Last night, for the first time since I’ve been coming out here, I had all of the chores wrangled well enough to take the night off for a little stargazing. It was AMAZING!
I know that stargazing isn’t everyone’s passion, but it seems to be a common enough thing among writers. Even if you aren’t looking at the heavens, they work their way into your stories, and learning the cycles of the heavens can add a bit of depth to the “starry night” scenes in your stories.
The Frustrating Part?
Most of us live in or around larger metropolitan areas with heavy light pollution. There was nowhere in the state of Louisiana that had a sky as dark as the one over my head every night at the homestead. For that reason, there are some galaxies and nebula that I couldn’t see from my driveway, or even from a rig site. Another problem in Louisiana is the summer mosquitoes, who attack by the millions at the darkest sites. Summer observing is a pain in the butt.
A Brief Tour of the Heavens.
I’ve had a lot of trouble exploring the summer sky for the reasons above, and I know that aperture is everything when it comes to looking for the faintest of objects, especially galaxies that are 20 MILLION light-years away. My little travel scope, pictured above, is a humble 80mm doublet. My eye-piece of choice? A 20mm RKE that dad bought me about 15 years ago when I built my first “from scratch” telescope. For those not in the know, this is not expensive equipment, and some of the TeleView guys would call it junk.
I started with an easy target: Jupiter, which is the brightest thing in the sky right now. As the sky continued to darken, and the Milky Way came into view, I decided to try another target, one that has eluded me to this point. It’s a pair of galaxies just off the cup of the big dipper. One of them is mistakenly called the Bode Nebula, and the other is know as the Cigar Galaxy. I’ve been hunting them for so long that I knew exactly where to look. I dropped the Rank-Kellner eyepiece in, and took a look.
BAM! Nailed it!
Both galaxies appeared perfectly centered in the view, I didn’t even have to hunt around for them. They were dim, for sure. I mean, I’m using an 80mm tube. Of course they weren’t going to be super bright. I didn’t even bother with the 10mm eyepiece, I just studied them for a while, trying to pick out the subtle differences in their shapes. One of them is an edge-on view, which the other presents a top-down view of the whole galaxy. Magical. I decided to try something harder, and pointed my way toward the end handle star of the Big Dipper.
After hunting around for a few seconds, there it was. A very faint glowing object that is the Pinwheel Galaxy proper, M101. At over 20 million light years away, even seeing it with my modest setup was amazing.
Some Specs for You Astronomers
My Orion ST-80 is a 400mm doublet with an 80mm objective. The RKE is 20mm, which presents a view of 20x magnification with an exit pupil of 4mm (in a perfect world). I’ve heard that you can push galaxies into the 1-2mm range for the best views, but I was having so much fun exploring with the Kellner that I didn’t bother. I don’t think the glass on the eyepiece is coated, maybe just the entrance and exits, but my scope objective is 2 elements, fully multi-coated. I doubt if I was getting 90% light transmission. The difference a dark sky makes is unquestionable.
I hunted around a bit with the scope, and busted out my binocular for scanning the Milky way. I spotted what I think was the Eagle nebula, but it was just beyond the branches of a cedar tree. I tried to identify it with the scope, but couldn’t be sure because Sagittarius was still buried behind the tree-line, it could have been the Omega Nebula. Very pretty nebula, either way.
My binoculars are 10×50 if I recall correctly. Not the best for astronomy, but with skies this dark, it hardly mattered. Everywhere I looked, every field I stared into, was sprinkled with tiny stars. I stared at the coat-hanger asterism for a good minute or so before I even realized what it was. I’m used to seeing it against a black background. I’m going to have to learn the sky all over again.
If I can dig up my astronomy notebook, I might try to verify some more of my messier objects. I don’t remember how many more I need for a binocular certificate, but if there’s a time to earn it, it’s now. I would never even think of galaxy hunting through Virgo with an ST-80 in Louisiana, but I’m now confident that I can fight some of the brighter galaxies in that area. Some day, when everything gets ramped up and rolling, I’ll take the dob out there. Who knows how many astral wonders I’ll be able to pick out.
The Summation of a Great Day
I drove out from a visit with family yesterday morning, 4-5 hours on the road. I stopped in at my favorite cafe in West Plains on the way, and got my writing done. I topped off my water storage supply (all ready for a few dry days that are in the forecast). And I got in some great stargazing time. Even without my log book, it was a hell of a good time. I tried explaining the experience to my “pet” birds, but they wanted nothing to do with it, so I’m sharing it with you guys. Hope you enjoyed the post, and thanks for reading.