Thursday, June 01, 2006

"you can never have too many telescopes" - memorial day weekend

We walked out of our apartment building around 11:30am and crossed the road to pick up the Zip Car for our Memorial Day weekend, a Toyota Prius. Loading up the hybrid was surprisingly easy and we headed out of Dodge, off to Spruce Knob and the mountains of West Virginia.

Motorcycles; lots of 'em. Harley, Harley, Harley, Harley, you get the idea, Harley; "there's one!" No, it's a Harley….must have seen 180 or so of them by the time we reached half way to TMI, with the occasional Japanese outcast touring bike spotted every once in a while standing out (or is that outstanding…) among the American iron, bruiser heavyweights. Then we saw a huge flank on the opposite side of Route 66 heading towards D.C. Rolling Thunder! I reckon there must have been 300 motorcycles, all together, with a State Trooper on a bike, leading the way, while traffic was being held to allow them all to get onto 66 together.

We stopped for gas, munchies and coffee before reaching the mountains, and saw a couple of ducks with their 5 very cute 'ducklets'. The Prius was surprisingly capable getting up, down, and through the mountain twisties. Electric motors have very good torque, and by around 4:45pm, we reached TMI and loaded all the non-scope related gear into our dorm. Since we were the first to arrive, we had first pick.

It's 5pm and it starts to pour, just like the forecast had predicted. Looks like it means business. Dinner's at six. It feels great to be here again, despite the crappy weather. I think the last time we were there was Labour Day weekend. Here's hoping that tomorrow night and Sunday will be clear for us.

It's so quiet, here. All I can hear is the heavy splats of rain hitting the window. Since I've done absolutely no planning, I decide to have a look at my books and charts after a nap. Rebecca wakes me up by returning to the dorm with "It is chucking it".

Dinner is great. 3 helpings!... Everyone at the Institute is very friendly, all new faces. There are (I think) 3 others from Novac. No one's setting anything up until tomorrow. We return to the dorm well fed. In minutes, I'm asleep. At some point, I wake up. I haven't got a clue what time it is, all I know that it's very dark, as I make my way over to the showers. I can't see a thing, as I creep very slowly towards the light, remembering to unpack a torch tomorrow, already knowing that I'll forget.

Saturday. It's very grey and cloudy, but not raining. After breakfast, the weather begins to look more promising and we chuck off the 'scope and tripod, etc. on the observing field and go for a drive. What great roads, all bends, curves, hardly a straight in sight. We're getting hungry and stop off at 'Kroger' store in Elkins, to pick up some supplies. It has a weird self-pay system that still requires two attendants at each checkout…

Spicy Chicken sandwiches to go from McDonald's serve as our late afternoon gourmet feast, and we head back to Spruce Knob around 5pm. We take a different route that looks quicker. Twenty minutes later, we realize that this is a mistake, as the normal road begins to disappear and the number of potholes increases (my lower back really appreciated all the kangarooing of the short wheelbase Prius). But by now, the weather has completely cleared, and after dinner we head off to the field to set 'Uhuru' our 8" LX200GPS up.

As darkness begins to fall, I can already see more stars in the twilight than I have in the past six months of looking up at the downtown D.C night sky. It's not long before everyone there for the Saturday night is waiting for some Spruce Knob darkness. Carole and Martha set up nearby.

Don't you just love dew? It can't be more than a couple of hours in and almost everyone is complaining about the dew. I only have one heater on my corrector plate and lose the viewfinder in about 2 hours. Rob, the 11 year-old announces that he lasted about 30 mins, with no heaters. Well at least the sky is clear, which affords Rob plenty of time to do the rounds, talking to everyone, and counting shooting stars. There are a lot of them tonight, and like always, never fail to impress.

Without my finder scope, this rookie is in big trouble and I decide to cover Uhuru and let the dew win for the night. I walk over to Lyle in the soaking wet grass, who has pretty much all bases covered with 4 heaters on his Celestron 9.25. Rebecca and I are floored at his ability to find and view deep sky objects in the sky without assistance, using only his charts and hands. I reckon it would be a tough battle between Lyle and Ralph on a deep sky Spruce Knob shootout contest. Rob joins us, pointing out shooting stars that I'm too slow to see. Together, we reckon he's spotted about 60.

Have you read John Carpenter's 'The Fog'? Late night, Spruce Knob did a very good impression of it (without the tortured souls), as all around us, you could hardly see a thing, while up above, the sky looked incredible. With only a few of us left, we all saw a mighty flash, as the brightest of the shooting stars sliced a colored slit in the sky. We just stood there, still seeing the remainder of the streak some 30 seconds after the flash. Incredible. I guess it was around 3am when even Lyle had to call it quits.

Sunday. What a beautiful day. I felt sorry for those, especially Rob and his father, who only could make the one night. And it's warm! Everyone is in good spirits and looking forward to the evening. We met Yassu and Yumi from Michigan (apologies for the very likely incorrect spelling) at lunchtime. Ralph is talking about how he acquired his telescopes. Yassu gets everyone's roar of approval by stating that "you can never have too many telescopes!" After lunch, Rebecca decides to do some yoga while I decide to come up a dew prevention device for the finder scope, attacking a large, empty water bottle with a borrowed pair of TMI's kitchen scissors, and a yoghurt carton that would serve as a handy aid against dew at the eyepiece. I see Lyle walking his marine deep cycle 140ah battery to the car. Seeing that it can run four heaters all night, I name it the 'Dew-minator'. I retire to the dorm and construct an observing plan for this evening. After last night's rinsing, I'm determined to have a good night observing and bag a good number of Messier objects. It promises to be a great night observing by the look of things.

