Sunday, August 07, 2005

big meadows and our new telescope

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, VA.

August 3rd & 4th, 2005

Our very first real observing session with our new telescope!

Loaded up the Zip-Car with everything we needed (and a lot that we didn’t), and headed out west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Leaving hot and hazy D.C. behind us, we couldn’t tell if the weather was going to be kind to us or not. Some two hours later we arrived at the Thornton Gap entrance to the Shenandoah, purchased a year-long National Parks pass for $50, and headed for Big Meadows. The observing area was easily seen upon arrival. On the same side of the road just past the large sign for Big Meadows, there is a small parking lot with a chain preventing access to non-authorised vehicles. The observing area had been recently mowed and a line of trees provided some relief against car headlights from the adjacent road (Skyline Drive).

We checked into Big Meadows Lodge to discover that they’d put us in a cabin as far away from vehicle access as possible. This was after we’d informed them that we would be arriving with telescope and equipment in the comments section when we booked online. Conclusion: comments section utterly useless and talking with someone over the telephone advisable. Changed rooms and got a decent little twin-bed room with easy access to the car.

Parked the car in the parking lot at 7pm, set up the ‘scope toward the western end of the observing field, put some tarp down, set up a fold-away table and sleeping bags to lie down on and waited for the sun to go down. Setting up at this time of day means there’s a good number of park visitors parked in the lot and walking the meadows looking for the numerous deer that appear at sunset (and sunrise). Quite a few people came over to chat and to have a look at what we were doing. This was very pleasant, and once I had explained that we were complete novices and this was our first time with our telescope, people seemed very eager to talk about what we could see. Most were aware of Mars due to newspaper articles, and were equally unenthusiastic that it wouldn’t be visible until the early hours of the morning. As I (good-naturedly) explained to one lady who complained that it was way past her bed-time: “Well; Mars doesn’t really care what time you go to bed”.

In the western part of the sky, Venus and Jupiter quickly popped into view soon after the Sun set. Those that were there were all very impressed by the views of Jupiter and her 4 visible moons. Wow! Was the most often heard phrase, and I felt very happy to be able to explain a little about what we were looking at and a little about what we hoped to see later on. Soon we were left on our own and I tried to get a GPS fix. No luck. I put this down to operator error and tried again. Went through the Autostar menu and instruction manual to no avail. Our first night would be manual operation only. A little frustrated but not downhearted, we accepted our situation with a resolve to get everything working properly the next evening, weather permitting.

Dew. Thank goodness we bought a dew heater. Within a few hours, everything started to acquire a damp film. First lesson learned; once unpacked, put everything back in the car that you don’t need. We’re rookies, but coping reasonably well. The inky-blue sky soon deepened its colour around us and the dust lanes of the Milky Way became visible long before the sky became truly dark. Amazing. At this point I forgot my frustrations with the lack of alignment and GOTO and just started pointing the telescope at a few bright deep sky objects. Armed with a planisphere, a star chart, and a little knowledge of the night sky, we began observing.

M13 in Hercules looked magnificent. Easily visible as a naked-eye smudge, the first deep sky view through the 8” LX200GPS was reassuringly impressive. All doubts about being able to find anything without GOTO were dispelled with our first view of this incredible sight. Next was Andromeda. Hard to discern any detail, nonetheless, the nucleus soon appeared in the eyepiece. Later on, when she was much higher in the sky, I discerned much more detail. Again, a naked eye smudge became so much more when viewed a decent instrument under a dark sky. Despite concerted efforts, we were unable to manually find M57, the Ring Nebula and also the Dumbbell, M102. Both were mentally put on my must find list for the next evening’s observing.

Most of the evening was spent just laying on our backs looking directly up at the Milky Way. No need for a telescope, there was something enormously satisfying at just looking up and marveling at the naked-eye detail of the dust lanes and the grand vista of the overhead sky. One very pleasant surprise was the sheer number of shooting stars we observed after midnight. Without keeping count, I estimate that we saw between 30 and 40, with at least 10 being of the “wow! See that?” variety. Warm clothing, decent footwear and lightweight weatherproof jackets are also highly recommended, even in early August as the temperature can fall quite quickly and dew forms.

To the east, Mars began her climb in the night sky in the early hours of the next day. By 4am, she was higher in the sky than I remembered her two years ago and gave very pleasing views. Lack of good eyepieces meant we were restricted in upping the power, but nonetheless, we still saw some dark detail.

