April 17, 2015 – Saturn and the Glorious Globulars

Normally, I curtail my astronomical activities just before midnight so that I don’t disturb my family coming in the front door late at night from an evening’s observations.  However, with the family away for the holiday week, I was a bachelor for awhile and didn’t need to curtail anything.  Unfortunately, the sky had something else in mind, as I was clouded out for a solid week until the night before they came back.

Finally, the skies cleared and out I went for a very full night of observing.  First there were the Pleiades and Venus together in the same field, setting in the west.  Well, the same field of view in the ST-80, of course.  The two of them just fit in the field together with the 32mm Plossl, and were nice to see at just 12x.  I love that ST-80 for exactly this reason!

I spent some time on Jupiter as the evening went on, as not only was there an Io shadow transit, but the Great Red Spot was transiting shortly after that.  Both were nice to see.  I had the Moon & SkyGlow filter in for almost the entire night, and again, it did not disappoint – Io’s shadow was a gorgeous inky black dot, and the GRS was well-defined.  I also saw a dark straight-line feature at about the same latitude as the GRS, but in the opposite hemisphere.

EDIT – apparently, this straight-line feature is called a “barge”, and some think that it may be a break in the top layer of clouds, allowing us to see a level of clouds below.

While I was waiting for all that to happen, I caught another one of my nemeses – M67.  It has been right next to Jupiter for months, but I haven’t been able to catch sight of it.  Well, I finally did, but boy is it dim.  I knew I had found it but it was a tough catch.  Not much to see there.

Meanwhile, the second bungee cord on the vaunted Lyra Double-Double Finder Scope Mount finally decided to give up the ghost right then.  Fortunately, I have two industrial strength bungee cords wrapped around the ST-80, holding it down onto the metal cradle part of the mount, so this did not cause any problems whatsoever.  Even if one of the new bungees goes, I still have the second one as back up.

Even with that failure, all in all, I have to say that I am only somewhat disappointed in this mount.  Yes, it did let the ST-80 fall from 5 feet onto my apartment building’s hallway carpet – fortunately, with no sickening crunch or other ill effects – when the first bungee cord failed a couple of months back.  I would be mightily disappointed if something had happened to the ST-80, but I guess I was lucky it decided to fail just after my observing session was over, inside on the carpet rather than outside on the roof.  The metal cradle mount – which can’t fail – does what I want it to, which is to allow me to point the ST-80 in the same direction as the Mak and use them both at the same time, so for that, I still like the mount.

But the real highlight of the evening was accelerating the passing of the months by going out late.  And by late, I’m talking real late:  2 and 3 in the morning.  After catching the GRS around midnight, I went back out just after 2am, and Saturn was riding high in the sky just above Scorpio’s claws.  Well, relatively high, because Saturn culminates at less than 32 degrees, and will continue to do so for years to come.  (Meanwhile Jupiter gets into the upper 60s and gets way, waaay up there.)

On a side note, this is because of the time of year that Saturn rises – in the spring and summer.  During those months, in the Northern hemisphere, the pole is tilted at 23 degrees towards from the sun.  Since Saturn travels along the ecliptic, which is roughly the sun’s equator, when it’s night in the northern hemisphere in spring/summer, and we’re pointing towards from the sun, Saturn isn’t going to rise very high in the sky.  However, it will rise very high in the Southern Hemisphere.  Unfortunately, this situation is going to continue until past 2022.  Ugh.

Anyway, when I got to the roof around 2, it was dark.  Really dark.  Well, really dark for my apartment building’s roof, anyway – I could still see everything on the roof fairly well.  But there was a huge difference in the darkness level at 2 than there is at 11-12.  By that time, everyone’s lights are off, and even Times Square looked a lot dimmer than usual.  It all added up to make a real difference in the light pollution.  Not enough, though, as we’ll soon see.

