Banner photo credit: Ian Norman
. . . deep in the heart of Westcliffe!
I just got back from southern Colorado, and boy are my arms tired. Wait, that’s not the joke. My tires are tired. Yeah, that’s it.
Anyway, thanks to a fellow DASer, Noel, for inviting me and another DASer, Joe, out to do some astronomy with their spouses down in Westcliffe, CO. Westcliffe is a tiny town of about 600 people about 50 miles due west as the crow flies from Pueblo, Colorado, and about 40 miles north of the location of the grounds of the annual CSAS’ Rocky Mountain Star Stare near Gardiner, CO. Westcliffe and its sister town of Silver Cliff, just half a mile down the road from Westcliffe, have been designated as International Dark Sky Communities by the International Dark-Sky Association.
In a word, that means the skies there skies are DARK. Really dark. Now, okay, technically we weren’t exactly in Westcliffe itself. We were a dozen miles north of town (do you really call a place where 600 people live a town?), staying at a little group of cottages called Hillside. In fact, I’m beginning to think that this little “resort” where we stayed is the entirety of Hillside, as it has its own post office, open from 7am to 11am. And that’s it for Hillside.
The cottage we stayed in was gorgeous, very spacious, completely immaculate, and just perfect for getting out and observing – no TV! It was back a good couple hundred feet from the road, so that the headlights of the very, very few cars passing by did not affect us, even though we observed from the gravel parking lot, in between the cottage and the road. But if had been a concern, there’s space out back and to the sides where trees blocked the road even more effectively. Heckuva nice place for a little astro party!
The sky was just about as dark as the sky at RMSS – possibly with the exception that there was a bit of skyglow in the east/northeast from Pueblo and possibly Colorado Springs. It reached up about 15 degrees above the horizon, so no biggie. The “forecast” was for clouds through to about 11-Midnight, clearing quickly thereafter. Wrong . . . as usual. Although there were clouds all day, it cleared up just before 8:30, and we were out until Midnight, when a few clouds started creeping in.
Although I only had my 5-inch Mak, the dark skies made it perform like it was easily a couple of inches bigger. Looking at the Bortle description at Wikipedia, I’d say that the skies were easily a Bortle 4 – 6th magnitude, leaning towards a Bortle 3. Joe was pretty sure he was seeing M33 with averted vision later in the night, which is exactly one of the criteria. (I thought I was seeing it earlier in the night, but I’m pretty sure I was seeing a dim star right nearby instead.)
For comparison, the RMSS site, Starry Meadows, is almost definitely a Bortle 3, based on the SQM readings of the low 21s they were posting during the star party – deep into 6th magnitude and closing in on 7th. Unfortunately, due to the cloudy conditions during the star party, I can’t call on any visual criteria I was observing to corroborate this.
I would think that the DAS dark site, might be more between a Bortle 5 and Bortle 4, about 5 1/2th magnitude. The Bortle 5 conditions say that “the Milky Way is very weak or invisible near the horizon, and looks washed out overhead”, and I would disagree with that. At the dark site, it looks to me to be more like the Bortle 4 description: “the Milky Way well above the horizon is still impressive, but lacks detail.”
Finally, I think the skies under Canyonlands National Park would be Bortle 2, or very close, because I observed one of the criteria: “the zodiacal light is distinctly yellowish and bright enough to cast shadows at dusk and dawn.” I’m not so sure about casting shadows, but dang, it sure was bright.
Mind you, what’s important in my assessment of all of this dark sky Bortle stuff is that I’m a little nearsighted in my middle age. That means that my eyes aren’t focusing the light from these dim 6th magnitude stars into points. Instead, their light becomes a slightly fuzzy little bright patch. Whether that little bright patch is brighter than the rest of the sky, bright enough for me to see, therefore is a problem in assigning these Bortle numbers. What I think this all ends up meaning is that I’m not seeing these dimmest stars as well – or at all – as people with better distance vision than I have. So take those Bortle ratings I gave above with a huge grain of salt. For all I know, each of them could be one rating higher if your distance vision is perfect.
The main and easiest to notice difference between the DAS dark site and Westcliffe was how much brighter and shinier the Milky Way is. Noel put it well: “At the dark site I saw it, sure, but here it looks like it does in the pictures.” Not as nice as the banner photo above, but definitely aglow.
We settled in for an evening’s observing. Noel had brought her Orion XT8i Intelliscope, and her scope was the leader of the pack. Joe had a little C90 Mak, but it was a bit of a pain for him to use because to focus it, you have to rotate the entire OTA tube. My 11 loyal readers might remember that Noel had had some trouble with her Intelliscope out at the dark site last month – the azimuth encoder just wasn’t registering at all. Orion, of course, did the right thing, stepped up, shipped her out a new one.
