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Unexpected Saturnian delight

March 9, 2009

Since my initial test use of the telescope last Thursday evening, the weather here has been… let’s call it sub-optimal. Aside from the usual rain and such one gets this time of year, the British Isles seem to get more than its fair share of high-level total blanket cloud cover. It’s so frequent and pervasive that I long ago began referring to it as “English blue”. I suspect it’s something to do with the Gulf Stream that also makes this little part of the world far warmer that it should otherwise be, and makes the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland quite verdant and… soggy. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

Yesterday afternoon I was visiting friends for Sunday lunch (how civilised!) and we were amused by the blustery weather and hail for much of the afternoon. So I was completely unprepared, when I finally left later that evening, to look up at a crystal clear sky with only minimal, fast-moving cirrus. I drove home liked an excited little boy, knowing I’d very soon be stargazing. Since my last viewing I’ve set the telescope up correctly, read the manuals, and have an idea of what I want to view this time. It was also a good time to test my back garden as a viewing platform – the street lighting at the front being prohibitive soon after night vision is gained.

Running Man Nebula (image from NRAO)

Running Man Nebula (image from NRAO)

On the mental list tonight was Betelgeuse, Rigel, Orion Nebula (M42), Horsehead Nebula (IC434), Aldebaran, Sirius, Procyon, Pleiades (M45), Andromeda Galaxy (M31), Saturn and the Moon. There were a few more I’d have liked to see, but the Moon was far too bright.

With the 2 eyepieces and Barlow, I had 60-273X magnification available to me. Neither Rigel nor Sirius were visible, as the former had set below my roofline to the west and the latter hadn’t risen above the valley wall to my south, but Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Procyon came up nicely. Though even at 273X they were just slightly brighter lights, with the exception of Betelgeuse and Aldebaran whose redness became nicely visible. The Pleiades were also very nice.

When I setup to view the Orion Nebula, because of the inversion of the image I didn’t realise at first that I was actually viewing the Running Man Nebula (NGC1977) but was very impressed with the 5 bright stars I could see against the cloudy background. I think it is more impressive than the Orion Nebula when view through a telescope.

The reason is that it appears black and white to the eye, as there’s something about the colours being indiscernible in real-time over those distances, whereas a camera’s long exposure can pick up the colours. I’d read about this, but it’s the first time I’d experienced it. I also think it was the first nebula I’d ever seen, as I don’t recall ever seeing one when I did astronomy as a child.

Flame Nebula (image from AstroCruise)

Flame Nebula (image from AstroCruise)

Next was an attempt to view the Horsehead Nebula, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it sat relation to Alnitak. So instead of viewing it, I ended up viewing the lovely Flame Nebula (NGC2024). Again, it was in black and white, so my mind’s eye filled in the colour gaps, and it was most impressive.

Then there was the Moon, and again it took my breath away. It was almost full, but there was enough shadow left to allow me to focus on the craters at the shadow’s edge and observe them in relief against the background. It was amazing to see. And when I added the 11mm eyepiece with 2X Barlow, I was able to see a very high level of detail. Smaller impact craters were easy to examine, and each Sea took up the entire view.

Tonight I was determined to view Saturn, as I missed it last week. For those of you familiar with the fantastic but now-departed TV series Firefly, you’ll know the camera technique of showing a dot in the distance, then there’s like a “click zoom” which shows the identifiable object at a distance, then another “click zoom” and it will be closeup (in the show it’s typically used in space scenes outside the ship). That’s exactly what it was like viewing Saturn. To the naked eye and when lining it up in finder-scope it was just a bright ‘star’, then viewing with a 25mm eyepiece it ‘clicked’ as a tiny but clearly identifiable yellow/biege planet with a –strikethrough– line of flattened rings, and then with a 5.5mm eyepiece (11mm with Barlow) it was much bigger and breathtaking. It just sat there, quietly inspiring awe.

And much to my surprise, I was able to identify 3 of its moons: Tethys, Titan, and Iapetus. I was initially unsure of Tethys and Iapetus, but a check of Starry Night and online confirmed it was.

Lastly, I planned to have a look at the Andromeda Galaxy, but at exactly the wrong moment my neighbours decided it was their bedtime, so switched on every light on their top floor which – when combined with the British dislike for closed curtains – meant that my back garden (the lawn part is raised) was completely flooded with bright white light for about 30 minutes. This, along with the almost full Moon, washed out my night vision – it was time to call it a night.

Even packing up under such circumstances, I was extremely happy with the night’s viewing. I’d seen most of what I’d intended, and had replaced some of the desired objects with other ones, and I’d had good opportunity to practice my constellation identification.

I’ll not pretend that I didn’t have some help, and that came in the form of the brilliant GoSkyWatch planetarium software for the iPhone. Not only does it look great, but it has an excellent database of objects and is extremely easy to use. And its “night mode” ensures that your night vision doesn’t suffer (my only niggle is that the searching and setting screens are still full brightness black/white), making it easy to use during your stargazing activity. I find this easier to see and more convenient that a planisphere, as with that I’d need to juggle the red torch, too. The software is worth every penny of its £5.99 (US$9.99) price tag.

A great evening, in all. And as the title says, both Saturn and the opportunity to view at all was an unexpected delight. Can’t wait until next time!

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