Exhausted, yet happy, we packed up our dew-soaked belongings and trudged back to the car. Our summing of our very first night under the stars with “uhuru”, our new telescope – THAT WAS GREAT! :)

Night 2:

After a (hot) midday short trail to take a look at the highest point in the Shenandoah where Peregrine Falcons nested and soared nearby, we set up the telescope at the same spot at the observing site at around 7pm. If anything, the sky was clearer than the previous night and the air felt less humid and cooler. Set up this time went without a hitch and after going through the Autostar menu, we at last managed to obtain a GPS fix. Auto Align went pretty easily, with only a little bit of help centering on Arcturus and Spica. Soon after sunset, Jupiter gave very pleasing views. This time, we had a few more interested parties and again, everyone was wowed by the fact they could see the cloud belts of Jupiter as well as her 4 main moons. And again, as soon as it got a little dark, everyone disappeared. Without doubt, the seeing tonight was going to better and also, it looked like the dreaded dew was going to hold off. On our own and with the ‘scope set up and GOTO working as it should, the evening promised to repay our frustration of the previous evening. Without going into everything we targeted, I will list the following as being especially rewarding: M57, the Ring Nebula, M27, the Dumbbell, M13, in Hercules, M33 the Pinwheel, and M31, Andromeda. After prolonged viewing, I could at last make out some structure other than the nucleus in this huge smudge.

Some of the earlier visitors returned as they had promised later in the evening and we let the 6 or 7 people lay down on our tarp and sleeping bags to get a non neck-breaking good look at the Milky Way, while I found a few objects, mainly the Ring Nebula and M13 for everyone to take a turn with the telescope. I did find myself bombarded with an array of questions about the night sky. Luckily, I was also able to at least offer a reasonable explanation to most of them. The one thing that stood out was the concept of distances of space. Most had no idea of light taking time to reach our eyes and none knew of our position in the Milky Way or what indeed just were the dust lanes that filled the sky overhead. Glad that I have been studying from a number of astronomical textbooks over the past couple of years, I felt very happy to be able to be a bit of an educator, while trying very hard not to get too hung up on the physics (which, for me, is really still very hard going at anything other than a popularist level). Most of our new-found visitors stayed a fair while, seemingly content to just be around others, the telescope, and the outstanding views as I gave my little lectures.

Eventually, it was just down to myself and Rebecca and two girls we had met earlier (we later learned that they had started a business cleaning barnacles off of boats…..) who wanted to see Mars. They had also managed to lose their car key nearby in the grass in the process of joining us! By the time Mars rose high enough in the sky to take a good look at, they had both fallen asleep and would remain so for the remainder of the night. Eventually, Rebecca too succumbed to the sleep monster and I was left alone, slewing “uhuru” in a search for Messier objects. After a while, I had no option but to find a sliver of a gap on the tarp and try and get a bit of sleep. Within minutes of dozing off, I awoke to a very strange sound of non-human heavy breathing and rustling. This is not a sound I’m normally accustomed to in our 5th floor apartment in the middle of D.C. I got up and turned the red LED flashlight on to a low setting. This woke Rebecca and I calmly announced “we’ve got company…”About 3 feet directly in front of us, a doe was looking straight at me. To the side, another (presumably) deer could be heard approaching. A fantastic experience for us city dwellers. Five minutes later, they were gone. By dawn, I awoke and started to pack up the ‘scope. A track was clearly visible where the deer had come right up to where we were sleeping.

Within minutes, the others stirred and after half an hour of packing up all our stuff and Sonia, much to my amazement, managing to find her car key, we headed off to the Wayside Grill, just across the road, next to the entrance for breakfast and hot coffee. When we pulled into the parking lot and headed for the front door, we saw the sign: 9am – 8pm. It was 7:30am. We were starving. Hot coffee, hot food; nothing less would do. To the lodge! The benefits of staying somewhere where breakfast was being served came home real good as we pulled into the car park.

Ah; civilisation.

1 comment:

scubadiver said...

For all your barnacle cleaning needs, remember 'Barnacle Bill's Hull Cleaning" (aka Sonia and Elspeth's crappy home business.) Thanks for the cool time! (and of course breakfast). Brian Green is coming to Sweet Briar College September 16th. Is going to give a lecture...a friend who is attending told us the whole school has been reading 'Elegant Universe". Thought you would definitely want to check it out. Hope to catch you soon in D.C. DJ M!