October 25, 2016: The Transit Scope and Screaming Scouts

Another month, another trip out to the DAS Dark Site.  Even though I’ve only gone twice, when I go, I really feel astronomically sated for a good week or so thereafter.  I see everything I can while I’m there, and I see them so much better than I can see them here at home that I don’t even bother taking the scope out for awhile afterwards.  It’s only when the memory fades that I get the itch and want to go out again.

Once again, I gave a last scan of my favorites in the greater Sagittarius region for the season, before they disappeared for the rest of the year. As the evening progressed, I proceeded east for some Cassiopeia action, and later some Perseus/Taurus action.  Late in the evening, I remembered to take another look at the Crab Nebula.  This time I definitely saw it, but the fact that I really, really saw it this time didn’t do anything to make me reconsider whether or not I had actually seen it a few weeks earlier off of my roof – I had.  It also sure didn’t look anything like a crab to my eyes.  Somebody sure musta been smokin’ something to see a crab out of that.  It was just a little oval patch, that’s all, right next to that semi-bright finder star, Zeta Tau.

This time, Digby finally figured out how to operate the big ol’ C14 in the observatory and we got some glorious views of M13, M92, M57 (no central star, though), and some others. If you’ve never seen M13 through a big scope at a dark site, run! don’t walk.  However, the meridian flip that equatorial mounts (like this one) are subject to made the scope lose the alignment, and after a while, he didn’t feel like starting over from scratch.  At the other end of the site, another member had an O-III filter on his very expensive 15-inch Obsession truss dob and showed us the Veil Nebula.  Wow!  It looked a lot like this:


No color, though.  And we only saw one half of it, because the Veil is big.  I think he said it was the Eastern Veil, but I could be wrong.  Still, pretty intense!  Makes me consider getting an O-III filter.

As the evening drew to a close around 1am, Orion was rising, and I took a gander at the Nebula.  Not anything too much to look at, because it was only about 10 degrees above the horizon.  And again, I still could not see the E and F stars in the Trapezium because of the low altitude.  Next dark sky weekend (which is actually coming up this weekend!) will find it raised up about 30 degrees elevation at the same time – I can hardly wait!  Meanwhile, I had been freezing my butt off most of the night as I had definitely dressed inappropriately for the evening – not enough layers.  Thank goodness for the warming hut.  Note to self – wear heavier clothes than you think you’ll need.

As always, outreach continues.  Colorado Astronomy Day was a couple of weeks ago, and in celebration, the club had a sort of an Open House at the observatory, with two sessions – another version of all day and all of the night.  During the day, there were a couple of H-alpha scopes on the lawn, along with a couple of white light ones.  Sorin had this really cool solar projector “scope” that he had gotten – it was a fold-out cardboard thing, that folded into a little box, and with a combination of a couple of lenses and a mirror, it was able to project an image of the sun inside of itself.  The sun’s image was only about two inches wide, but you could still just see the sunspots on it.  All for just 30 bucks.  Mighty cool!

Because of my tripod woes, I was unwilling to bring my scope down to outreach out of fear that someone would bump one of the legs, the legs would splay out, and there goes my scope, splat.  Or more likely, crunch.  So instead, I was assigned to give tours of the observatory during the day, including the transit scope and basement.  Mind you, I know next to nothing about the building, but fortunately, Leo, the Vice President of the club, was on hand to give me a five-minute tutorial, and my brain was on full auto-record so I could regurgitate what I had heard very well back to visitors.

The transit scope is located in a separate room off of the main, round, observatory building, where the club’s library is now kept.  The roof used to open up – or at least one-foot wide panels going up the wall and onto the roof used to open up – so that they could precisely time the moment when a particular star would cross the meridian and reach its highest point in the sky. Using some very complicated math and tables, they could then know that that particular event was supposed to occur at precisely 10:48:23 pm, or whatever.  The transit room and scope are both precisely north-south aligned, so that the moment of the star’s crossing the meridian could be timed with great precision.  The purpose for doing this in the 19th century was to provide the correct time by telegraph to the railroads, who needed this precise time to keep to their schedules and run on time all over the country.

