August 17, 2018: Meteors and Coyotes and Rattlers, Oh My! and a Mea Culpa

Just a semi-brief “observing report” for the Perseids and some other stuff.  I went out to the DAS Dark Site on Friday, Saturday, and wouldncha know it, on Sunday, too.  Well, more Monday really, by the time we got there.  It was definitely a fun astronomy extended weekend.

On Friday night there were about a dozen or so of the regulars and semi-regulars, each on our own observing pads, doing more actual observing than meteor watching, because the peak of the shower was either overnight on Saturday/Sunday or Sunday/Monday.  There were some meteors, maybe about 5-10 per hour, but that’s not including all the missed ones you don’t see when you’re looking down or looking through the scope.

I did the standard summer “Greater Sagittarius” viewing (M6 through M25).  There were others out there with larger scopes than my 5-inch Mak (my Orion Sirius Pro AZ/EQ-G mount is back at Orion for repairs – more on that later), so I did take a gander or two at what they were looking at as well.  This included comet 21P Giacobini Zinner, a greenish glow through Nate’s beauty of a 10-inch Portaball dob, as well as a very big and bright donut of a Ring Nebula.

Saturday was a bit of a madhouse, but only in the most fun, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest “out on the fishing boat” scene kinda way.  There were well over a hundred people out, many new members (and family) who had never been out to the dark site before.  Needless to say, all of the observing pads were taken, although we were able to grab the last one.

People were left to set up on the grass down south, away from the concrete observing pads, and just generally tailgate the night away, looking up at the meteor display.

I had laid out my queen-sized memory foam mattress topper on the ground to lie on and observe the meteor shower, which attracted its share of guests who took it over.  At one point, an entire family was camped out on it, so I pointed out where a few constellations were.  I think it’s nice to have company, don’t you?

Well, maybe not so much company from the coyotes, calling to each other.  One was off to the left, the other to the right.  Hopefully, they found each other without too much trouble.  Fortunately, there is a wire fence that surrounds the dark site.


Meanwhile, I was also helping out Noel, a fellow DASer, get her new 8-inch Orion XT8i Intelliscope up and running.  At first there was a problem with the handset – the LCD screen was practically unreadable.  There was no contrast between the letters and the backlit green background.  (Green backlight, Orion?  Really?  You’re a telescope company and you’ve never heard of red light?)  Removing the battery, and changing the brightness setting of the green light by repeatedly pressing the power button did not change this complete lack of contrast.

But it seemed that the handset just needed to warm up or something, because a half hour after turning it on, the contrast was perfect.  We aligned on two named stars.  The handset offered up Vega and Altair.  There were other stars listed, but they were the named stars in, say, Sagittarius, which I am not really familiar with by name.  I dunno which one is Nunki, or which is Kaus Media.

Aligning the Intelliscope to these stars was actually a bit of a chore, and again, not exactly well-thought out on Orion’s part.  The scope comes with a 9×50 finder, which was perfectly good, and Noel had done a great job of getting it precisely aligned with the view in the main scope.  However, it has a right-angle diagonal, which makes it utterly useless for finding alignment stars – you’re looking down, and you can’t both look down into it and look up at the star at the same time.  To get an alignment star into the field of view of the finder, you just had to kneel down like you’re proposing to the scope, sight along the tube, and guesstimate.  A red dot finder would be much more handy here.

Finally, all was well – the handset contrast had cured itself, we had the alignment stars aligned, and off we went to try to actually see something.  I punched in a DSO, and watched the handset as I moved the tube in azimuth – left and right.  It had numbers and an arrow.  It might start off at say, 21, and the arrow would point left.  You’d move the tube to the left, and the 21 would decline, to 10, 6, 3 . . .  and then if you went past it, it would go negative:  -2, -5.  It was tough to get it to exactly zero out, as it wasn’t easy for me to make very fine movements with nothing to point at as a reference.  (And, yes, it’s been a while since I used a manual scope.)

I got it down to 1, and decided that that would be good enough – I figured I’d be able to see whatever I was looking for in the nice, wide field of view of the finder.  But then, when I went to adjust the altitude and look for the numbers to change there, nothing happened.  As much as we moved the scope up and down, there was no change in the numbers.  The handset wouldn’t help us find anything.

