So, my move to Denver is complete, and after two weeks here, all I have to say is, “Monsoons? No one mentioned any stinking monsoons!” It has been cloudy basically ever since I got here. Denver is supposed to have 300 days of sunshine a year, but apparently none of them occur during the depths of summer, where we are now.
Yes, mid-July to around Labor Day is monsoon season here in Denver, when it rains and rains and rains. And when it’s not raining, it’s cloudy and cloudy and cloudy. Okay, I keed, I keed, the weather in Denver is actually a hundred times more pleasant than back in New York. Here, it’s 90 degrees and 20% humidity. My air conditioning is free, but I have no need to put it on, because even with that, it’s still perfectly comfortable here.
Ah, well. Just a few more weeks until the “typical dry Denver weather” returns.
In the meantime, August means the Perseids. The Perseid meteor shower is almost always the premier shower of the year, peaking at about 60-70 meteors per hour during the overnight of August 11-12. And this year, computers predicted that the earth will be passing through a denser part of the stream part of the meteors than usual, with the result that there may be outbursts of up to 200 meteors per hour, about three times the normal rate. Wow!
Meteor showers are always better in the early morning hours than in the evening. This is because of the geometry of the earth and the meteors as they move through space. That part of the earth that has rotated into the morning hours is the part that is moving in the same direction as the earth’s revolution around the sun. In effect, the post-midnight part of the earth is plowing directly into the meteor stream.
Last year, I saw a grand total of one meteor from my apartment building’s roof in Manhattan. This year, I’m in less light-polluted Denver, so I would expect to see a bit more. But because of monsoon season, I may as well be back in Manhattan: I’ve been completely clouded out. And the forecast for Denver for the evening of August 11-12, the best night of the shower, wasn’t any better.
To get away from the monsoons and the clouds, a friend and I drove out to Breckenridge, where the forecasts predicted that it was supposed to be perfectly clear starting at about Midnight on. Breckenridge is about 70 miles west of Denver, high up in the Rockies at about 10,000 feet. At that altitude, unless you’re fully adapted to it, you’re actually seeing less than you would at lower altitudes because of the lack of oxygen. But I’m sure a lot of that is made up for by the fact that the skies are just absolutely, insanely dark.
Or are they? Supposedly, there is a good amount of light pollution from Breckenridge itself. And according to the dark sky map, the area we were watching the shower from is “only” a dark green site – only one color stop darker than my buddy’s light green farm in Northern California that I visited last September. However, it sure seemed darker than my memories of California.
It is difficult for me to describe just exactly how dark the sky was, and what my limiting magnitude was. For me, at least, it was jaw-droppingly dark. It was easy to see the “other” stars in the middle of the supposedly empty Great Square of Pegasus – but they’re only mid-fourth magnitude, so that’s not a big deal. The Double Cluster was also an easy naked eye object, but again, it’s also fourth magnitude, so that’s no great shakes either. Epsilon Lyrae was easy, too, and that’s fifth magnitude, so now we’re getting somewhere, but I still don’t have any reference point for sixth magnitude stars, because, y’know, I’ve never seen them before. I think the best I can say is that I think – I think! – I was able to make out the Triangulum Galaxy, M33, with my naked eye, but with averted vision. That’s magnitude 5.7.
The sky was cloudy all evening, but was gradually clearing all night long. We went out a bit aftet 10:00 to see how the clouds were doing. As we were enjoying the views of the skies between the clouds, a meteor streaked halfway across the sky, leaving a bright trail behind it. WOW!!!
At Midnight, things were mostly cleared up, and the moon was about to set at 1:00, so we drove on up to Hoosier Pass, which is actually at an altitude of ELEVEN THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED FORTY-TWO FEET! Holy smokes! I’ve never been so, heh, heh, “high” in my life. (Colorado joke. You know, because marijuana is legal. Wait, don’t leave!) I don’t think I suffered from any direct effects of altitude, but it was hard to tell, because I’ve never seen skies that dark before.
I had my Oberwerk 12×60 binoculars out, and they were a treat! The Double Cluster was magnificent. I could easily find both M57 and M13 with them. They framed the Pleiades gloriously. But the best part was just scanning around the Milky Way with them. The Milky Way was intense – a river of stars, stretching from horizon to horizon, with eddies and dark patches throughout. It was so bright that my friend thought one part of it towards the south was the remnant of the clouds that had just cleared up.
