Sunday, September 11, 2005

our first novac trip - to spruce knob in west virginia

the roving novice reports:

our first novac observing trip.

rebecca left the apartment around 10:30am to go and pick up the rental car from budget as i continued packing. around an hour or so later she returned…with a cadillac. that’s right; a cadillac. the only car budget had available. an auspicious start, i thought.

the cadillac, or rather the huge silver barge, easily swallowed all our gear and we departed friday afternoon around 12:30pm. being a holiday weekend, i was expecting much worse traffic than encountered as we headed out of d.c, westward on route 66. armed with numerous novac and e-mail printouts i ‘phoned the number for the mountain institute (tmi) to confirm that we did in fact have a place to sleep once we got there.

after leaving a message, a lady returned my call some twenty minutes later reassuring me that everything was o.k.

the first part of the journey was identical to going to big meadows in the shenandoah, and only when we reached route 33, did the trip become more interesting, as we encountered series after series of twisting, winding roads and sharp bends. away from its natural element of dead-straight highways, the softly-sprung cadillac demonstrated the needle sharp response, pin-point steering, and razor-like handling of a bloated slug, while it gulped gasoline. this is going to be a lot of fun heading up a mountain…note to ourselves: let’s not rent a cadillac deville again for this sort of trip, even by default. luckily, i’d packed some cd’s and lee burridge’s, nubreed album provided some decidedly non-mountain music as we lurched and wallowed bend to bend, and then forced to follow slower traffic. well, at least the sound system was up to the task.

within 4 hours or so, we reached the turn to head to spruce knob and wound our way towards our destination. we easily spotted the sign for the mountain institute and parked up at the entrance. glad to get out of the car and breathe in some clean, cool, non-polluted air, we sprayed ourselves in bug-off! and walked along a path to a nearby building secluded by trees.

as we entered the unlocked door, it became obvious that this was an administrative building. a rack full of mountain bikes hung on a wall. i looked around for maps, telephone numbers, anything that might help us find the accommodation we were looking for. nothing. a nearby shack didn’t exactly look promising either, so we returned to the car and headed up a gravel and dirt road. about a quarter mile further, rebecca stopped. this didn’t seem right as the road didn’t seem to lead to anywhere, and the car was having a tough time negotiating the ever-narrowing and bumpy road. we reversed back to the entrance and headed for spruce knob. perhaps the accommodation was further up along. five minutes later had us convinced that we were still wrong and we turned around to return to the entrance we had just left.

i took over driving duties and we had another go at the only real option. a quarter-mile along, we met a car coming towards us. i was very glad when i spotted the driver wearing a woodlands institute t-shirt, who informed us we were only a half-mile away from our destination. as we approached the main building, a huge dobsonian was already set up in an observing field to our right. this was very encouraging. it was nearly six o’ clock by the time we parked up the car. dinner was to be served shortly, and we were very happy to meet a few other observers and also to see that a couple of large cooking trays of shepherd’s pie and a big bowl of salad had been laid out for all the staff and guests at tmi.

we chucked everything off in our twin-bunked room and drove back the short distance to the observing field to set the ‘scope up. i decided upon a reasonably level patch close to the big dob. way before it actually got dark, venus and jupiter put on a great show, shining brightly as they hung above a lone tree to the west. there was a fair, constant breeze blowing as the owner of the big dob returned in a white van. for white van, read complete mobile observatory. jim anderson not only has a killer 22” starmaster, but also a complete all-in-one traveling set-up. undeterred by his obvious experience, know-how and set-up, yet acknowledging to myself that there couldn’t be two people more opposite in their astronomy skills with two telescopes next to each other, we finished setting up “uhuru” and did a quick two star alignment. it was at this point that i realized that the cadillac imitated something out of star wars, courtesy lights everywhere the minute you opened up any door. luckily, jim (of course) had some blue duct-tape and i spent about twenty minutes light-proofing the car. another couple were setting up a televue refractor on a losmandy mount to do some imaging, and rob mckinney came over to introduce himself. i told him i though he looked familiar and i thought i'd seen him on the novac site...... we were all looking forward to a great night's viewing ahead.