Noel later told me that after contacting Orion, they diagnosed the problem as a faulty altitude encoder, and that they’d be shipping a new one right out to her.


All good, insane fishing trips must come to end, or at least be interrupted, and Nurse Ratched must eventually appear.  On Saturday night she arrived in the form of a rattlesnake.  Now, I had heard tales of there being snakes out at the dark site, but I thought these were rumors, friend-of-a-friend stuff, the urban legends you might hear about something happening to someone else’s friend at a local mall.  Well, this rattler climbed right out of myth and went straight underneath someone’s SUV.

Noel came over and told me, quietly – it was under the car next to hers.  She had two of her kids with her, one of whom, Lexi, is quite severely vision-impaired, so she was obviously worried that either of them would wander over to the snake, and . . .

(Interestingly, apparently Lexi isn’t quite as vision-impaired at night!)

We were generally at a state of low-level freakout.  I brought Noel over to tell Digby, Digby brought us over to tell Darrell, the dark site coordinator.  We wondered what to do – move it or kill it – while people kept a red flashlight pointed directly at it as it rattled away.  Darrell was eventually able to produce some sort of weed-whacking-ish device with a long handle from the club’s maintenance shed on site.

Some wanted to see about moving it, but it was nervous, rattling away constantly.  As a lifelong east coaster, I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout movin’ no rattlers.  It seems to me that if it’s in an agitated state like that, it’s gotta be more willing to strike than not, making an attempt to move it perhaps not such a good idea.  Getting bit is no good when you’re 20 or more miles from the nearest medical aid.

I didn’t keep tabs on the full extent of the snake situation, but the person whose car it was under moved it, partially crushing the snake.  Now that it was injured, there was no longer a choice; it had to go.  Someone took the weed whacker and chopped it up pretty good.

Definitely quite a bit of excitement!  I assume the old aphorism about the bear applies to the snake as well – I don’t have to outrun the snake, I just have to outrun you.


With the huge crowd, the coyotes and the snake, Saturday night certainly had more of a circus feel to it.  Not to mention all the mosquitos.  Oops, did I mention?  The bug spray most decidedly did not work.  They came in swarms, like a pestilence, biting all in their path.  I’ve been scratching for days now.

Observing on the pad next to me was Bill, who had brought out his 16×50 and 25×100 binoculars, both mounted on a giant parallelogram mount.  It was a lot of fun using this setup to cruise around the Greater Sagittarius area.  M6 and M7 were glorious.  (Although I also had my Orion ST-80 set up, piggybacked on the Mak, and I loved the view that that gave me too.)  You just move the setup around while pointed down there and you’re bound to hit something.  He also had it set up so that you’re using one set, you lean back, give the whole thing a push, and the other set swings right into position.  Nice!

I actually got quite a gorgeous view of the Andromeda Galaxy through my 5-inch Mak – a really bright and well defined core, along with a much more defined edge of the galaxy than I was used to seeing from more light-polluted observing conditions.  Triangulum (M33) was a bust, as always – just a ghostly patch I could barely see.

Nate came out for a second night and brought another of his scopes, this time a 13-inch Coulter dob.  Ryan, an outreach ambassador for the International Dark-Sky Association, was going from pad to pad to talk to people one on one about trying to do a bit more here and there to try to get people to preserve what little truly dark sky we have left.

We stayed out until about 2am, when the Pleiades started to rise high enough in the sky to get a really nice look at them.  But there wasn’t much of an improvement in terms of the numbers of meteors we saw as the night went on.  All in all, we saw about 15-20 per hour, although some did come in bunches of 3 or 4 at a time.  A good time was had by all.

Well, except the snake.  RIP.  Actually, RIPs.


Sunday night, we decided to go out to my “private” local dark site in East Aurora, a couple of miles out of town off of East Jewell Avenue.  Wouldncha know it, now that site ain’t so dark, neither:  the bright lights from some industrial activity to the east were still there, though they could be blocked out by parking the car to the east and sitting to the west.

However, the south was awash with skyglow, and in the northwest, the owner of the house at the corner of E. Jewell and Yale had decided to leave his bright exterior light on all night.  Ugh.  While we could just barely see the Milky Way overhead, we weren’t getting any meteors at 1am, and we shoulda been.  A limiting magnitude of about fourth magnitude kinda don’t cut it for meteors.

What the hey, we decided.  We were up; dark site here we come.  We made it out there at 25 or 6 to 4 10 to 4, got set up in our chairs instantly, and started watching.  I was thinking there’d be some people already out there who stuck it out through the night for the shower’s peak, but I was still kinda shocked to actually find them there – two RVs and a coupla other cars.

By this time, Perseus was practically overhead.  Down on the horizon, Orion was rising to the right, Gemini to the left.  It was fun to see the winter sky in August.  We only had just a half an hour until astronomical twilight began and the sky started getting lighter.  But it was quite a half hour!  I saw 25 meteors in the space of exactly 30 minutes, including a coupla point meteors – ones coming right at you.  (“AAAAAHHHH!!! RUUUUUNNNN!!!”)

This translates into a rate of about 50 an hour, which is pretty close the numbers always given out by the weather people – 60 to 80 an hour.  So, I have a big mea culpa here.  I have previously bemoaned how the weather people everywhere are always giving that bloated meteor rate, and I think I have now pretty definitively proven myself wrong on that score – you can get up to 60 to 80 per hour.  (I was sitting in a chair, “only” looking from the zenith down to the east – something less than half the sky.)

So, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  I was wrong about it being impossible to see meteors at that rate.

However, in my defense, the weather people are STILL WRONG.  Because they don’t sufficiently qualify these numbers.  They generally just give the rate, mumble something about getting to dark skies, and that’s it.  YES, it is possible to see 60-80 meteors an hour, but ONLY if you’re observing from truly dark skies, ONLY if you’re observing with great seeing conditions (there was definitely some haze from the many wildfires hanging around the horizon), ONLY if you’re observing most of the sky at once – lying on your back, and ONLY if you’re observing before dawn.  That’s a lot of qualifications on the original statement that the weather people just never give.

And this leads me right back to my whining complaining about the lack of integrity in science reporting on the news.  Why don’t people trust science anymore?  It’s lousy reporting like this.  People go out to see the Perseids, expecting 60 an hour (one a minute!) and come away with 10 or 20 an hour.  Lied to by the media, again.  No need to listen to them.  I’ll just decide about vaccines or GMOs myself.  Based on what I see on Facebook and Twitter.

Yeah, that’s a real recipe for success.

Ugh.  Rant over.


Finally, to cap off the long weekend’s festivities, Tuesday night we stopped by for Public Night at Chamberlin Observatory.  These are held every Tuesday and Thursday night where about 20-30 members of the general public make reservations online and come by for a lecture and for some observing through the 1894 Clark 20-inch refractor.   There are six teams that alternate the nights; I’m the lecturer for Seal Team Six, but we were just dropping by for the fun of it on another team’s night.

It had hailed earlier Tuesday night.  Since the Zarkov Cloud Gun is still on backorder, when clouds come we extend the lecture from half an hour to a full hour, and give a tour of the observatory instead.  The club’s president, Ron, gave a great talk about meteors and especially meteorites (the former are what you see in the sky; the latter are the very small percentage of ones that make it all the way to the ground).

At the end of his lecture not only did he give away small pieces of a meteorite to everyone in the crowd, but the sky had cleared enough to do a little planetary observing.  Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars were on the menu.  Although Mars is now a couple of weeks past opposition, it’s still pretty close and therefore pretty big, too.  Since the global dust storm has not only ended, but is now clearing, I was hoping to see something on the surface through the 20-inch.  I was not disappointed.

It was still relatively early (around 10pm), and Mars was still low down in the atmosphere.  But I could clearly see some white at the edge of the disk at around 4 o’clock.  The polar cap!  I had never seen it before, so that was pretty exciting.

. . . or was it just the dreaded atmospheric dispersion, acting like a prism and breaking up the colors?  Mars was really down in the soup, so much so that it was shimmering like it was sitting at the bottom of someone’s pool.  David, the telescope operator, thought it was actually the cap, plus, I could see some albedo features, so even though the conditions weren’t the best, so, yeah, I’m gonna go with that.  The Mars Profiler showed that I was looking at the raccoon eyes of Syrtis Major and Iapygia, which I think are probably the easiest ones to see.

Quite a lot of astronomy to pack into 5 days!

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