The Chamberlin Transit Scope

I then took the public to the accurate – for the late 19th century – pendulum clocks that would transmit this information.  The pendulum had current flowing through it, and at the bottom of its stroke was a small bowl of mercury with a wire attached to the telegraph.  When the pendulum hit the mercury, the circuit would be complete, and the time would be transmitted via telegraph as a click.  Apparently, the railroads would pay the observatory some nice money for this.

Next, I took the visitors down to the basement to look at the gigantic piers that the transit scope and the huge 20-inch refractor sat upon.  Both scopes sit on these solidly-built sandstone brick piers in rooms where they are completely isolated from the rest of the building.  These piers, which weigh many tons, and the scopes they carry, do not touch the rest of the building at any point.  Instead, they are separated by a small air gap; the piers are buried into the ground.  This is so that the vibrations from people walking around anywhere inside the observatory are not transmitted to the scopes.  The pier that the 20-inch scope sits on is ridiculously huge – 25 feet tall.

That evening was pretty much of a bust, as the clouds rolled in and covered everything up except for the 8-day old moon.  As I had no scope, I spent the evening talking to the other club members on the lawn.  One of them had the iOptron mount I’ve been drooling over, and we talked about how accurate and stable it is.  I also took a look at the moon through the 20-incher, and while on line for it got to talking with another patron.  She was expecting delivery of a Celestron Edge HD to use for astrophotography.  We had a nice talk and I told her about how much more important the mount is than the tube.  She appreciated my advice.

In the meantime, I fixed the leg spreaders on my scope.  Layer after layer of epoxy, applied one layer a day, because it needs time to fully cure, and I finally connected the spreaders back to the tripod.  It may not exactly be a permanent solution, but it’ll work for awhile, at least, as long as I’m a little more careful opening and closing the legs.  I also was able to fix my observing chair by getting some screws and screwing the seat back on.

More recently, another member, Darrell, picked me up and took me and my fixed scope and chair down to Centennial to show some Boy Scouts the sky for their astronomy badge.  However, it turned out we were there for Cub Scouts instead.  It makes a huuuuge difference when the audience you’re showing is aged 6-9 and not 10-14.  Especially when a group of over 30 of them come screaming and running towards your very expensive astronomy gear at full speed.  That was actually fairly terrifying.  Fortunately, a good loud “NO RUNNING BY THE TELESCOPES!!!” seemed to work.

Instead of giving pre-teens a tour of the some of the highlights of the autumn sky with explanations about various DSOs, their origins and distances, we ended up just showing these 6-9 year olds Mars, pointing out some constellations to them, and leaving it pretty much at that.  Many 6-9 year olds don’t quite “get it” yet:  they don’t know what’s going on in the sky, let alone what the telescope is doing.  They don’t know what a planet is.  Not all of them, mind you – but maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of them.

As kids get older, they “get it” more and more.  In fact, one of these Cub Scouts actually already knew that the Schiaparelli lander had just crashed into Mars earlier in the day.  When I was describing that Mars is a small planet to begin with, and far away from the earth right now (as an explanation for why it was so small in the scope), another one volunteered that Mercury was smaller.  So some of them really did “get it”.   That kinda makes it worthwhile.

Interestingly, three of the four of us had a terrible time getting our scopes aligned.  We were all using the Celestron NexStar handset, and even though Arcturus, Vega, and Deneb were all well in sight, it wasn’t giving us the option of aligning on any of them – just stars in the eastern half of the sky, which was clouded out.  Solar system alignment it was, then.  I learned later (through Cloudy Nights, natch), that the handset picks alignment stars in either the eastern or western sky, and the default is eastern.  Good to know!


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