Sunday, January 20, 2008

Long Johns and Astronomy

Last night I volunteered at the George Observatory, taking my newly-acquired Celestron 9.25 Nexstar GPS. This would be my “first light” for the scope, and I was curious to see how well it would perform.

The previous night had been cold and rainy. I don’t mind cold and I don’t mind rain, but mixing the two of them is just misery. At any rate, Saturday was forecast to be clear and cold, and that was certainly accurate. I remembered I had some thermal underwear that I got several years ago for another cold astronomical session (some meteor shower), and I hunted for them. It had been a long time since I had worn them, but I managed to squeeze into them, looking something like a gray sausage.

Jeans went over that, plus a long-sleeved shirt, and my Fort Bend Astronomy Club hoodie. I also took along a leather jacket if necessary. I loaded up the gear and headed to Brazos Bend State Park, arriving about 4:30.

I parked in the semi-secret area behind the observatory and unloaded my gear and took it up to the deck, set it up, and started playing around with the computer-control. With this telescope, once you power it up, it acquires its location from the GPS, and selects a star for alignment. Since it was still daylight, I couldn’t confirm alignment, so I just slewed to the moon, and tried it out. In the 40mm eyepiece it looked just fine.

It got a little darker, and Mars became visible, just about 1 degree away from the moon. I slewed to that, and there it was. This isn’t a particularly impressive time for mars – just 12 arc-seconds in diameter, so it’s basically a cantaloupe-colored tiny ball. Back to the moon.

After it got dark, I was able to do a regular GPS alignment, and confirm it with the stars it selected (Capella and Rigel). The optics on the scope are excellent. The clear night was transparent and seeing wasn’t too bad.

The public started showing up, wandering around the deck and checking the view in various scopes manned by the volunteers. They also had tickets for viewing through the big 36” reflector in the main research dome, plus the FBAC 18” scope in the East dome, and the 14” Celestron in the West Dome.

Earlier in the day, I had bought some hand-warmers at Academy. These are neat – just take the little cloth packet, rub and squeeze it a few times, and it slowly gets warm. Keep the packets in your pocket and stick your hands in there to warm them up. They’ll stay warm for about 5 or 6 hours – marvelous things.

I showed the moon and Mars to quite a few people over the next couple of hours. I always enjoy seeing the reaction of people, particularly if they haven’t looked through a telescope often. “Wow!” and “Oh, that’s so cool!” and “Look at all those craters!” I had a filter on the eyepiece to cut the glare, but even so the moon was very bright – you could see the light from the eyepiece falling on their eyes. I wish I had a dollar for everyone who asked me, “Hey, where’s the flag?”

Dew became a problem, but Dennis (one of the other volunteers – great guy) had a little hair dryer, and after I plugged it in and directed the warm air at the corrector plate, it cleared it right off.

I had a green laser pointer with me to point out various things. Kids love that, seeing that narrow green beam touching the sky. More than one wanted to try it out – I let them press the button while I held the laser, since I didn’t want them to inadvertently dazzle someone.

Later on, I used the computer keypad to go to M42, the Orion Nebula. The nearly full moon pretty much washed out the detail, but you could still see the wispy outline of that stellar nursery, and the Trapezium, the four stars at the heart of the nebula, were very sharp – textbook points of light.

A couple of times during the evening, one of the “floaters” (volunteers who circulate around where needed) came over so I had opportunities to go downstairs and use the restroom and get some hot cider and eat a hasty sandwich.

About 10:15, the regular viewing session came to end. I disassembled the gear, packed it up, carted it down to the Honda, and locked it in. I went inside the office to sign out and shoot the breeze with the other volunteers, and drink some more hot cider. Around 11:15, I said my goodbyes, and headed home. A great night – it’s some work going out there and setting up, but it really is worth it to share the night sky with others and show people something they’ve never seen before.

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