Wednesday, March 13, 2013

ASV Messier 100 Party Observing Report

Welcome Back

After a very long hiatus, I finally had a chance to get back under the stars this past weekend.  I've been in Melbourne Australia for just about four months now, and I had not been observing for at least a month before I left California. All together it has been almost half a year.  Being under the stars, a new set of stars for sure, felt wonderfully familiar and exciting.

I'd been hoping to get out and do some observing for some time, but a variety of circumstances from work to brush fire warnings had kept me locked under the light dome of Melbourne.  Over the long labor day weekend my opportunity finally came in the form of the Astronomical Society of Victoria (ASV) Messier 100 Party. 

Welcome to the ASV Messier 100 Star Party

The Messier 100 party (I'm assuming only 100 are visible from in one night from this far south, but I'd like to check on this) is a yearly public event hosted by the ASV at their Leon Mow Dark Sky Site (LMDSS).  It's located roughly 150km (93m) north of Melbourne in some kind of natural preserve area, and is easily darker than my usual observing site in Joshua Tree 240km (150m) east of Los Angeles.  For me and my partner it was a short and scenic two hour drive in a rented car.  This was our first time driving in Australia, but after riding a bike here for several months it was not too unnerving to take to the (opposite side of the) road in a car.

Memorial / Dedication marker for the LMDSS

We arrived a bit before dusk and the camping area was already fairly full as the site was open to the public on this night.  It took a while to find a spot and setup camp, but it's a beautiful area that is pretty well laid out.  There is a clubhouse with some bunks and a kitchen along with toilets and showers.  I was itching to get out to the observing field and setup my kit before dark.  Sadly, I was in such a hurry to setup camp and get my gear unpacked that I forgot to get any pictures that evening.  Every picture in this post is from the following morning and things had already thinned out a bit.

180 Degree panorama of our campsite

When I went home for Christmas I brought back my C6 Travel Kit and this is what I packed with me for this outing.  It's a nice scope; In it's travel configuration it's a bit under mounted, but still rather functional.  I grabbed the bag and headed for the observing field. 

Road to the Visual Observing Field

There were already roughly 20 scopes on the field, with a large section in the center reserved for the club's 25" Obsession which had yet to be setup.  The horizon was not perfect, there are several large trees surrounding the site that are being preserved as part of a nature reserve, so I tried to pick my spot carefully.  If you are not at one side or another of the field visibility is good above 15 degrees, so all in all it's a nice spot.

360 Degree panorama of the Visual Observing Field

I picked what seemed like a good spot and setup my kit.  It went pretty quickly and the telescope was in reasonable shape for having travelled almost 13,000km in the belly of a plane.  The travel kit fits in a carry-on suitcase, and I've flown with it before, but there are weight restrictions for carry on bags that have never caught me before.  On my last flight they weighed all the carry-ons and I ended up needing to check my bag.  I was pretty happy when I retrieved it from the baggage carousel and it was all in one piece.

As you can see from the picture below it's mounted on a robust photo tripod, but it's still not the normal surveyors sticks I use at home.  I don't extend the legs to help with the shaking, but it makes for a very low setup.  The foldable stool works well for most angles, but observing near the zenith can be a real pain.  Once I was all setup I went back to camp to have some dinner and await the darkness.

My observing setup

Brand spanking new australia made camp chairs

The Sky at Night

Right as we were finishing dinner we could hear someone at the clubhouse announcing that the Sky At Night talk would being in a few minutes.  We walked over and gathered around a group of perhaps 50 people for a tour of the night sky.  The weather had been cloudy all day, and there were still patchy clouds around as the night darkened, but the presenter (Perry Vlahos, I believe)  managed to work around them and point out some of the key constellations of the southern sky.

After a few minutes my eyes adapted a bit and the dusk faded enough for me to get my first look at the large and small Magellanic clouds.  There were both obvious and easily visible with direct vision.  The large cloud is almost as bright as parts of the Northern Milky Way, and in binoculars it's easy to see some brighter and darker regions.  The small cloud seemed to me like an elongated spiral galaxy viewed through a telescope, but it was right there in the sky.  The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest object I can compare it with, but Andromeda is much smaller and dimmer in the sky.  I was really pleased to be out observing again.

Once Perry had oriented us, he pointed out a few nice binocular objects, mainly open clusters, but also one or two globulars thrown in.  They went fast, and I was more interested in looking than logging so I'm not entirely sure what I observed in that first hour or so.  One think I could see is that the Southern Milky Way is rich with wonder indeed!  I'm not sure if it's just that there is so many NEW things to see, or if there are just more of them, but scanning the plane of our galaxy with binoculars seemed to reveal a train of open clusters, rich star fields, and faint nebula.

As the tour was wrapping up the clouds cleared from the western horizon and Perry took the opportunity to point out Comet Lemmon low in the sky.  I could not find it with the naked eye, but it was easily visible in Binoculars.  It had a distinct and visible tail along with a tight nucleus and I tried to note it's location in the sky so I could return to it later with the telescope.

