Sunday, September 5, 2010

Picnic + Observing = Star-B-Que!

Last night was the Fall version of the TAAA's twice-a-year cookout and star party up at the Kitt Peak picnic area. We started doing this way back when I was club president in the mid-90s and we are currently allowed upwards of 60 people, but almost never fill up. It is always a great time to meet at such a great location - you couldn't ask for better skies, full use of a pavilion, gas grill, flush bathrooms, and great friends with which to hang out. I'm guessing we had about 35 members on this excursion.

Bittersweet emotions this trip as we found out that our friends Thom and Twila Peck lost his father earlier in the day (back in our "other home town" of St Charles, IL), and it was the last hurrah of another friend, long-time newsletter editor and star party volunteer George Barber. George finally found a job after a 4 month search, but unfortunately, is leaving us for northern Utah.

When I first heard of holding the event so early in the fall, I thought for sure we would be doomed by monsoon rains, which usually extend to mid-September. After anxiously watching the weather all week, the resurgence of moisture got pushed back further and further and it turned into a spectacular evening with moderate temps. We started out with a surge of mosquitoes right about sunset, but the evening bats moved in and the insects fled for cover - no longer an issue.

I decided to break out my 11.25" Newtonian telescope, all home-made except the mount. It has been years since using it - I've been spoiled by the Celestron 14" plus Hyperstar for wide-field imaging and short exposures. The 11" has a little longer focal length (about 1 meter compared to 650mm), so gives a little closer view of night time objects, but at F/4 isn't a lot slower, so exposures still stay short. Melinda chose to use an 8" Celestron on an alt-az mount that simplifies moderate magnification viewing, but without a go-to, she had to work harder with a star chart to find her way around the sky! I had planned to spend time collimating the optics, but after the rough alignment at home, it didn't need any, so the first object was the 36" Spacewatch telescope atop the mountain in the fading dusk. Just under a mile away, note the star rising behind it it slightly out of focus with the long focal length!

While the star party atmosphere can be fun, being in close quarters in such a dark sky has it's issues. I'm sorry, but your loud classical music "bugs" me - I'd rather hear the rhythmic chirping of the crickets than "The Planets" or the loud grinding of go-to scopes (do they make mufflers for those things?). Bringing your dog to a star party? Come on - I know they are family members, but given the relatively good chance of encountering a snake, skunk, scorpion or other denizen on THEIR turf, the idea of bringing them is questionable. And lights - it is a star party after all, yet the bright lights (just because they are red tinted does NOT make them ok if they are blinding!), and back up lights without warnings is just rude! The exodus at 9:00 seemed a little early to me, 45 minutes after it got dark... Oh well, rant mode is now OFF...

I had not intended to do any serious imaging, just getting into the familiar swing of things after not using the ole' Newt for so long. And with the occasional wandering TAAA member, it was nice to show what the DSLR (even a 5-year old Canon 20Da) can do. So I shot a couple sequences of familiar deep-sky objects, mostly 2 or 3 minutes exposures, and a couple exposures to stack and beat down the noise at the ISO of 1600. First up are M8 and M20, the Lagoon and Triffid Nebulae. These are very slight crops from the full frame, and show the predominant red glow of hydrogen clouds along the Milky Way. The Triffid contrasts the red glow with a nice blue reflection nebula in the northern section. The Lagoon is 8 minutes of total exposure, the Triffid is 10 (one extra 2 minute exposure).

Another popular objects in telescopes last night was the Veil nebula - a supernova remnant where a star running out of fuel blows off part of it's mass into a shell of gas. It is an impressive, though faint object in large, low power fields, and for all the world looks like a ghostly Cheshire Cat smile against a rich star field in the constellation Cygnus. A reasonably sized image like this or larger resolves the nebula into twisted filaments of red (again, from hydrogen) and blue (a mix of hydrogen, oxygen and other elements). This is an uncropped image, since this eastern arc of the Veil barely fits...

And someone requested a galaxy image, though they never returned to see the results - a shot of NGC 7331 with nearby companions, and a half degree to the upper right, is a galaxy cluster known as Stephan's Quintet. Both of these objects have north to the left, as opposed to north up in the above images. The Veil is 14 minutes total exposure, the galaxies have 24 minutes.

And last, but not least, while working nearly alone (only the Kalas', Paul Lorenz, our friend Donna and we remained) I searched for the "bright" comet P/10 Tempel, shining at just over 9th magnitude in Cetus, low in the southeast at 1am. It is nearly opposite the sun from us, so you can imagine looking down the tail from the stellar-looking nucleus. I couldn't find a suitable guide star in a minute or two of looking, so just let the scope track for 6 - 90 second exposures, for a total of 9 minutes. When stacking on the comet nucleus, you can see it's northward motion trailed the stars into little streaks. Unfortunately, this comet is not getting any brighter and will fade as it recedes from both the sun and from us.

An appropriate conclusion to a great night's observing, we got home by 2:20 and after downloading pictures, hit the pillow about 3am. A fun time!


David A. Harvey said...

Damn! Wish I knew you all were up at KP - I was thinking of calling you and asking if you wanted to go to KP and do some astrophotography from your "secret spot". Oh well, maybe next time. Drop me a line if you want to go some night. Nice shots BTW! Loved your rant!


Anthony Vodraska and Anita Gilbert said...

Great telescope! I didn't realize you have a Newtonian in your bag of tricks. Beautiful pics. Nice to see Melinda with her own telescope. If I were there with you guys, I would have stayed to the wee hours of morning to not miss such a great viewing opportunity. Maybe sometime in the future.

Anonymous said...

The events at Kitt Peak are to be thought of as a privilege that carries responsibility,

ergo the privilege can be revoked when "guests" fail to respect the historical rules of the mountain.

No alcoholic beverages, no loud music, radio or otherwise, clean up after yourself, leave it better than or as you found it, responsible coming and going with respect to all forms of lighting whether it be vehicles or flashlights, and so forth...

These were the rules set forth by KPNO when i once upon a time organized that event. Sounds like folks forget that they are "guests" there at the facility, as well as guests of the local tribal nation.

sounds like the typical behaviour of an "entitlement" mentality, seems like an attitude adjustment is in order.

some say, "oh what does it matter if a 'little' rule is broken now and then" seriously, it only takes a few to ruin it for everyone.

Your rant is appreciated and goes well beyond the views of just one person.