Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Sombrero for Cinco de Mayo

Feliz Cinco de Mayo en todos! It’s only fitting that with a clear sky last night I tried for something I had never seen before, M104. Yep, the Sombrero Galaxy. It was a nice way to wrap up a short session that started at sunset with planet Venus. Although I was out for two hours, I didn’t spend much time at the telescopes. Part of the reason is that the twilight hangs around long after sundown, and wasn’t sufficiently dark until 9 o’clock. The other reason was that I was waiting for a five minute International Space Station pass at 8:43.






Feliz Cinco de Mayo en todos! It’s only fitting that with a clear sky last night I tried for something I had never seen before, M104. Yep, the Sombrero Galaxy. It was a nice way to wrap up a short session that started at sunset with planet Venus. Although I was out for two hours, I didn’t spend much time at the telescopes. Part of the reason is that the twilight hangs around long after sundown, and wasn’t sufficiently dark until 9 o’clock. The other reason was that I was waiting for a five minute International Space Station pass at 8:43.

I was tempted earlier in the day to drive to Chicago for some astronomy with Joe Guzman and friends by the Adler Planetarium, but a number of factors contributed to my decision to stay home instead. One of them was that I had wanted to take advantage of the late rising Moon to hunt down some galaxies. Not likely to accomplish that in the city. But first I had to wait for the sky to get dark enough for galaxy hunting, so I did what is becoming my routine and took pictures of Venus shining in the western sky. But that wasn’t enough, so I tried getting a picture with my Vivicam to the eyepiece of my Dob. Once Saturn appeared I let the go-to track it, although a strong breeze was keeping the image very unsteady. I snapped a few pics of Saturn as well, then got ready for ISS. By the time Station flew out of sight it was time to find a galaxy or two.

I had M101, M51, the Leo Trio, M104, and the Virgo Cluster on my mind, so I looked through my Peterson’s Field Guide to the Night Sky to see what might be the best target. The Sombrero Galaxy, M104 seemed like an easier star hop than some of the others. It was also one I had never seen, which put it on top of my list. I studied my Peterson star atlas, then compared it to what I saw in my finder scope and quickly tracked it down. Of course it isn’t as impressive as I’ve seen in images, but I liked the background star field in my 25mm eyepiece. I followed it for awhile, wanting to savor my newest Messier checkmark, but finally gave in and tried viewing in a 10mm eyepiece. It didn’t take the increased magnification well at all, so I went back to the 25mm. I took another look, and then realized that I was looking at the Sombrero Galaxy in the eve of Cinco de Mayo and thought it appropriate. All I needed was a cold Corona to kick off the Mexican holiday in style, but alas, it was time to go to work.

My skygazing wasn’t quite over for the night, though. On my way to work I saw ISS again, drifting left to right in front of me as I drove north. Just before they went out of sight I came to a stop sign. There was no other traffic, so I waited there, and waved just before Station disappeared. I turned left thinking about what a cool night I’d had.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Working in Imperfect Conditions

Sidewalk Universe Guy commented on a recent post of mine about taking astronomy to the public in less than ideal conditions. To me, it seems only natural. I know, astronomy is mostly a solitary endeavor, and public outreach astronomy doesn’t appeal to every astronomer. But for those of us who enjoy dealing with the public, what time is better for it than just before full Moon? Or a night when seeing isn’t quite perfect? I learned early as an astronomer to use what I’m given to my best advantage.

In the fall of 2008, I was taking an astronomy course at Purdue North Central. It was the follow-up class to one I had taken in the spring, and that first class had awakened my love for astronomy. I bought my first telescope that summer, and was learning my way around the sky. On the first day of the fall semester, I handed out flyers to my classmates that I was going to try to have observations after class every Monday when the weather allowed. Almost every Monday I had my telescope set up after class, but the idea never caught on. My teacher, however, had been assigned to our class just before the semester began. He was an Earth sciences instructor, and while knowledgeable about planetary geology and atmospheres, he was grateful for my insights on the history of astronomy and observational astronomy.

Our class was required to have an observation session, and after the change to Standard Time in early November, our class met after dark for the first time. It was a beautiful night, much better than one would expect in November, but there was high humidity, and it didn’t take long before I noticed it distorting our views in the eyepieces. We were just behind the Technology Building, and near a parking lot, which meant lots of lights around. After the observation, for the written portion of the assignment, I wrote:

“Despite unseasonably pleasant weather, I sensed that few people were willing to walk to a more remote campus location that I believe would have reduced light pollution, and therefore improved the quality of our observations. There always seem to be trade-offs in astronomy, and especially so tonight. Would I rather have a warm night of bad seeing but the company of my classmates, or an exceptionally clear, but cold night observing alone? Would I rather captivate my audience in the glow of campus lights, or lose their attention during a forced march to darker skies? Alone those answers are easy, but since the benefits of a cooler night and a longer walk would be negligible to novice observers, I must, at least for tonight, consider the light pollution and warm, moist air to be positive for the overall experience.”

I think too many astronomers get obsessed with waiting for a brief moment of absolutely perfect seeing, and forget that even when conditions are less than ideal, there are beautiful views to be seen, especially to untrained eyes, seeing them perhaps for the first time. That’s why I love sharing my telescopes with the public. Nobody’s ever looked, and said, “Saturn looks okay, but you should have waited for a night without so much turbulence in the atmosphere.” All I hear is, “Wow! You can see the rings and everything!” Sometimes people will notice the image bouncing around on a windy night, or see shimmering around the lunar limb and ask about it.

Like I said above, public astronomy isn’t for everyone, but if you like talking with people, especially about astronomy, when the sky conditions aren’t going to let you push your limit, why not grab your scope(s) and find a spot with people passing by? It will satisfy your itch for astronomy, and maybe give a new perspective if our universe to the people you meet.