jim proved to be an extremely friendly and helpful ally, and we chatted as we waited for the skies to darken. each minute that passed offered us a glimpse of just how great the darkening sky would reveal itself to be. way before it got truly dark, we could see the dust lanes in the milky way forming. wow! i had been blown away by the skies at shenandoah, but this promised something even better.

as a novice, living a couple of blocks from dupont circle in the middle of d.c., you quickly realize that you’re faced with the exact same problem (but opposite) when it comes to recognizing and learning the night sky. in the city, you can barely make anything out, and you’re lucky to see more than a handful of stars. away from a few hundred thousand people, under a truly dark sky, there is so much to see that only the most familiar of patterns are recognisable, and questions such as why doesn’t anyone make a big planisphere, i.e. that is bigger than a few inches in diameter, and why am i forced to perform mental gymnastics when going from the sky to a star chart and then to my sct when i look through it? given the huge numbers of sct’s, isn’t there a market for a star atlas that actually represents what you see at the eyepiece? of course, i have yet to get a decent eyepiece with a wide field of view, so i’ll see how i fare when i do manage to get one.

the goto on “uhuru” wasn’t exactly behaving as hoped for, putting some objects bang in the middle of the eyepiece and then not being close to others. i put this down to operator error setting up, this being only our third night with the telescope out actually observing. jim came over and together we battled the set up. he has an older lx200 12” that makes even more noise than ours (lx’s are not quiet telescopes) and is full of good advice. eventually, we got it pointing reasonably well and we were off. i can’t remember exactly how many of us there were that first night, but i guess around a half dozen. there’s something incredibly peaceful about being under a pristine night sky, whether you know your way around it or not. within a couple of hours, rebecca was all burned out having been up the night before doing school work, and was very happy to have the cadillac’s generous seats parked up within a few feet to crash on.

while i struggled to find objects, jim was calling me over to have a look through the starmaster. wow! shocking is the term i’d use to describe the view. the perception of 3d depth was overwhelming compared to the 8” sct. star clusters that looked very pretty in “uhuru” transformed themselves into neighbourhoods of sparkling beauty. so different a view does it offer, that when i kept returning to my ‘scope to compare the views, i could easily be convinced that i was looking at a completely different object. rob couldn’t resist the temptation either. is wow! the first word uttered the first time a person gets to view a deep sky object through jim’s starmaster? the view of the veil nebula was simply amazing and i was more than pleased to get a pretty decent view through the 8”. i had prepared a rough list of sorts to have as targets for the weekend. of course, the unexpected luxury of having jim’s generosity with his starmaster close at hand was too enticing to pass up, and i quickly forgot about the list and was just very happy to be where i was, when i was. it was getting pretty cold and if it wasn’t for the thermos flask full of coffee rebecca had made at the institute, i wouldn’t have made it through as long as i did. rob came over to chat and he pointed out the double star alberio that until then i didn’t know existed. i was also impressed by rob’s tip of defocusing the image to reveal star colour. much easier to see alberio’s gold and blue hues. he was mainly after open clusters and after a view through his scope and binoculars i could see why.

i was determined to wait up for mars though, and she didn’t disappoint. i have read many times about the benefits of regular observing of the red planet and i guess i spent about an hour with the 8” just staring, looking for any detail. cranking up the power with my cheap orion 17mm and 10mm eyepieces, and then with an orion barlow yielded a softer view, but for one brief moment, at maximum magnification available, i did manage to suddenly get a clear view, which made all the time and effort worthwhile. i was also determined to get a decent view of m42 in orion, having never seen the great nebula through a decent telescope. double wow! it was very late into the observing session by the time mighty orion rose over the horizon, but even being so low in the sky, the view was amazing. I have never seen the hunter better, seeing stars in the constellation i had never seen before. ten minutes later, i was all done, and shut down the ‘scope, turned off the dew heater, disconnected the battery pack, and covered her up for the night, and went and tried to grab some sleep in the driver’s seat of the cadillac.

i woke up to the sound of jim in his white van making his way past our car. it was a quarter past eight in the morning and breakfast was being served at the institute. hot coffee and an improvised toasted bagel with crispy bacon and a splash of tomato ketchup proved to be an excellent, if unconventional breakfast. a good, surprisingly hot shower on-site made us feel human again, and i was very happy to get back to our twin-bunked room and get some real rest on a reasonably comfortable bed, while the battery charged close by.

