Monday, March 16, 2009

Carolyn's Excellent Vacation - Day 4!

I was off to work this morning, but Melinda took Carolyn on a driving tour of central Tucson, and later met our buddy and matchmaker Jane for lunch at the Blue Willow. All this as prelude to the highlight of the day - observing!

We loaded scopes and cameras into the van and headed west towards Kitt Peak for some real dark-sky observing. My mission was to image Comet Lulin once more with the 14" before it faded away, but Melinda set up her 5" Celestron for some visual observing. Shortly after sunset we spotted Venus, by now getting low in the west, and saw the skinniest of crescents in the scope - it is passing inferior conjunction (between us and the sun) in 9 days (27 March). It is amazing how fast it is diving towards the horizon - 2 weeks ago it was very high in the west and now it sets by the end of twilight!

Another highlight came very early - the International Space Station made an appearance 30 minutes after sunset. Fortunately, I was able to have a camera set and focused and caught it passing under Polaris to the north, visible as the streak in the time exposure. Polaris is the end of the handle of the Little Dipper asterism, and you can see some of the stars curving down to the dipper part behind the tree. The Space Shuttle Discovery is on the way to the Space Station, and was supposed to be following it, but was not seen, so perhaps it had already docked with it...

This time of year the Big Dipper stands on it's handle at the end of twilight and made a striking sight rising in the nearly dark sky to the northeast.

Comet Lulin was spotted in binoculars just below Delta Geminorum - in fact, that is the bright star above the comet in the photo here. It is nothing fancy - just a straight average of 6 exposures of 2 minutes each with the Canon 20Da and the Hyperstar corrector on the C-14. No flat field image yet - someday I've got to get busy on properly reducing these shots, but this will have to do for now. There are also at least 2 satellites visible on these exposures.

I think we overexposed Carolyn to astronomy - even in the dark I think I could see her eyes beginning to glaze over! But she saw some cool stuff, including the Orion Nebula, the edge-on rings of Saturn, and comet Lulin and it's faint tail. With the dark sky west of town, it really is easy to impress newcomers. I think she was also amazed how much of the hobby Melinda has picked up over the last couple years "under my influence"!

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