After the tour I returned to my scope and decided to run down a list I had hastily cribbed from the Astro League Southern Sky Binocular Program.  While cooking dinner I had scrawled down most of the globulars, galaxies and nebula on the list.  I was really not as prepared as I would have liked to be, particularly considering how little I knew of the sky, so this list seemed like a fair place to start.

My First Southern Observing Run

First on the list was 47 Tucanae (NGC 104), a big and bright globular cluster.  This one is nestled close to the SMC and is actually pretty easy with the naked eye.  It appears definitively non-stellar and I was surprised at how bright and obvious it was.  It gave a great view through the scope, with a nicely condensed core and good resolution of the edges with my 13.5mm.

I moved on next to Omega Centauri (NGC 5139), one of my favorite, but usually very elusive, globulars.  From just about everywhere I've observed, this one is low on the horizon in the murk, but still looks beautiful.  Even though it was early, and would climb much higher later in the evening, it was already close to 40 degrees above the horizon and very visible.  In the scope it resolved almost completely into a riot of stars.  It is pretty massive by globular standards, and is not strongly condensed so it gives a really nice view.  Seeing this somewhat familiar object in a whole new way really made me feel like I had a lot of wonderful experiences ahead of me observing from the southern hemisphere.

Clouds were starting to be a bit of a problem, and I had a hard time orienting myself under the unfamiliar sky with only partial views.  I decided to go grab a peek through the club's big gun, the 25" Obsession.  They had it pointed at the Orion Nebula and I thought it would be a kick to compare the view with my C6.  I climbed the ladder and looked through the eyepiece.  They had a good bit of magnification right on the Trapezium.  All five main stars were easily visible, and a nice bit of dark nebulosity carving out the edge of field.  My 7mm eyepiece was still back home, so I could not muster as much magnification on my C6, but it was still very nice view.  I actually enjoyed the extra context and the nebulosity is bright enough to be beautiful in any scope.

Since it seemed like an easy catch, I turned my attention to the Tarantula Nebula, an HII region in the LMC.  It's easily identifiable in either binoculars or a finder scope as a knot of increased brightness embedded in the diffuse glow.  Through the scope it showed a nice bright nebulosity that showed some nice variation and subtle detail with continued viewing.  I'm looking forward to visiting this again with a wider variety of eyepieces and maybe a filter.  Certainly I'd love to have a long look with a larger scope!

As the clouds continue to occlude various parts of the sky, I tracked down two more globular clusters, NGC 362 and 419 in Tucana.  I was searching for 362 specifically, but ran across 419 as a nice surprise.  They were both quite nice, with 419 much dimmer than 362 but still easily identifiable as a globular.

By this time most of the sky was clouded over, but through a small opening to the east I could see Saturn had risen, so I decided to end my night with my favorite planet.  The view was not fantastic, the combination of thin clouds and low altitude presented a low-contrast and roiling view, but it was still very satisfying.

The total tally was four globulars, two galaxies (LMC/SMC), two nebula one planet, seven meteors and one flyover of the ISS.  All in all a really wonderful first night and more than I hoped for considering the weather and my inexperience with this new starscape.

Packing Up

I decided to leave the scope on the field and pack it the next morning.  It's a little finicky to get everything back in the suitcase and I felt secure at the club site.  I walked back to bed and had a pretty good sleep in my new tent, with new sleeping bag, new pad... basically new everything as I did not bring any of my camp gear from the US.

The next morning I woke up pretty early and went out to retrieve my scope.  As I was so excited to get some observing in the previous night, I took this opportunity to grab some pictures and really get a good look around.  The LMDSS is a great site, and I'm really looking forward to getting my membership so I can use it on a regular basis.

The LMDSS is situated amongst some beautiful bushland

There are actually three fields, one for visual, one for astrophotography and there is an additional section for radio astronomy.  I did not have a chance to get a good look at the radio astronomy gear, but I wandered out to the photographic field to see how it differed from the visual field.

Wide view of the Photographic Field 
Four of the dozen or so piers in the Photographic Field

It's set further away from the clubhouse, to avoid any light contamination, and has a good number of piers for mounting rigs.  There is also a dome which houses the clubs permanent astro-imaging setup.  Next time I'm definitely bringing my DSLR for some wide field astrophotography.

I wandered around a bit more and finally decided it was time to pack up my kit.  It was quick work in the daylight but I was glad I did not attempt it at night.  I have to really take everything apart and its important to make sure everything is packed well to avoid any damage.  In the picture below you can see the scope with the mount below it in frame and the tripod above.  The blue bag is for my 8x50 finder and the green fingerless gloved to the lower-right hold and cushion the star diagonal.  The whole thing is topped off with some bubble wrap tucked between all the metal parts and it's zipped and strapped shut.

The C6 travel kit, all packed up

My C6 travel kit is airline carry-on friendly, except for the weight

Let's do it again

After such a long time it was so refreshing to be observing again.  It made me crave another outing as soon as I can muster it.  I've applied as a member to the ASV and I expect to get my membership approved shortly which will allow me access to the site almost any time.  If my work, finances, and the weather cooperate I could observe once or twice a month around the new moon and I'm really looking forward to it.

Anyone have any suggestions for what should be on my next observing list?  Here's hoping for clear skies for all the observers out there.