Saturn was its gorgeous self, of course, even if I hadn’t seen it over 30 years.  The rings really had a 3-D effect going on, as I could see the shadow of the planet on the backside of the rings.  Titan was about 8th magnitude, shining nearby, as well.  Unfortunately, maybe because it was only 30 degrees above the horizon, the seeing was beyond terrible.  It would be a beautiful ringed object one moment, only to randomly explode into an enormous wiggling ball three times the size, and then go back again.  Because of this bizarre seeing, I couldn’t tell if I could see Cassini’s Division, something I’ve never seen, and next on my list of “must-sees.”

Where winter is open cluster season, spring – or late spring/early summer, I guess, since the 2-3am sky in April corresponds to the 10-11pm sky in June – is the start of globular season.  Since I was right nearby in Scorpius anyway (probably my second favorite constellation after Orion, both because it sort of resembles the thing it’s supposed to be, and because it’s my astrological sign, even though astrology is one gigantic heap of parrot droppings), I decided to see what I could see there.  M80 was easy to find, although a bit dim at 7.2 mag, but was still a nice sight to see.  However, even though M4 is significantly brighter at 5.9 mag, and is also literally right next to Antares, I couldn’t find it for the life of me.  Try as I might, hunting around, it was just nowhere to be found.  Strange.  But at 3am, your patience for trying to figure things out gets to be extraordinary low.

I also saw the three globs in Ophiuchus, which I like to pronounce as if there’s an “n” in there:  M10, 12, and 14.  (I didn’t bother with M107 at 8.2 mag.)  All three were nice to see, with M10 and 12 being a little brighter and more defined.

Since it was darker than I had ever seen it, I thought, what the hell, let’s see if I could pull down a galaxy and darn all those naysayers on Cloudy Nights who say that a Mak is useless on them.  I started off with M66 and the Leo Triplet, but that didn’t work out; I moved on to some other faint galaxies, M87, M60, M49, M64, M94, M106.  No dice on any of them.

But the Big Dipper was riding high, and M81 is 6.8 mag, so I gave it a shot.  And wouldn’tcha know it!  There it was!  It was a faint fuzzy bit of nothing, but it sure was there.  M82, which is much smaller and dimmer at 8.4 was nowhere in sight, even though – again – it should have been right there next to M81.  But still – a galaxy, 12 million light years away!  That’s the furthest I’ve ever seen, and that was something special.

By this time, close to 3, even the waning half moon was rising – low down, in the gap between the buildings on either side of 79th Street.  Gorgeous!  Tinged with red, looking beautiful in color.  But roiling.  No magnification possible when it’s down that low.

Since Hercules was about as high in the sky as it ever gets, I thought, let’s move on to the summer sky and see M13 about as well as I was ever going to see it.  Well, M13 disappointed me when I caught a last dying glimpse in November, and it disappointed me again in April, but this time under what I can only think were better conditions due to the all-around darkness.  It was faint; not the Great Cluster in Hercules.  In fact, M92 was better.  This is because it’s a more compact target, and because it packs its stars into a smaller space, so it just looks nicer even though it’s a half a magnitude dimmer.  Man, how I’d love to get this scope out of the city and really see some stuff.

By this time, past 3am now, Lyra was right next door to Hercules (well, as it always is) and was also riding very high.  I decided to go for the Double-Double, Epsilon Lyrae.  The first double was easy at low power, but the second two were much more difficult.  I was able to split one of them at 193x, and it was close; but the third one was elusive; maybe because of the very poor seeing.  I could not split the final star.

And since I was right there, I thought I’d say hello to an old favorite, the Ring Nebula, which I had also seen back in November.  But because it’s only 9th magnitude, it was difficult to see, and I had to use averted vision just to pick it up last fall.  Not so this time.  The Ring did not disappoint – it was the best I’d seen in over 30 years.  I could easily see it with direct vision, and the hole in the donut was easily observable with averted vision as well.

Finally, the moon had risen a little more and I snapped a couple of shots, but nothing special, because it was still too low.  It had lost its reddish hue, though.  Tycho was right on the terminator, and it was interesting to see the complete lack of rays in the flat light at that angle.

All in all, it was really a great night out!  I can’t wait to see Saturn again in just over a month, see what’s shaking with that Cassini Division.

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