Saturday, July 10, 2010

Dark Sky Observing in Union Pier, Michigan

Once again, I was invited to join Chicago Astronomer Patrick in southwestern Michigan for some dark sky, new Moon observing at a friend's cabin.

It was just getting dark when I arrived, great timing if I had planned it that way. Venus had just become visible while we were setting up, but it’s position just above the cabin wasn’t going to give us much time for viewing. Saturn and Mars came out, and while we were viewing these I noticed Regulus to the lower left of Venus, very dim compared to our planetary neighbor. I tried to get pictures of the pair, but Regulus was too dim for my cheapie camera to pick up.




The brighter stars started to appear, but with some time to kill before the serious observing could begin, Patrick started playing around with Saturn, checking it out through different colored filters. I have to say my favorite was the orange “Great Pumpkin Saturn.”


Patrick & Jordan after our early planetary observing.

I wish I had gotten some pictures of our surroundings in daylight, but we had some trees blocking out a good deal of the sky. The closest and tallest trees were to the north and east, so our observations were somewhat limited in that direction, but as the stars rotated into view, I found it best to systematically go through each constellation as it came into view.

I wanted to start to the deep sky observing with a galaxy, partly because I wanted to see M51 & M101, and they were going to rotate behind the trees rather early. I tried to star hop my way over to each of them several times, but that jump from last star to galaxy gets me more often than not. The sky wasn’t yet fully dark anyway, and I don’t think transparency was very good. I found no galaxies early in the night.

I skipped over to Lyra for M57, just to get any easy observation on the books, and let Jordan have look, both at 48x, and 120x. To me, the Ring just doesn’t handle magnification well. Patrick was trying to get M57 as well, and called me over to have a look, and see if he was “in the right neighborhood.” I looked, a bit skeptical about my ability to recognize the star field. It turned out I didn’t need to. I gave it a look, and just left of dead center was the Ring. “Yeah, you’re in the neighborhood alright! Look again, almost dead center.” It was a nice low power view.

I wouldn’t say we were competing with each other for observations as much as testing our skills against an unfamiliar sky (too many stars we don’t normally see; a very good thing), but I think having Patrick around was forcing me to push my limits. So many times I was content to lay down on the deck and gaze up at constellations I had never seen before, and marvel at the wonder of the Milky Way running down the sky. Later on I decided that the Milky Way would count as my galaxy for the night.

After tracking down the Great Cluster in Hercules, M13, I would have sworn I saw ISS coming from the west, getting brighter for about 2 seconds before completely fading away just as suddenly. By the time I realized the thing had been moving, it was already gone, and I didn’t have a chance to point it out. Patrick checked his phone, and said ISS was due shortly, and we had a false alarm by a bright satellite of some sort. As soon as that satellite disappeared, ISS made it’s way into view. Patrick was checking it out with his binos, so I called Jordan over to get a look in my Dob. I tried my best to keep it centered in the finder scope while he looked through the eyepiece. Judging by Jordan’s reaction, I’m guessing he had a pretty good view of Station. I’m not sure I waved before they disappeared in Earth’s shadow. We saw a pair of satellites apparently orbiting together before the activity died down. With the darker sky, we were seeing many more naked eye spacecraft, and for about a 20 minute window, must have been in nice alignment with the Sun to light them up for us. We started noticing them again in our last hour, which wasn’t too long before morning twilight began.

I got busy hunting down open clusters in Cygnus for awhile, and I vaguely heard Patrick and Jordan talking about M64, M27, and M7. I should have gone and checked them out, especially 64 & 7. I found M27, the Dumbbell Nebula later on my own. I was looking for it, but bumped my scope while star hopping, looked in the eyepiece just to see, and there it was. The Dumbbell by dumb luck. Anyway, I don’t remember all the open clusters I found in Cygnus, but I know M29 was on the list.

