I've mentioned my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory... The majority of my effort is with the Nightly Observing Program(NOP) where visitors enjoy a 4-5 hour early evening program that includes sunset viewing and Observatory orientation, then classroom and sky instructions of planispheres and binoculars before a session with a star guide at a 16" or 20" telescope. It has been a lot of fun showing visitors the spectacular night sky objects, and entertaining for me as well to see how the sky changes from week to week for nearly a year now.
Advanced Observing Program - a more advanced observing session. Here the visitors book a dorm room for the night, eat their meals in the dining hall, and have a one-on-one observing experience at one of the Visitor Center telescopes. The program starts a few hours after sunset when the NOP finishes for the evening, and goes till twilight starts again in the morning. There are several observing options for the AOP program, including advanced imaging with CCD cameras - still a bit beyond my skill set, but a lot of visitors want a visual program, where we also take short exposures with a digital SLR for images to bring home. This I can do, and I just had one after Christmas a few weeks ago.
WIYN Telescope at right and the WIYN 36" telescope at left. The right image shows a fisheye view of the western sky from the Roll-Off-Roof 16" telescope. Besides a view of the telescopes dotting the south side of the Observatory, the Moon and Venus are visible just over the roof, as well as the cone of the Zodiacal Light and part of the Summer Milky Way. The telescope was in use for the NOP at the time of the 50 second exposure.
averted vision you can also detect a narrow dark lane down it's center. With a moderate exposure (here 3 exposures of 3 minutes each were stacked) you can see that the galaxy is exactly edge on and the dust lane bisects the disk. At a distance of about 27 million light years, it is dimmed somewhat by the dust in our own galaxy as it's location is near the Milky Way, accounting for the rich foreground of stars along the line of sight. While visible in amateur sized telescopes, it's really spectacular nature becomes evident in images of it.
Pleiades star cluster, also known as Messier 45. Visible to the naked eye as a cloudy spot to the casual observer, closer inspection shows 6 or 7 stars. Also known as the Seven Sisters, it is well-known in many cultures. In our binocular sessions in the NOP, many think the bright stars form a small dipper and ask if that is what it is called, but the Little Dipper is an asterism that is part of Ursa Minor. Sometimes visible in a very dark sky through a telescope, an exposure reveals an intricate network of nebulosity. Once thought to be leftovers of the gas clouds that formed the cluster, it is now known that the cluster is merely moving through a dusty part of our galaxy. Only about 400 light years away, it is one of the nearest star clusters to us.
After viewing and imaging dozens of objects, we entered the springtime realm of the galaxies. We imaged a few of the more striking of them. As the night wore on some of the spectacular summer globular clusters rose as well.
One thing I hadn't pushed, but as we casually observed Venus, Jupiter and Uranus in the early evening, then Mars and Saturn as the night progressed, the chance existed to observe all 8 of the major planets. Unfortunately, we had bypassed Neptune in the early evening, but as twilight broke, Mercury rose not far from the bright star Antares in Scorpius. But seeing 7 of the planets was doing pretty well, and set a record for my guest that night.
So with the twilight, the observing drew to a close, and though we were tired, we were both exhilarated by the great night of observing. After providing a copy of the raw data to my guest, we both headed down the hill - him to a road trip back east, me to my pillow and the rest of my Christmas holiday. I've got another AOP scheduled in a few weeks - already looking forward to it!
Telescopic images courtesy Charles Parker/Dean Ketelsen/NOAO/AURA/NSF