This past Friday (2013 March 8), CNYO hosted its first official public observing session at the Onondaga Lake Inner Harbor, centrally located between Downtown Syracuse and Destiny USA. While this may seem like a rather poorly-advised location for amateur astronomy, the Inner Harbor served several simultaneous purposes for the organization and the attending public. I shall consider these points below intermixed with a brief discussion of the event itself.
Setup began with Larry Slosberg and myself around 6:00 p.m., arriving early enough to reserve the large mound just behind the Inner Harbor amphitheater (map below) and generally take in the location. While a somewhat out-of-the-way location (in the desert between the mall and downtown), the Creekwalk provided traffic in the form of a few joggers, dog walkers, and cyclists (and, as it happened, part of our audience for the evening). The Inner Harbor itself is a very large space full of parking, calm water, airplanes into and out-of Hancock International Airport (the take-offs, approaches, and landings themselves were fun to watch) and reasonably distant horizons. All of Syracuse is visible from the mound, serving as a familiar backdrop for bright stars as they came above the horizon (and it’s just a really neat spot to take the city in – I’d recommend it to everyone when the temperature increases). The only point of minor concern was the murder of crows parked near the city school bus depot, which lead to us all keeping our scopes tilted to the ground when not in use (to spare out primary mirrors from collecting anything falling from above). The location is surrounded by sodium lights and some rather bright walking path lights. Remarkably, Destiny USA was not the major source of light pollution for the area (a bit of a tree line actually kept the mall’s glare to a minimum). As a result of the Inner Harbor and Creekwalk lights, all decent observing began about 30 degrees off the horizon (where the glare and reflection of city air particulates gives way to darker, steadier skies).
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Within minutes of Larry getting his Meade set up, the first public visitors appeared in the form of three teens walking past the Inner Harbor amphitheater. While I was busy setting up my 12.5” Dobsonian (herein referred to by her name, “Ruby”), Larry had Jupiter in his scope (easy to see immediately after sunset and the first celestial object to appear for several minutes before Sirius, Betelgeuse and Rigel marked their respective locations) and was describing the sight as everyone took turns with first views of the evening. Larry and I both tried to see Comet Pan-STARRS in the West/SouthWest sky, but it is clearly too early in its appearance (and too low on the horizon) for CNY viewing (perhaps the skies will clear over the next few days). By 6:30 p.m., Larry (Meade), Ryan Goodson (with two New Moon Telescope Dobsonian beauties in tow), Dan Williams (running one of the Ryan’s), Simon Asbury (with two testing pairs of Zhumell 25×100’s) and I (Ruby) had equipment out and were observing, as Barlow Bob describes it, “with attitude.” John Giroux appeared soon after with two scopes, marking the peak of operating optics for the evening.
Setup at sundown.
So, The Big Question!
What can one see from near-Downtown Syracuse when surrounded by sodium lights and a glowing skyline? In my 12” Dobsonian, my public observing list for the evening consisted of:
* Jupiter – clearly visible banding, obvious Great Red Spot, nicely steady skies for pulling out detail.
* Pleiades – fit perfectly in its entirety in my Pentax XL40 eyepiece. The coloring in my favorite binary system (Tyc1800-1961-1 (blue) and Tyc1800-1974-1 (orange)) was clear as a bell.
* Trapezium in M42, the Orion Nebula – all 6 stars were no problem.
* The rest of M42 – the filamentous nebulosity is still obvious at any magnification.
* M41 (the “Little Beehive”) in Canis Major – A multi-colored open cluster one full Telrad diameter from Sirius, the brightest star in the Night Sky. Orange and slightly blue stars were easy to see.
* M31, The Andromeda Galaxy – just a circular fuzzy ball with barely any additional structure present. But it was obviously a galaxy in the scope (and in the near direction of Destiny USA to boot).
* In Ryan’s 16” NMT Dobsonian, I was able to just barely make out M65 and M66, two of the three galaxies in the Leo Triplet (NGC 3628 was just outside of visible).
All together, that isn’t a bad list of observed objects even in dark sky locations, and several other open clusters would have been easily visible from the Inner Harbor had I focused on them (and perhaps others did).
This brings me to a lesson that I hope others planning sidewalk astronomy and similar events keep in mind (and clearly comes with my own bias). The goal of a public viewing session should not be to introduce completely new observers to subtle, dim objects that even professional amateurs require time and training to see. The goal of the session should be to expose new eyes to clear, bright objects that don’t require averted vision or averted imagination. It is commonplace in all manner of scientific endeavor for a professional to forget that they spent 10 years getting to the point where something is obvious. You can describe what someone is supposed to see all you want, but a dim face-on spiral galaxy with any appreciable NGC designation is not going to wow someone like Jupiter or the Moon. I’ve made it a point in several past observing sessions to try to get several scope owners to pick tiers of objects, with someone focused on the bright clusters and planets, then someone else focused on objects that tax the new observer who really wants to see what amateur astronomers consider to be tempting targets (and this tier-based approach has worked and failed to varying degrees).
Observing from the lit surroundings of a city does wonders for removing the dim fuzzy-wuzzies from the list of objects scope runners might consider as interesting objects. Very quickly, the observing candidates for a trained amateur astronomer reduces to the list of objects most anyone can observe and appreciate with little description beyond the interesting physics and history of the objects themselves. New observers are not taxed with seeing subtle detail. Clusters, many binaries, and planets become the pick hits that keep the crowds cycling between scopes (and are also good for new amateur astronomers, as these objects are usually the easiest to find). The Inner Harbor, despite its flaws as a location for dedicated amateur observing, is a choice location for introducing new people to an ancient craft (that, then, hopefully draws them out to darker skies). Frankly, I’m looking forward to a first Moon-centric observing session for this very same reason.
Some of the attendees pose for a first group shot. Photo by Simon Asbury. See the CNYO facebook page for more photos. From left: Mike Phelps, Larry Slosberg, John Giroux, Dan Williams, Ryan Goodson, Damian Allis, and Jack Allen.
The session concluded with a father and daughter spending several minutes with Ryan’s scope as we all talked observing, science, and general light conversation. In all, around 20 people showed, all but five of whom were somehow connected with the facebook page. Ryan, John, and I finally packed the last of our gear (and did the last search for dropped eyepiece caps) just after 10:00 p.m., a good hour after the city became quite frosty (we definitely would not have lasted to Saturn’s arrival after 11:00 p.m.).
All in all, the first official event was excellent! All had a good time despite the cold, I had my scope out earlier in the year than ever before, much observing was had through many optics, all enjoyed a broad range of conversation around the scopes, we all learned a bit about what light pollution REALLY means to city observers, and the CNYO attendees all agreed that this is something we definitely need to do on a regular basis. Therefore, stay tuned to the website and facebook page for observing announcements, hopefully with another (warmer!) nighttime session to follow after our daytime appearance at The MOST on April 2nd for their Climate Day event.