I showed Jordan M4 not long after the Great Cluster, but Scorpius and Sagittarius were hit and miss, ducking behind trees, and in the one part of the sky where light pollution was a problem. I couldn’t find it again later, nor M22. Jordan had gone to bed after seeing the globular clusters M3 and M5. Patrick read on his phone app that M3 was nearly 13 billion years old, making it the oldest thing I’ve ever seen, to my knowledge. That’s nearly as old as the universe itself!

Kicking around for deep sky targets in the high summer constellations was proving fun, as I found things in my Peterson’s Guide to the Night Sky that I’d never even heard of, and tracked them down with relative ease. Brocchi’s cluster. Never heard of it, but it was a nice grouping, an asterism I’m guessing, and reminded me of the Pleiades, without the nebulosity. Another obscure object to me was M71, a small globular cluster nicely paired with a small open cluster, H20. Two-for-one. I like that.

It was around one AM by now, and I was itching to see Jupiter and the Double Cluster. The big planet was still an hour or so below the tree tops, but by moving to the opposite side of the yard I thought the Double would be an easy find. I kept thinking that the rest of the night, and saw it not a once. My one true disappointment of the night. I’m dying to know what it looks like in a sky that dark.

Meanwhile, Patrick had found far out Neptune, our fourth planet of the night. As I was looking for Jupiter as it cleared the trees, I accidently found Uranus, though we only viewed it through my go-to Newt, which is now badly out of collimation. I’d bet good money though that we were seeing the blue-green ice giant. Five planets, and the sixth, my favorite, was coming into view. Patrick woke Jordan up to experience 6 planets, something none of us had ever seen. How cool to be a part of that.

I lost a knob holding my Dob primary mirror in place while moving the scope to see Jupiter, so I didn’t get my usual good look with it, but Patrick’s 4.5” go-to Newt was more than up to the task, offering a splendid view for such a small aperture. Impressive. After playing around with the color filters again for Jupiter, Patrick was ready to call it a night… until I pointed out that Andromeda Galaxy should be just above the eastern trees. Oops. That kept him out of bed for another hour.

We still hadn’t observed a galaxy, Milky Way not included, and it seemed like a good way to end the session. It was still hiding just behind the trees at first, but was worth the wait. For the first time I saw M31 with a suggestion of a disk, instead of just the galactic core, and this was with a 4.5” scope. I can only imagine what something big would have done for the image. Satisfied that our observations were complete, Patrick was once again ready to call it quits, and once again I pointed out something else. “Did you happen to notice the companion galaxies?”

“Oh, that’s right!” And so began the search for M32 & M110. It wasn’t as easy as I thought I’d be, but eventually we were certain that M32 had been found, and not so sure about 110.

We saw a heck of a lot in one night, and quite a bit of it I was seeing for the first time. We could have seen more if I hadn’t been so enamored with the band of the Milky Way, but I don’t regret one second I spent just lying there trying to guess it’s secrets with only my naked eyes, as countless of our ancestors have no doubt done. I felt like a Galileo or a Messier out there, or any of the great early astronomers, looking up with only a modest telescope to guide me through the galaxy. I’ve known the importance of dark skies, but I’m not a nut about only observing in total darkness. Light pollution, bright Moon, scattered clouds, doesn’t matter. I like to think I appreciate whatever the universe offers me, but last night made me realize just how much of our connection to the rest of the universe, and our own past, has been lost to our modern society. I could go on and on, but I think I’ll just close by saying that I’ll remember last night for a long time. Wow.


  1. Great report! personally I usually find the Ring Nebula holds up great to high magnification but that may be my dark skies helping me there. I love observing M31, M32, and M110 also. They are close together and I can get all 3 in the same field of view in my F5 scope using a 30mm eyepiece. M110 is so faint it makes it hard to find in a scope with less than a 6" diameter, it almost looks like a nebulosity rather than a galaxy it's that faint. I understand your being mezmorized by the Milky Way! It's a sight to behold in a dark sky setting and I'm very fortunate to see it on a daily basis. Sometimes I like to just lay in a lawn lounge chair with a pair of binoculars and just explore the milky way from horizon to horizon. Sounds like a great night Paulie!

  2. Hi Paulie,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Union Pier to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!