The late afternoon Sun hangs low in the Western sky as a much more optimistic group of observers get themselves and their equipment ready for the hours ahead. A beautiful crescent moon appears as a sliver in the Southeastern sky, offering us a happy opportunity to enjoy our closest planetary neighbour. Jupiter soon appears in the East, and last night's triumphs, frustrations and limitations are soon forgotten as we wait. Joe and his wife walk past, and I mention that I would like a look through the big dob. "Yes Sir!" is the very welcome response.

I have my 3 sheets of graph paper of Messier objects by constellation and explain my plan to Ralph. Part of the huge reward of observing is the confidence that achieving steps on the learning curve ladder inspires. I'm not too happy with the collimation and decide that against despite my reluctance to have a go at this in the field, it has to be done. Twenty minutes later I'm much happier, after more than a couple of moments when I was sure that I was making it much worse. Thank goodness for 'Bob's Knobs'. I can't imagine how disconcerting it must be to be groping about with an Allen key next to corrector plate in the dark. Come on Meade and Celestron!

With Rebecca in charge of writing down times, we begin in Ursa Major, 'bagging' M81 & M82 before 10:15pm. 2 hours later, I'm very happy not to have to turn the dew heater on at all. The sky looks wonderful and together, Rebecca and I munch our way into the list. It's so much easier viewing by sticking to one constellation at a time. I didn't feel bad about rushing through my list of objects. After over six months of not observing at all, I wanted to see as many objects as I could. Rebecca lasted until 1:30am and headed to the car to warm up and get some sleep. It was me, Uhuru, my lists, a great bunch of like-minded enthusiasts and a great night sky above as company.

At some point, Joe calls me over to let me have a look at a transit of Jupiter. Sure enough, despite the seeing not being particularly helpful, and Jupiter lowish in the sky, I could easily make out a sharp, black dot on Jupiter. The coloured cloud belts and the sight more than make up for the seeing. Hot coffee and warm soup helped. I reckon it was sometime after 3am, when only a few of us remained. Lloyd came over, as did Eric. The pesky dew returned, but at least it was manageable by turning up the heater to full. At around 5am, I hear bleeping from the battery complaining that she'd had enough. I can't protest, as I'm tired, yet very happy that I had just experienced my best ever night observing.

It's just hinting at daylight as I slowly make my way back to the dorms. I get some sleep but still manage to make breakfast at 9am. Everyone is very pleased about last night. My total of Messier objects observed is 34. Sadly most people have to leave. Yassu and Yumi are staying the extra night. We can't make up our minds and agree to make a decision shortly. With reluctance we choose to head back to the car and pack up our things. It's been a great weekend. I felt that everyone in the group had really enjoyed their stay at TMI, and enjoyed a great camaraderie amongst all there, including the great staff who really make everyone feel welcome.

It's getting hot as we walk our up to the observing field. Others are packing away their equipment as we reach the very dusty Prius. The door's locked…I try again. I look at Rebecca who returns a 'Wallace and Gromit' look at me, and together, we both have that same look on our faces as we stare back at the car. Zip Cars have a magnetic swipe that enables entry via a strip at the top of the windscreen. All you have to do is pass your membership card over this patch and the door unlocks. This is great, except that Rebecca had left her card inside the car and the car had locked itself between the time I left the vehicle at around 5am and our return after breakfast…

This isn't normally a problem, because Zip Car can send a signal via cell 'phone towers and unlock the car from their headquarters. The problem is that we're in a radio quiet area; Cell 'phones don't work here. It's also Memorial Day…With the hot Sun beating down on the rear window, with my cheap Orion eyepieces and more expensive Lumicon filters in the back, I cover the back window up using our tarp and some very handy logs laying close by to prevent the heat from building quickly in the car.

Yassu decides it's photo time, as we pose in front of the %&#@! Prius, capturing the moment for prosperity. Eric, very graciously offers Rebecca a drive down to the Earth Shelter, where she telephones Zip Car to explain the situation. About 20 minutes later, they return. It appears that Rebecca hasn't quite gotten the days of the rental period correct, and has forgotten to add the extra day for the weekend. The car should have already been returned. However, the good news is that Zip Car tells her that they will send a signal and unlock the vehicle. It doesn't work.

By now, almost everyone has left, leaving us to ponder our next move. It's some protracted telephone time with Zip Car back at the main yurt, as Rebecca spends a few hours of returning phone calls in the TMI office, Eric (we really appreciate all the help, mate) drives me back to Uhuru and then back to the dorm so I can recharge the dead battery. It looks like we'll be staying the extra night. I get some sleep and Rebecca finally walks in announcing that in a very convoluted arrangement, a local company has come out and 'obtained entry' into the car. This is great, except that an hour later, the same company telephones TMI to say that the credit card provided by Zip Car hasn't gone through and so Rebecca has to spend another half hour on the 'phone clearing that up.

TMI isn't providing meals on Monday, but we have soups, etc. so not a problem. I can't say I'm sorry for the opportunity to stay another night under these skies. I make another observing plan, deciding that it would be fun to see just how many objects I could bag over the two nights. It's definitely cooler and their's a slight breeze as we return to Uhuru with a mostly charged battery. Armed with a compliant goto and my plan, and no dew forming, we begin going through our list. By the time we're all done in the early hours of dawn, I haven't turned the dew heater on at all, and my total number of Messier objects is 50 for the night and 36 for the night before, making 86 Messier objects in total for the Sunday and Monday. Despite the dew, fog, and lock-out, it's truly been a great weekend.

By the time we get back to D.C., the Prius has averaged 46mpg for the whole journey!

Thank you to everyone that made it special!

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