I had thought about trying to find an even darker spot at a slightly lower elevation (11 kft is a bit high), but I ended up at the same place where I observed the Leonids last year. It's a 1.5-hour drive each way. The main goal was to finally give my 6" Criterion Dynascope its first real workout in who knows how many years. I bought it from a friend 3.5 years ago, and I don't know how long he had it packed away in a long cardboard box (tube) and a padded briefcase (mirror and eyepieces). I had put together a Dob mount which I tested on a little foothill above Boulder a few days ago. But, I'm really not that happy with the mount, so I ended up taking the equatorial mount that came with the scope (sans the non-functional clock drive motor). That mount could be better, too.
On Friday, it looked about as likely as possible that it would be more or less clear across much of Colorado on Saturday night, with cool weather to boot. That turned out to be the case. No clouds. I brought a digital thermometer with me and the temperature slowly fell from 21F to 18F during the session. The wind was pretty steady around 5 mph, just enough to foil what I thought was good planning in the clothing department. I always seem to forget how much difference there is between hiking and standing around.
Anyway, right after I got set up, a vehicle pulled into the parking lot, got close, and killed his lights. It turned out to be a guy that works for the mining operation up at Fremont Pass not too far south of my location. They have to monitor water quality 24/7 and I guess they have people wandering around doing stuff related to that. This guy was working the night shift this week, and has an interest in astronomy. I still needed to get fully dark-adapted and let the scope cool down, so I wandered around to several "showpieces" for about 45 minutes, including M57, M31, and the Double Cluster.
Once he left, I started a more "serious" observing program. My plan was a combination of familiar targets in which I wanted to see some detail, and objects that I thought might be tough. This was really the first time I've ever done any dark-sky observing with decent aperture; the Dynascope is the first decent telescope I've owned, despite nearly 20 years of amateur astronomy.
First, M33. My goal was to see some detail, and that worked out. I couldn't truly see the spiral structure, but I was able to pick out darker areas in between the nucleus and the brightest areas away from the nucleus.
I went back to M31 for a closer look. I couldn't really see any structure and I really wanted a lower power eyepiece for this. The difference between M32 (small, more circular) and M110 ("large", diffuse, and more oval) was interesting. Just before 7UT, I took a break to warm up in the car and did a bit more planning.
Next was M74. I couldn't come up with any detail here, other than noting the fairly compact core and slightly oval shape.
One of the major "projects" for the night was to see two more satellite galaxies of M31; NGC 185 and NGC 147. NGC 185 is part of the RASC Observers Handbook "Finest NGC Objects" so I didn't expect it to be very difficult and it wasn't. It lies within a nice little triangle of 9th magnitude stars. NGC 147 was a little tougher, but clearly there.
I had already been trying to quantitatively assess the sky conditions, but my glasses are more than 2 years out of date and my ability to see faint point sources just isn't up to par at the moment. However, I was able to make a marginal naked-eye sighting of M33. More importantly, I finally convinced myself that a glow I kept seeing to the south must be the Gegenschein, my old friend from Wyoming, and I finally marked it on a star map and confirmed it. It also started getting darker from about 7-8UT. I'm not sure if some drier, cleaner air moved in, or maybe a decrease in the modest light pollution from the towns in the general area. In any case, with proper glasses, I guess my NLM would have been around +6.7 or so.
After another break, M42 was high enough. Unbelievable!! I was just stunned at how much detail was available. The "horns" extended out of the 40' field of view. I know this isn't a revelation for most people, but I've only seen it (ad nauseum) with very small aperture in dark skies, and a few times with 8-24" apertures in mediocre skies.
The "water guy" came back for a little bit, and he was duly impressed with M42. I also found M81 and M82, which just barely both fit in the Erfle. I could maybe get fleeting detections of the Cassini Division in Saturn's rings, but the 9mm eyepiece wasn't much help. There were 3 or 4 moons visible, but I didn't make careful enough notes.
The big "challenge" object for the night was to be IC 342. It is listed in the RASC "Deep-Sky Challenge Objects" with a suggested minimum aperture of 200-300 mm (8-12"), but the power of dark skies is often underestimated, too. It's a 17'x17' face-on spiral and pretty far north in Camelopardalis. It is listed as 12th magnitude, but www.ngcic.com gives a photographic magnitude of 10.5, which would imply a visual magnitude of less than 10. I must have spent a half-hour just reaching a point where I could get the area containing the galaxy into the finder! It's pretty barren up there and I'm out of practice, especially wrestling with an equatorial mount at high declination. I finally star-hopped my way to the 6th magnitude star just northeast of the galaxy. I thought I saw a hint of "nebulosity" in a field of 10th and 11th magnitude stars, but I didn't think it was in quite the right place. So, I did a slightly different star hop, and the glow was in the right place, between the two 9th magnitude stars in Uranometria 2000. It was still hard to pick out the diffuse glow from all the faint stars. I think lower power might have helped on this one, and I found an old report on S.A.A. of seeing this in 8x42 binoculars.
The last available object on my original list was NGC 891, the edge-on galaxy near Gamma Andromedae. I have to say that this nicely colored wide double star was more impressive than the galaxy. I could tell it was an edge-on from its large aspect ratio, but it wasn't very bright and I couldn't see any detail, e.g. the dust lane.
I checked out Jupiter before I left. I just saw the usual 2 dark bands, at both 75x and 135x. I've already got an Orion 32mm Plossl on order, but I also need a decent planetary eyepiece.
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