we didn’t do much of anything that day other than rest. i walked over to the observing field before lunch to check up on the scope and also just to get a walk we had been joined by a few others. two more big dobs, an enormous 24”, owned by bob parks was being wheeled out of the back of a trailer. i also met ralph, another very experienced observer. we were the only rookies!, yet everyone made this trip a super friendly, very community-based positive experience. when you don’t know anyone and you have very little knowledge of what you’re doing, i think there’s a natural tendency for newcomers to feel a little intimidated, and even though no-one would describe me as being a shy and retiring violet, i can say that this first astronomy club experience couldn’t have been less intimidating. i urge everyone out there who has recently joined novac, but has yet to go on a club observing trip to just do what we did; dive straight in. everyone you meet will make you feel very warmly welcomed; you’ll not only learn a lot, but have much more fun in the process than standing in the middle of a grassy area on your own for a few hours. you’ll also get to have a peek through other people’s telescopes...and go ‘wow!’

for the rest of the day, we slept and milled around the institute chatting to a few other people, including those that worked there. six o’clock came, and this time the lasagna proved to be even more popular than the previous day’s shepherd’s pie. we chatted to a few of the girls working at tmi and invited them to join us later on to observe if they felt like it. after getting ready, we drove back to the observing field. it was evidently more cloudy and hardly a gust of wind, although everyone reassured me that we wouldn’t get clouded out.

the objects i’d missed the first night were fairly easily located the next, having the huge benefit of seeing the same sky for the second night in a row. rebecca’s first ever view through a dob, courtesy of jim, was ‘oh my god!’ when she took a look at m13 in hercules, followed up with the expected ‘wow!’ i suggested to jim that he should get a wow!-ometer fitted to his starmaster to record the number of wow!’s he gets from others. it is easily the best telescope i have ever viewed through.

in a short while ominous black clouds began to creep in, doing their best to spoil the party. that and the dew. with almost a total lack of wind, dew began forming on everything early on in the proceedings. down to just the eyepiece, as i didn’t have a means to warm the finder, hunting down objects became much trickier. jim’s view of m57, the ring nebula made up for any disappointments, though.

the group of girls we had met earlier, who had just arrived to work at the institute took us up on our offer to join us, and after i showed them m13 in hercules, rob mckinney provided a mightily impressive and easy to grasp intro to the night sky for us. explaining how to use one’s fingers and hands to gauge measurement, he quickly went to pointing out key stars and how to navigate around the sky. i would say that was definitely one of the highlights for me and rebecca. and all with the naked eye.

speaking of naked eye, later on, when it was essentially down to myself, rebecca and ralph still up and observing, ralph amazed us by pointing out the planet uranus with the naked eye. one minute, it was clear as anything, the next simply disappearing from view... along with the star we were using to locate it. eventually, even we had to call it quits, and instead of sleeping in the car for a second night in a row, rebecca and i did a quick job of disconnecting the battery and pulling over the cover, and walked back the short distance to the lodging. walking back, it was impossible not to be impressed by orion rising over a dark horizon of trees. even though we were pretty cold and tired, we just stood there, taking it in, knowing we were very lucky to be where we were at that moment. it was absolutely pitch black, and we couldn’t see a thing as we blindly inched towards our bunks, trying hard not to awaken kim and ben (hope i got your names right) in the shared room.

a breakfast of bagel, sausages and hot coffee had us debating whether to stay an extra night. we decided to wait until lunch to make up our minds. kat’s most excellent homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese toast was very welcome, but sadly we had to acknowledge rebecca’s schedule, and we loaded up the car and said our goodbyes to everyone, before driving to the observing field to pack “uhuru” up for the trip home.

all i can say is that this was a very memorable trip and a great experience. a great many thanks to everyone we met from novac and the mountain institute for making it such. i learned a great deal, benefiting from the wealth of experience of others, not just on what we were looking at, but the whole process of observing.

i couldn’t have asked for more.

No comments: