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Of dogs, and queens and brighter things

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Well, even I, with my lousy hearing, can hear myself crunch-crunch-crunch to the observatory on a morning like this. It is 3 am, 26 degrees F and there is a brief window of clear skies between two snow storms. (Actually, I think it was clear two hours earlier as I first awoke – but I couldn't quite drag myself out of bed ;-)

As usual, I am well armed against the cold this morning – hooded sweatshirt on top of regular sweatshirt and winter jacket on top of them both, followed by two warm hats and a scarf. Warm gloves go in my pockets – thin, knit gloves I wear as long as I can stand it because it is easier to manipulate instrument controls with them. I have a large cup of tea in a large, insulated mug. (About 90 minutes seems to be the threshold for the decision of whether to make a mug or a full thermos of tea and this morning I doubt I will be out longer than 90 minutes.)

The goal this morning is to scout out some open clusters in the general vicinity of the great dog who happens to be in the gap between the woods and my house at this hour with brilliant Sirius dominating a section of sky already blessed with many bright gems. The LX90's computer will undoubtedly choose Sirius as its first alignment star. That's fine when Sirius is not hidden in the trees, which, unfortunately, is usually the case.

I flip on the LX90's electronics, then climb the short ladder to open the shutters, being greeted by a dusting of snow as I do so. About an inch or so fell yesterday and has frozen. They're predicting up to eight more inches tonight and tomorrow. But for now Ilove the view while standing in the open shutters and I pause to pay homage to the bright lights of winter – particularly the red stars Betelgeuse and Aldebran, which I contrast with the nearby blue diamond, Rigel – then for a more subtle test I check my reading on yellowish Capella. Calling stars red, and yellow, and blue is a bit deceptive – even with these prime examples, I have to look closely to see the color differences I know are there. They don't jump out at you like lights on a Chistmas tree – then again., once you are used to judging star color they do seem painfully obvious and you start wondering why others don't seem to notice.

Climbing back down I turn the LX90 off and on again. This is routine. For some reason the computer display never works on a cold morning when you first turn it on. It just glows a dull red and is unreadable. However, if I turn it off, then turn it on again, it works. I assume it just needs to heat up first – but then, you figure if that was the case whyw ouldn't it just start working without being switched off and on again?.

M47 is first on my list and if I've seen it before, I don't remember. Some folks collect Messier objects like stamps. I don't. The objects I know, I try to really know, so I'm pretty sure I haven't been t M47 before, but the LX90 whirs and takes me to what I'm sure is it – a bright, fairly loose collection of stars that is nicely framed by a 25 mm (80X) eyepiece but I switch to a 42 mm ( 48X) one to give me a good, wide field and a sense of context. I like it. I think I'm looking though some bare tree branches and so missing something, but this one is worth getting to know.

How arrogant of me! Here I am looking at a few dozen young stars and I dare deem them worthy of my time! But this is how we get – so blinded by what we think we know that most of the time we have absolutely no idea what it is we are looking at. Would you like to be privy to a nuclear explosion? From a safe distance, of course. Well a star is a nuclear furnace that gives off so much energy in a thousandth of a second that it makes the Hiroshima bomb look like one of those red-paper "caps" children put in toy guns. It is incredible that we can witness such scenes – and to see not a single star, but dozens at once . . . frozen in time, silent, and yet beneath that cool, quiet exterior you know they are seething in a tumultuous, continuous creation of raw power.

But my mind can't sustain these kinds of thoughts for long and I return to making a quick sketch that includes a note about one of the main stars being a nice double – which it turns out when I look it up is, indeed, the 7.9 magnitude double star cataloged as Struve 1121. My general impression – especially in the 42mm eyepiece – is of a huge pinwheel of fairly faint (maybe 11th or 12th magnitude stars - in two great arcs with brighter ones marking the ends and hub.

Later, when I look at photos I'm reminded of how different photographs are from the real thing – and in the case of star clusters, just not the same. You simply can't effectively show variations of brightness in a photograph. Brightness is another dimension entirely and what the paper – either star chart or photograph – does is simulate brightnes by making the image of a star larger or smaller. So when I see a photograph of M47 it is a mass of stars, far more than enter my eye – or consciousness – when at the eyepiece. This is partly because the photograph has collected a lot more light than my eye at the telescope – but it's also because of this problem of representation where all the stars seem to run together on an image, even when many are shown as much smaller dots than others, there's an unreal sameness.

When I look at this cluster through the telescope I am first struck by four bright stars – two near the center and two that sort of anchor the edges at the 2 o'clock and 8 o'clock positions. I almost immediately become aware, then, of a second layer of five – slightly dimmer - stars, one near the center and the others scattered around the core, framing it. As I continue to look I become conscious of other stars, in fact a whole, wonderful cascade of lesser lights that stream from the bright star at 2 o'clock, swirl about the center in an "S" curve and trail off beneath the bright star at the 8 o'clock position.

You need not take this description too literally – it's a first impression and not – well, photographic – but the point I'm trying to make is that the variations in brightness that our detection system, (telescope/eye/brain) provides us is different – and to me, far more interesting, than what the film detects or the hand tries to represent on paper when sketching. It is this layering effect of lights of varying intensity that I think is one of the keys as to why I find visual observing so satisfying.

This, by the way, is contrary to the grave disappointment the new observer usually feels, having been prepped to expect something much different by drooling over the wonderful, multi-colored photographs taken by the Hubble Space telescope – or for that matter, amateur astronomers using the same type of telescopes I use. Don't get me wrong – these images are stunning – and, of course, scientifically – important. You will never find me putting down the efforts of astro-photographers be they amateur or professional. It's just that the visual experience is different and I value that difference and it's wrapped up, not simply in what we see, but in the entire experience – including the 26-degree air, the crunching sounds of the snow underfoot, the snow shower down the back of your neck from opening the Observatory dome's shutter – the warm tea, the soft glow of the red light by which you take notes – the stillness of even our busy world at 3 am – all of these and more enters into a total package that is the observing experience – and I'm sure there is more than one person reading this who is saying – "yeah, and you just listed several good reasons why I don't want any part of it." ;-)

What can I say? I love it because ultimately it connects me with the rest of the universe in a way that I simply can't duplicate anywhere else. That is not to say that someone else can't duplicate this connection – and do it better – in their garden, in their contact with birds or butterflies – or for that matter, the microscopic worlds of biology and physics. There's no single path to this kind of connection – but this is my path – the one I most enjoy and know the best, so I take it.

This morning it also took me cruising by Saturn and four or five of it's moons. Hmmm. Let me check the software. Make that three – and something is wrong with Starry Nights software, or I'm doing something wrong. The astronomy software seems to be a day off in the placement of Saturn's moons. I know I have Titan, the brightest moon – and unmistakeable – in a different place than the software puts it, as well as Tethys and Rhea. What's more, when I look at the little JavaScript program that Sky and Telescope uses to predict the positions of the moons for any given time, the positions agree with what I sketched. (See: Saturn's Moons; think I'll start relying on the S&T pages for this info.

Saturn is showing nicely at 160X, but when I bump it to 266X it doesn't work – I'm wondering if the combination of the 15mm GSO SV eyepiece and the 2X Barlow simply don't perform well, or whether the seeing simply wouldn't permit 266X – or a combination of both. I'd rate the seeing as average and I guess for me that means that about 200X is the limit of useful magnification.

Anyway, I can see what I expect to see – Casini's division, shadow of the planet on the rings, and some banding on the planet in different shades of yellowish-brown. But I can't get excited about Saturn this morning – I've switched to it only because some high, stratus clouds are reaching in from the southwest to blot out M47 and that region. I really need to return to M47 one of these days and get to know it better.

Right now, the only thing left on my list to check out that isn't behind the advancing clouds is the "clown" or "Eskimo" nebula (NGC 2392) in Gemini. This I have visited before, but I'm trying to see many familiar objects in the light of the limited skills and equipment the new observer in my program will be bringing to the task. To this end, I think this planetary is nice for an intermediate observer, not a beginner. Nice because it looks like a fairly evenly matched, wide-spaced double star – with one of the stars out of focus. Hmmmm. .. and that might make a good object for comparison – having newcomers compare the companion star for brightness, color, texture, and size of the image with the nebula. I have a quick impression of blue – I crank up the power from 80 to 160X and try to see details, but the clouds are racing in ahead of me.

As I climb the little ladder to close the shutter of the observatory I can still see to Mag 5 in the area of the Little Dipper – but the clouds are giving the sky that "fan" look you sometimes get near sunset – long , fingers of stratus reaching all the way from the Western horizon to Leo and other constellations in the east. As I walk towards the house, the only constellation remaining clear is the "W" of Cassiopeia sitting on the horizon. So I came out to the light of the dog and I go in to the light of the queen – not a bad way to spend 90 minutes, really.

Posted by Greg Stone at December 5, 2005 06:14 PM Comments? Please email me:

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