Replaced, we were now trying again. The azimuth encoder worked . . . until it didn’t. The Intelliscope handset has numbers that tell you how to move the tube to get the numbers to zero out. As we moved the scope up and down (altitude), the numbers were changing, and they changed while moving it left and right (azimuth), but then they stopped changing. Noel had already read about this problem online. She said that she needed some thin double sided tape to go in and narrow the gap some, and then the encoder should work properly. Unfortunately, we were without any such tape.
Fortunately, I remembered some things from the starhopping days of my youth 35 years ago. I was able to find a couple of things with her dob by dead reckoning: the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the Double Cluster (NGC 869 and 884). Noel’s dob put up some gorgeous views of both. Andromeda was a lovely triple threat, with the main body of M31, M32, and M110 all in the same field. Later in the evening we also looked at the Pleiades through it, which were framed nicely by the dob’s 1.3 degree field of view in Noel’s 40mm Plossl.
We switched to my Mak, which was still able to provide a good show under these dark skies. I got M5 as a first globular, sort of an hors d’oeuvre, just so we could then compare it to the grand and beautiful M22, my favorite (M13 can go suck it). Noel had wanted to see M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, but it was too low in the sky. So me and the Mak got M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, instead. The core and the satellite galaxy were visible, but no structure. Hopefully, the C9.25 will change that.
We switched to the planets. Jupiter had already set behind the mountains, but Joe got Saturn and then I got Mars. Even six weeks after opposition, Mars was still big at 19 arc seconds across. I was seeing something on the surface, albedo features, but even over 20 degrees above the horizon, it seemed like the view was still being distorted by atmospheric dispersion – Mars was taking on a bit of a tri-color effect. No polar cap, though. Womp, womp.
We also saw Albireo, the blue and gold double star. Or is it? The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait says it ain’t! Data from the Gaia probe, which has analyzed over a billion stars, says that the two most likely aren’t at the same distance from earth, but more importantly, that they’re not moving through space in the same direction.
I showed Noel another one of my favorites, M11, the Wild Duck Cluster. We then turned to M57, the Ring Nebula, as I explained that it’s what the sun will end up as in about 5 billion years when it dies. We went to M16, the Eagle Nebula, famously shown in Hubble’s “Pillars of Creation”, and then M17, the Swan Nebula, looking very much like an upside down number 2. The little Mak’s still got it!
After Joe and I described the benefits of 2-inch eyepieces, I went on a long diatribe on the history of eyepieces, fast and slow scopes, just to get around to explaining the difference between the number of lens elements between Kellners and Plossls and what that means for use in different types of scopes. Joe got out his binocs, and we tooled around the sky for a bit. M22 is always sooo easy in the binocs – it just pops out. I gave Joe a new object to look at with his binocs – the Alpha Persei Cluster. A few clouds started to roll in around Midnight, and people decided to go to bed.
Being the zombie vampire that I am, I “went to bed” but then went out again at 2am. I did a tour of some winter favorites, from M35 to 36 to 38. All the clusters were looking nice, and it’s always so nice to see these winter favorites in September. I love trying for the Crab, M1, and for once, it looked like something a little more than a ghostly smudge in the very dark early morning skies. I then went to M78, which actually was still just a ghost.
But I really wanted to see comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner. I had seen it last month at the DAS dark site through Nate’s scope, but it’s always more fun to see stuff through your own scope. One of the astrosites put out a map that placed the comet just over 1 1/2 degrees south-southwest of the cluster M37. It wasn’t very difficult to find, as I can sorta work my 32mm Plossl like a Telrad. The field of view in it is a smidge over a degree, so it’s pretty easy to move it about a degree and a half or so. The comet was right where expected, glowing away. No tail, but a nice little smudge about 5 to 8 minutes across.
Closer to 3am, I turned to Orion. As it’s just about my favorite object up there, I can just observe it forever. Even though – or perhaps because – it was so low down on the horizon, about 15-20 degrees up, I was seeing crazy amounts of detail in the nebula under the very dark skies. It was like a spider web was thrown across it – or maybe there was some cobwebs in my eyes. It had an amazing structure.
The next morning, over a breakfast of coffee and muffins, we talked about alt-az vs. EQ mounts, some of the basics of astrophotography (Joe is big into AP), and the benefits of my favorite filter, the Baader Moon & Skyglow. Joe got out his Coronado PST and gave us a beautiful view of the sun in H-alpha, with prominences leaping off of the edges on opposite sides. Man, I still lust after a H-alpha scope.
I then put a white light filter on the Mak so I could give Noel a little compare and contrast. The face of the sun was blank. COMPLETELY BLANK, like a teenager after a successful application of Clearasil. The sun goes through cycles of activity, maximum and minimum. It has been in a weird minimum for a long, looooong time now.
That sure was a fun little astro trip! Once again, many thanks to Noel and her husband Chris, along with Joe and his wife Joanne, for making it memorable. I had some fun on my way back home. I stopped off and did some hiking around Royal Gorge in Canon City:
And then after that, I drove up to Colorado Springs and continued hiking around the glorious Garden of the Gods:
A nice coupla days, indeed!