, you might think I’d spend more time on this beauty, but I kind of said, “Oh, that’s pretty,” and moved on. Having added a sketch in my notes, I thought that I had drawn something like it before. Looked through my previous journal entries and sure enough, on 1 May 2013 I have a very similar sketch. The rays aren’t as pronounced, but they are implied (or at least inferred). That was with the Meade ETX90, so more than doubling the aperture perhaps makes a difference.

Virgo Cluster Galaxies

I moved on to a couple of the Virgo Cluster galaxies, starting with M58, because that’s one of the numbers I remember being there. Here my weaknesses as an observer really start to show up. First, I was not prepared. I didn’t have a plan for what I was going to look at and had done no research. This is greatly enabled by having a GOTO scope. Second, I have no patience. (This is an obvious lie, as I just spent an hour looking at fuzz ball Jupiter, but what I mean is….) I don’t take time to soak in the details of what I’m looking at. Well, often that is the case. Third, I don’t know the basics of observing, like image orientation in the eyepiece, angular size of objects and how to estimate them, visual magnitudes of objects and how to estimate them, stuff like that. None of this means I can’t enjoy my observing. It just would be more… insightful if I knew what I was doing, and I’d feel more confident. Any way….

M58 is a fairly large, diffuse, fuzzy object. I didn’t notice any bright core, but I didn’t really study it very long. I would say it appeared larger than M104 and not nearly as distinct. There was a star nearby both of them, though.

I followed an urge to move on to M60, which I knew to be close at hand, although it turns out to be in the opposite direction from what I thought. Hard to tell with the GOTO, which jumps away and slews back slowly rather than just gliding a few arcminutes over. M60 has much the same appearance as M58 – big, fuzzy patch with no noticeable core. I scanned around the area a bit, thinking I’d find M58, and I did find another galaxy, but the neighbor star was missing. Upon review, I think this was M59, another elliptical galaxy that lies between M60 and M58. I hadn’t even brought my sky atlas outside, so I had no idea what the layout was. Rather than going to get it, I abandoned Virgo until another night. This was also partly informed by it getting late and cold, but I wasn’t quite done yet.

(I later found my journal entry for 11 March 2019, the last time I was out with the scope, with a similar entry for M58-59-60. Maybe someday if I do it often enough, I’ll learn and remember.)

M51 – The Whirlpool Galaxy

Ex post facto sketch of M51. There’s a star in the upper right, and another in the disk of the galaxy. This second was actually not as bright as the first, although it looks the other way around.

I thought I’d end on a high note, literally and figuratively, turning my scope upward to another favorite, M51, the Whirlpool, the large face-on spiral galaxy and its companion. This was the best I’ve seen it since Mayhill, NM, in the 25″ Dobsonian in 2010. Two fairly large, bright, distinct objects of comparable size at first. As I’m writing two days hence, I forget exactly what eyepiece I was using, but I think I started with the 32mm and pressed to the 15mm for 133X. Any way, as I looked, the larger spiral, which was fairly vague, began to reveal itself. It remained pretty ephemeral, but it seemed to show indications of its structure. The whole was quite beautiful. I kept getting glimpses of a star in the bounds of the spiral playing peekaboo with me. Definitely the best object of the night. Again, though, the orientation has me baffled, to the point that, upon reflection, it is possible I have sketched the reverse of what I was actually seeing. It may be that the larger spiral galaxy should be on the right and the companion to the left.

What is reality?

Saturn, Sort Of, and Out

By this time, Saturn had risen high enough to be seen. So I took a look. It suffered from the same poor seeing and thick atmosphere as Jupiter. No detail at all – no color, no shadows, no Cassini Division in the rings, no nuthin’. I should have left well enough alone and quit on M51.

The night had grown cold, and I with it, so I packed up. Not a bad night on the lawn.