Ryan Goodson, Larry Slosberg, and I joined Bob Piekiel for his monthly New Moon observing session at Baltimore Woods on his weather-alternate session (having lost Friday’s session to Snow Storm Nemo). What started as a remarkably cold session, which then progressed to a bitterly cold session, and then finally to an intolerably cold session (forcing us to close shop up around 8:30 p.m.), still provided some excellent views of the Winter Sky, including the Solar System‘s largest planet Jupiter right between the Hyades and Pleiades.
For those who haven’t ventured for a session, the view from the Baltimore Woods parking lot includes a clear zenith (what luck!), a tree to the North that extends almost up to Polaris (so one must walk around it to get the view of constellations below our North Star), low-lying trees to the West, then the warm orange glow (the only thing warm on the 9th) of Baldwinsville and Syracuse to the East-Southeast. As we’re mid-winter, the evening observing was obstructed occasionally by blindingly bright snowmobiles (but one had plenty of lead time to take cover).
The evening started early with a fly-by of the yellow-orange ball that is (from the ground, anyway) the International Space Station (ISS), right on schedule with the predictions from heavens-above.com:
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Reaching a total session count of eight, the evening included several observations of Jupiter, noting specifically how quickly Io rushed from Jupiter as even 10 minute intervals progressed (the slow cooling of mirrors resulted in many returns of increasingly crisp views). A comparison of eye piece magnifications and field-of-views was performed with the Pleiades in Bob’s 11″ Schmidt–Cassegrain and Ryan’s 16″ NMT Dob. In both cases, one my my favorite doubles, Tyc1800-1961-1 (blue) and Tyc1800-1974-1 (orange), jumped right out from the center of the tea cup. The lesson learned from such an exercise is that magnification is not the key to observational astronomy – it is seeing all that you want to see in the field of view that is key to enjoying the Night Sky.
A second highlight of the evening included M35, an open cluster in Gemini that, at 2,800 light years away, still covers an area the size of the Full Moon. Clearly visible as a slight “smudge” in the upper-left corner of the eyepiece (so the lower-right corner of M35) at low magnification is the compact open cluster NGC 2158.
After Jupiter, the night belonged to the massive Orion Nebula (M42), a hydrogen cloud doubling as a stellar nursery. At a magnitude of +4.0, the fuzzy patch in Orion’s Belt is visible to the Naked Eye, increasing in density with small binoculars, and leading to magnificent views of filamentous nebulosity at low magnification in both telescopes. The splitting of the main binaries in Trapezium was trivial in Ryan’s 16″ NMT Dob even without a completely cooled mirror.
I noted to Ryan that, given the usual CNY winter conditions, “It’s a rarity to see Pegasus in the West.” The quintet of Sirius, Orion’s Belt, the Hyades, Jupiter, and the Pleiades was worth the visit with or without equipment. After 90 minutes of observing in cold, continually patchy skies, the temperature dropped precipitously, instigating a rapid retreat and scope packing by all attendees. The lessons learned – your gloves are never thick enough & always have a headlamp in the car for the end of the evening!