From our Other Members...

Some unexpected Astronomy!

The ASN recently participated in the Lassen Volcanic Astronomy Festival, an event that I was really looking forward to participating in. (And I am looking forward to hearing some reports on how it went!) But as luck would have it, I was unable to go.

Most of you know that in 'another life', I am a big cat keeper. I have friends with big cats, and when they have to travel, they can't just let the local petsitter care for these animals. So as a result, sometimes, I have to be a 'lionsitter'. And since the cats get the number one timeslot in my life (outside of work :(  ), when they need to travel, I generally need to lion-sit.

I know from past experience that their ranch, located in southern Nevada, has pretty decent dark skies, even though it is fairly close to Las Vegas (about 60 miles), and it is on the outskirts of a pretty good-sized town. I have done two Messier marathons there, scoring 107 and 109 objects. I nearly always take my 'scope when I go there. Observing with a curious lion or playful tiger nearby, in the dark, is actually an enjoyable experience! They really do want to 'help' you (by knocking stuff over, running off with bits and pieces, chewing on cables, etc.) Heck, even their dogs do that, so I have to observe in a big training enclosure, where no animals can come in and 'help'. I, myself end up in a 'cage'!

But as my really terrible luck would have it, we took a power hit at our transmitter site last Thursday night, just before I was going to go home and pack. The power hit shut the site down, as the generator never started (the site has an emergency generator, that gets used quite a bit). I went up to the site, and found the generator's cranking battery was fried. It uses a crane battery for starting. There was no way I was going to be able to jump start that with the battery in the truck! So, I had to sit there in the dark, waiting for the utility power to return. I ended up helping one of our smaller-load clients get their equipment back on line with a portable generator (They even brought up a crane battery later, to jump-start the generator, but by then, the utility had restored power). To make a long story short, I didn't get home until 11 PM, so I had no time to pack. The telescope had to be left behind this time. This turned out to be a bad thing. Or, was it a good thing?

I arrived in the early evening on Friday just in time to get my hands bloody cutting meat for the animals. My friends prepared a quick dinner, and then left for their travels. But when I stepped outside, I greeted by a beautiful crescent moon and Venus, which I photographed. When the moon set a short while later, the night sky looked more like the Golden State Star Party than southern Nevada near Las Vegas! I was stunned. What a time to not have a telescope. And as it turns out, all five nights that I was there had skies like this!

I sat out that evening in a special place on their property I like to sit at night, a place where you are nearly surrounded by tigers! There are some comfortable chairs there, and I just leaned back and looked Cygnus. I fell asleep there, and when I woke up, Cygnus had moved. It was nearly 2 AM. But the amazing thing is I could see stars clearly for a change! I had just gotten new glasses a few days earlier. It turns out that part of my problem seeing stars was the lenses on my old glasses where so scratched up that they 'fuzzed out' the stars! What an improvement!

I did the same thing the next night, but then I saw a meteor. I remembered then it was close to time for the Persieds (which I had planned to observe on their appointed night), and that the Persieds are a long duration shower. So, I took a good look at the sky as it got later, and got my first look at a return of the Pleiades (which, with Casseopia, made finding Persius a snap!) I also took some time to look at the summer triangle area, and what little was left of Scorpius that evening. Even without a telescope, I was doing some enjoyable astronomy.

The next night was the peak of the Persieds (one day earlier than I had anticipated). So after animal feeding and chores were done, I settled into a comfortable chair (near the lion!) and watched Persieds. They seemed to come in fits and starts. I saw several that entered so steeply (from my point on the earth) that they looked like celestial flashbulbs going off. Three very bright Persieds were seen, all of which left a notable 'train'. One of these trains remained visible for nearly ten seconds. I also saw a lot of non-Persied meteors-- more than I would have expected.

I also took the time to really study the summer sky, now that I could see a lot more of it. I identified several constellations (Notably Draco and Ophiuchus) that I had never clearly defined before. I identified relationships between these constellations and bright stars, so I can quickly find them again.

I did the same thing the next two nights, working to try and permanently memorize these relationships. And although they weren't as numerous as they were Sunday night/Monday morning, there were still plenty of Persieds to see! When my friends got back from their trip, I was able to familiarize them with some cool, non-telescopic sky objects. (They have a Meade 8 inch LX-5, whose drive motor is damaged beyond repair. They would like to get if fixed, but alas, the part is made of unobtainium.)

So although I did not have a telescope on their trip, I am very satisfied in what I learned without using one. The trip was highly successful, astronomically! This will also be very helpful the next time I have to use one of the club's big Dobs without digital setting circles. And I suggest that if you have never done this before, you should spend a few nights outside, and do this. And you don't even need lions and tigers around to 'help' you! (But if you have lions and tigers, by all means, observe with them!)

Tim Stoffel

Category: Other Members