Aug 282011

The night of August 27 proved to be one of the better Saturday nights of the summer for observing. The temperature was pretty warm during the day, but a strong northerly breeze helped keep the humidity and haze low. Earlier in the week I had made plans to set up my telescope and support the observing effort after the Saturday night planetarium show since it looked like the weather was going to be decent. I also hoped to get the chance to use the Society’s MallinCam with my scope. In order to facilitate connecting the MallinCam to my Meade 8 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, I asked Richard Norman to bring his focal reducer if he intended to be there on Saturday evening. (My Schmidt-Cassegrain is an f/10, so its focal length is pretty long and why a focal reducer was needed.) Luckliy for me, Richard was there on Saturday night with his case of adapters, extension tubes and a couple focal reducers.

After setting up and balancing my scope we waited for the end of “civil twilight”, which Doug Horacek announced was going to be at 7:46 pm. I made the comment that at that point “uncivil twilight” would begin, to which there was a mild response of laughter from those within earshot. Once darkness fell, I was able to polar align my Orion Atlas EQ-G mount and make a three-star alignment. It was time to hook up the MallinCam and set our sights on M101 in Ursa Major in hopes of spotting the Type Ia supernova PTF11kly that had only been discovered in the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101) a few days earlier. After punching up M101 in the “goto” hand controller the scope started to slew to M101. Well, needless to say, we did not see anything on the monitor; we had failed to focus the camera and set the gain. We made a quick jump over to Alkaid (the end star in the handle of the Big Dipper) for focusing and setting the gain controls on the camera. Once we got things set up, the scope was slewed back to M101 and after a little tweaking of the mount we saw a fuzzy spot on the monitor, which we assumed was the galaxy. John Calahan, who is one of our newer members and has astrophotography experience, was there also and thought things should look better. After making some adjustments on the camera (exposure time and gain) and also contrast/brightness adjustments on the monitor, some of the spiral arms of the galaxy came into view. Regrettably, there were so many “hot pixels” showing up, it was difficult to distinguish which one might be the new supernova. We decided to change out focal reducers (the one I installed was the f/6.3 one) to the f/3.3 reducer in hopes of increasing the field of view and bring out a little more detail. With the f/3.3 focal reducer installed a little more of the galaxy was visible and had slightly more detail, but the numerous “hot pixels” really made any possible supernova indistinguishable. We spent quite some time looking at M101 and John captured some images from the video feed, which he will hopefully be able to get to us soon. Some members of the public came by to check things out after the planetarium show ended. Several of the VBAS members that were present also stopped by, including our VBAS President Tom Burleson, our VP Don Martin, our Resident Astronomer Doug Horacek, and a few others. My scope was not the only instrument we had going that night; James Brelsford and Colby Buford had the Celestron C-16 in operation in the Angele Observatory, Jeff Delmas and Doug Horcek had the 21 inch scope in operation in the Swanson Observatory and Tom Burleson had a 10 inch Dobsonian scope on the observing field with me.

Ursa Major was starting to drift into the trees at our northern horizon so we decided to move on to some other targets. We then set our sights on M31, the Andromeda Galaxy which had just come up from the trees at our eastern horizon. We then moved on to NGC 7662 the “Blue Snowball”, a planetary nebula also in Andromeda with a very distinguishable blue color. The next stop was to look for Comet C/2009 P1 Garradd in Sagitta, which was to be near the loose globular cluster, M71. The field of view with my scope and the Malincam was a bit too narrow to see both the comet and cluster in the same field, but after a bit of slewing the scope we spotted the comet near the star Zeta Sagitta. The comet was a greenish and fuzzy spot, probably about 8th magnitude and similar in size to M71. The next object we decided to shoot for was Uranus, but the view from the MalinCam on the monitor was not too impressive, but that was probably due to the brightness of Uranus. We then moved on to the M33 galaxy in Triangulum, which looked fairly decent on the monitor; it is a low-surface brightness face-on spiral galaxy similar to M101 and our own Milky Way. The final target was M57, the “Ring Nebula” in Lyra, which by this time, around 11:30 PM was sliding from overhead into the western sky.

The evening of observing finally came to an end as Jupiter inched above the trees in the east and the Milky Way flowed through the western sky. After Richard and John left, I finished packing up my scope and then stepped in to the Swanson Observatory to check on Jeff and Doug who were beginning to shut things down there. After the 21 inch was parked and the dome closed we locked up and headed down the mountain.