Stargaze 2015: One Out of Three Ain't Bad
The ASPB Stargaze is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get when you sign up. The March 2013 Stargaze was great with two very good nights followed by a Saturday night that was decent for less than half of the night. The 2014 Stargaze, on the other hand, was a total washout. This year's Stargaze, scheduled from Thursday, March 19th to Sunday morning, March 22nd was a mixed bag. My wife and I had concert tickets with another couple Thursday night, so I was unable to go up to George DeBarros' Milky Way Ranch in Venus until Friday. I understand from those who were there that the sky conditions in Venus were mediocre to poor Thursday night, so there wasn't too much observing.
Friday night, however, was a far better story. There were seven of us from the ASPB, including former treasurer and president Jim Kimball (who recently moved to the Treasure Coast). There were also five local amateur astronomers, including our host and former ASPB board member, George and Kye Ewing, a former ASPB member and retired director of the planetarium and astronomy programs at the South Florida Science Center. The sky was clear and dark, the temperature was a comfortable 75⁰ with 64% humidity and 9mph breezes. As twilight faded into darkness, the winter Milky Way brightly arched across the sky and the Beehive (M44 star cluster) and 5th magnitude stars were easily seen with the unaided eye. Kye, a very experienced observer with an encyclopedic knowledge of the sky, was able to see 6th magnitude stars with averted vision overhead in Gemini. We have had even better nights at Venus, but this one was just fine. I was glad I had brought my Celestron 11" SCT with me instead of my 6" scope.
I started my observing run with Venus during the evening twilight. Venus was low in the sky by this time (about 8:15pm) and the image boiled in the eyepiece. I tried dark red and blue filters, but couldn't see any shading detail in the cloud tops or even a clear image of the planet. A variable polarizing filter turned all the way dark did deliver a clear view of the gibbous shape of the planet. Lots of detail was visible on Jupiter at 311x. The polarizer helped here too by reducing the glare and increasing the contrast. When I looked up at the now fully dark sky, I saw a satellite cross almost overhead. Jim Kimball showed me a good view of Comet Lovejoy, still bright in the eyepiece of his Meade 10" SCT. Much later that night (around 1:00am, I think) Jim showed me the great Omega Centauri globular cluster which, although very close to the horizon, could also be seen with the naked eye.
Before leaving for the Stargaze, I had decided to spend most of my time observing galaxies…and there were plenty available. I did take time for a few other sights, such as the superb globular cluster M3, the open cluster M46 with its superimposed planetary nebula NGC2438 and the Beehive open cluster, the latter in the 80mm short tube refractor piggy-backed on the C11. The refractor also gave a nice view of the Ursa Major galaxies M81 and M82 in the same eyepiece field. Of course, the view of both galaxies was much better in the C11. Mary Maguire had asked to see some galaxies and I was able to oblige her with the "pencil galaxy", NGC4565 and the "Leo Trio", M65, M66 and NGC3628. The dust lane in the latter could be seen at 156x. I viewed a number of fainter, mostly edge-on galaxies, some of which I sketched. One of them was the magnitude 12.4 galaxy IC2233; I think this was the first galaxy I ever sketched from the Index Catalogue. My drawings appear at the end of this article.
Around 12:20am, the temperature had dropped to a still comfortable 68⁰ but the humidity had jumped to 90%. I noticed that dew had begun to form on my telescope tube. I had to decide whether to hook up my dew heater and continue observing for another couple of hours or shut down and go to bed. The weather forecast for Saturday night was dismal and we knew there would be little or no deep sky observing. Virtually all of us, other than the locals, had decided to go home Saturday morning. I had already made plans with my son to take my two granddaughters to see Cinderella. I decided to shut down and get some sleep, but first closed my observing run with a view of M51, the "whirlpool galaxy", one of my favorites. Its spiral arms and dust lanes were beautiful at 156x. I packed up and spent some time observing with Jim before heading off to sleep. It was a wonderful night. In Florida, one wonderful night out of three ain't bad.
Jay Albert 3/26/2015