Great Observing Weekend!

Well, we had a great time at the observatory this weekend. As usual I struggled with deciding to go to bed early, or bucking up and going out to the observatory. We arrived on Friday night around 8:30, a little after dark. Heading off the road and up through the rows of tall corn, we wonder who may be joining us for the night.  Always aware of the fact that we tend to leave early (and ruin people’s night vision with our headlights) we pick a space near the exit path in order to make a clean getaway later in the evening.

It’s already dark so the other arrivals have already started their observing session. The silhouettes identified only by the sound of their voices.  Some are simply looking through their telescopes and some are doing some astrophotography.  We give everyone a quick warning that our lights are about to come on, then we start unloading. Even though we tend to travel light, we still have quite a bit to unpack. I spread out the blanket like we’re about to have a picnic then spread out the evening fare.

I use one of those old tri-fold lawn chairs, the kind that unless you’re careful you’ll get swallowed up into. I’ve seen more than one person get folded up into one of these, a fate I’ve been lucky to have been spared.  Next to the chair sits my duffel bag, holding everything I need for the evening. My star charts are too big for the bag, so the book goes on the hood of Lynn’s car. A quick test of the red flashlight and we’re ready to go!

I looked around at the constellations that were up. At the zenith we had Cygnus and Lyra, Sagittarius, the big teapot, was in the southern sky, heading towards the horizon. Facing west we had Ophiuchus and Hercules and the top of Bootes.  In the north, the Big Dipper sat just above the horizon, laying like a ladle had been set on the counter. The lovely Cassiopeia was sitting in the northwest, with Andromeda nearby.

So many possibilities! I decided to concentrate on Hercules, but where to start? Hmm, M13 and M90, both of which are on the ‘easy’ messier binocular list, sounds like a good place to start.  M13 is a pretty easy find, using the bright stars of Hercules as guide stars. It was a pretty little fuzz ball, darker in the middle, and slightly diffuse on the edges.  Nice! Next – M90. This one is a little harder to find, there isn’t much with it in the field of view. It too is a small fuzz ball, a little smaller than M13, but still a pretty find.

I decide to venture down to the observatory to see what the big scope has to share. The operator had found a beautiful nebula – M17 the swan! It was breathtaking!

On my way back to our little observing site, I stopped to take a look at Neptune through a 14 inch dobsonian. The blue disc was a rare and beautiful sight.

The rest of the evening I played with the star atlas software on my Kindle. I was having a bit of trouble with it, getting objects to center being able to zoom in to the same field of view as my binoculars. Maybe some advanced preparation would have been a good idea!

All in all, it was a good observing session, and I’m very glad that instead of snuggling under my blanket at home, I decided to hang out at the observatory under a blanket of stars!



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The Pursuit of Happiness

There are all manner of things that herald the onset of Autumn in Wisconsin: Orion poking his shoulders over the horizon on late night observing sessions, the absence of Robins, the Autumnal Equinox, and the sound of hazelnuts crunching under my tires as I pull out of my driveway.

This is also the time of year when I go outside and do not see the zodiacal light. That’s right, I really meant to say that I do NOT see the zodiacal light. That false dawn continues to elude both Amy and I, although in reality, we’ve probably seen it without realizing what it was. But to have actually gazed towards the horizon and thought, “Hey look, it’s the zodiacal light”?  No, that hasn’t happened yet.

Scientists believe the zodiacal light is sunlight reflecting off the dust grains that were left over after the planets were formed in our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. It’s a really a cool phenomena if you think about it. To this day, this interplanetary dust follows the ecliptic in the narrow plane of space that is inhabited by Mercury, Venus, Earth, and beyond Mars, becoming more dense as you move closer to the sun.

In my part of the world, the zodiacal light is supposed to be most visible near the Autumnal Equinox about an hour before dawn in the eastern sky. In early spring, I get to try again to the west about an hour after sunset, but then I’m dealing with cold, damp temperatures and slippery roads, and the pursuit is even less pleasant.

I’ve read that I’m probably too far north here in Wisconsin to see the zodiacal light, although it is extremely bright and easy to see in latitudes in the southern U.S. But I’ve also heard from several of our astronomy club members that they have seen it here when conditions were right.

Now that the Autumnal Equinox is almost upon us, and the moon is rising early in the day and setting in the evening, I’m once again feeling the zodiacal light itch. And I know that if I hear that it’s going to be clear and the dew point is going to be very low overnight, I’m going to wrestle myself out of bed and try again.

Because I live in a populated area, and the zodiacal light is pretty faint this far north when it makes its appearance, I need to drive until the sky is dark enough that I can see the Milky Way. And since I need to be facing east at least an hour before the true predawn twilight (which is around 4:55 a.m.), I’ll need some serious determination to do it. But it would be worth it to catch a glimpse of the dust that’s left over from the creation of our solar system.

So any early morning now, I could find myself parked on the side of some country road facing east, groggily looking for a hazy pyramid of light extending up from the horizon. I’m predicting that, once again, I won’t see it. But if I ever do, you will be the first to know!

How about you? Have you seen the zodiacal light?


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Persieds – Day Two

After our Friday night viewing session at the observatory, I was very excited to go back out there and watch for meteors again! Lynn successfully shamed me into trying the meteor observing program from the Astronomical League. She made sure I brought paper, pencil and a watch. So – once again we loaded up the car with blankets, chairs, jackets, gloves and yes – hand warmers. This time my youngest decided to tag along with us. Before we left I made sure she knew the rules – no complaining about being cold, tired or bored!