Andromeda was absolutely incredible through the binos. In New York, through either the Mak or the ST-80, the Andromeda is just a big nothing. A bright core, surrounded by a fading something that gradually becomes the background sky glow. In other words, it doesn’t look like much of anything. But here, even through 12x60s, I could see something that was distinctly galaxy-shaped – just like in the pictures. A bright core, of course, but completely distinct from the outer shell in an oval shape with a sharply defined edge. And nice and big through the binos, too. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a galaxy actually looking like a galaxy. Wow!
I switched down to the Triangulum Galaxy, as it is easy to find on the opposite side of Mirach about equidistant from it as M31 is. In New York, it is completely washed out due to its low surface brightness. I can’t see it through the ST-80 or the Mak. Here, I could see a large round patch, but nothing particularly galactic about it. But that’s another notch on my Messier list – number 43.
Even though I was thoroughly enjoying myself, at my friend’s suggestion, I took out the scope. I mean, how often do you get out your scope out under pristine skies at 11,542 feet? I was able to get the completely disassembled scope re-assembled in the pitch blackness. Well, not that dark, because the Milky Way high overhead was providing some light. But I felt like one of those soldiers you see in the movies – you know, where they blindfold the guy and they have to reassemble their rifle while being timed? Just like that. I’m kind of amazed that I was able to do it so easily. I must know my scope pretty well.
Unfortunately, the lousy NexStar handset crapped out on me after only a few minutes of actual observing, which really pissed me off. It was probably about 38-40 degrees or so, not quite cold enough to need to put my hands in my pockets. I’ve had it out observing in New York at much lower temperatures than that. However, as I’ve written before, the handset is certainly prone to “freezing up” in cold temperatures.
This time, the handset would work for a few minutes – just long enough for me to get my two alignment stars – and then crash and reboot, requiring me to go through the two-star alignment all over again. Finally, after a couple of those crashes, the handset flickered, went dark, and stayed that way, even though the red light on my freshly-charged lithium-ion battery was working and everything was plugged in – I knew power was getting to the handset. I need to devise some way to keep it warm – like rubberbanding one of those pocket/packet hand warmers onto it or something. Or just get a better friggin’ mount with a more robust handset. Yeah, I like that idea a lot better. But that’ll have to wait to do that until I’m gainfully employed.
The scope did last long enough to show us the Ring Nebula and the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, though. Now I know why it’s so “great”. It was ridiculously awesome. I could see detail, granulation in it, where before it was just, well, a glowing glob. (Heh, heh.) It looked like that picture of M13 over at Obsession Telescopes, one of those premier dob makers. This picture, actually:
I swear it looked like the one on the left, like I was looking through a 12.5-inch scope. It was really something to see, even with the 32mm Plossl at 48x. It definitely got signficantly dimmer with the 12.5mm ortho at 123x, but it was still plenty gorgeous.
The Ring was likewise amazing, reminding me of how I used to see it from Long Island as a teenager through my 8″ Newtonian all those years ago. As opposed to being just a dim little puff of smoke, how I saw it in Manhattan, it was really a full, bright ring, complete with donut hole. And was that the slightest tinge of green I saw? I was probably imagining that.
After the handset crapped out, I didn’t think to put it in my pocket or my pants to warm it up; probably due to the lack of oxygen reaching my brain because of the altitude, or maybe just because I’m a low-grade moron. So I just sat out and enjoyed the shower and scanned around with my binos some more. The predicted 200 meteors per hour outburst it was not. But it was certainly the “regular” amount of about 70 per hour. The meteors came in bunches of three and four, some just short little specks, others with long trails, and a couple seeming to split into two at the end! Nice! At just after 3am, I thought it was enough and wrapped things up.
Now I’m really beyond psyched to go out to the Denver Astronomical Society’s dark site and repeat these observations – other than the shower – and do much, much more. Well, without the handset freezing up on me again. Yes, I have officially joined the DAS and am a member, and am looking forward to being active in the club.
Notably, the DAS Dark Site, about 60 miles east of downtown Denver, is two full shades darker on the dark sky map than Hoosier Pass – it is dark blue as opposed to dark green. Considering how nice the dark green sky was, I can’t wait to see dark blue skies! Fortunately, the next Dark Sky Weekend at the dark site is only three weeks away. Yay!
Next: The Denver Astronomical Society