As soon as we got out of the car I knew it was going to be a good night. Before we even closed our car doors a bright meteor streaked above us! Everyone ooooooed in unison and we hurried to set up our chairs for the night. The sky was once again clear, and the Milky Way was visible.  Facing east, looking towards Cassiopeia, we lined up our chairs and settled in. I no sooner had my paper and pencil ready when the show began!

I started recording my observations at 10:30, and by 11:30 I had recorded 20 meteors! Those were just the ones that I saw! It seemed for awhile that I was always looking in the wrong direction! One would go through the big dipper, then another near the horizon in the south east. “Mom – did you see that one?”, “no”. That was an exchange we had way too many times! Things started picking up and I started sweeping the sky rather than looking steady at one area. That seemed to work better. By 12:30 I had 55 total sightings, including the most exciting meteor I had ever seen – a Bolide! It seemed to go straight down from Cassiopeia and go for about 30 degrees. Then it seemed to explode in a flash of light! “What the heck was that?” I gasped. “That was a Bolide!” I was almost too excited to write it down! I wanted the image to be permanently fixed in my brain. “Did you see that?” I asked my daughter. I could tell even before she answered that she had! She was grinning from ear to ear! It was a great moment for me as a mom sharing something with her daughter, and as an Astro Babe experiencing another spectacular astronomical event. This one was for the books, that’s for sure!

By 1:30 am I had recorded around 80 Perseid’s! By then the crescent moon was rising, with Jupiter and Venus at its side. Very beautiful, but even the cresent moon was enough to wash out the Milky Way. As if on cue, we all started packing up our things and loading up the cars. My daughter was a trooper! She followed the rules, even though she had started to get uncomfortable and tired.

All the way home I kept thinking of all the meteors we were missing! Part of me wanted to pull over and watch for another hour or so, but the thought of my warm bed and soft pillow kept me driving.


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A Night With the Perseids

Last night was another opportunity to go out to Parmentier’s Observatory in Luxemburg, WI., which is operated by our astronomy club. And although it was the night before the peak of the Perseids meteor shower, Amy and I went out to see the show. Tomorrow may be the peak, but in Wisconsin, you go when it’s clear because you never know what the weather may bring tomorrow.

The club hosts Parmentier’s Observing Weekends (POW’s) once a month for most of the year (usually around the time the moon is a crescent, or will be rising when it won’t interfere with our observing).  Amy and I usually drive out before it gets dark so we can socialize and get our gear organized, but last night we didn’t arrive until well after dark at around 10:00 p.m.

The first thing we noticed when we stepped out of the car was the Milky Way right overhead – something we never see here in town. We could tell immediately that we’d picked a good night to go. I had been concerned that the ground might be mushy and that it might be humid because we had received over two inches of rain the day before, but sunshine and a windy day had created a beautiful sky with very low humidity.

Fortunately we both thought of bringing warm clothes, and immediately bundled up in our winter coats, hats and gloves despite the fact that it was August 10th. In addition to the 64 degree temperature, we were just a few miles away from Lake Michigan, and the wind was blowing steady from the North at about 12 mph.

We grabbed Amy’s reclining lawn chairs and our backpacks and headed towards the small group that was already nested at the base of the dome. We found Gerry lying on the ground snuggled up on an air mattress, Gary fiddling with his camera equipment waiting to snap a good picture, and Wayne just kicking back and enjoying the sky. Normally, if the weather’s good, there’s a much bigger crowd, but the wind meant the dome wouldn’t be opened and small scopes would be jittery.

We set up our lawn chairs facing Cassiopeia, piled on a few blankets, and settled in. Amy was also just there just to watch, but I took the opportunity to finally get started on the Astronomical League’s Meteor program. Recording meteors was very clumsy at first,  but it didn’t take me long to get the hang of it. I managed to record 20 meteors between 10:45 p.m. and 12:45 a.m. And since everyone would Ooooo and Ahhhh in unison every time one whizzed by, I know I only missed two or three while I was busy recording.

I personally usually find observing very stressful. I know my way around the sky a little, but get lost when I’m trying to find things in an unfamiliar area of the sky while juggling heavy binoculars, sky charts, pencils, red flashlights, watches and clipboards in the dark – all this while battling mosquitoes, ticks, dew and feet that are frozen in the snow. It is not a hobby for the faint of heart.

But last night it was wonderful, just relaxing on a reclining lawn chair and admiring all the stars. The companionship was warm, the jokes were funny, and all the while we listened to 70’s music playing softly on Gerry’s radio, trying to be the first one to guess who the artist was. It turns out that Wayne is quite the 70’s trivia master, and we learned all sorts of little-known facts about Neil Diamond, Elton John and Billie Joel  – I guess there’s more to learn on an astronomy outing than just about the night’s sky.

But by 1:00 a.m. Amy and I were feeling cold and sleepy so we packed up and headed home. And as I fell asleep in my warm, cozy bed,  I thought of all the meteors I would miss as they sparkled across the sky all through the night.


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Diamonds and Moonlight

Sitting at my daughter’s late May season opener, I feel as though I’m in disguise. I may look like just another softball mom, eating sunflower seeds, watching the scoreboard and cheering for my girl as she pops a fly ball into left field.  Of course I’m here for her, but the Astro Babe in me always looks up no matter where I am. I’m watching the game, but I’m fully aware of the moon, hanging above third base.

It’s a beautiful waxing gibbous moon. The sea of tranquility winks at me as the man in the moon peeks around the shadow. I smile. I can almost feel the moonglow on my face. “Good catch!” I yell as my shortstop catches a fly ball and brings me back to the game.

This will be our last summer at the park. It’s her last season. No more concession-stand duty. No more sand in my eyes. No more long weekend tournaments and flip flop tan lines. The softball games may be over, but there’ll always be a moon to smile on me, waxing and waning over and over again. It’s time to dust off my scope!