Dark Sky Observing – NOV 10, 2007

After months without a dark sky visit, I finally made a trip outside city limits Saturday night. I was hoping to take some tracked, long exposure photos of 17P/Holmes as it nears Melotte 20. The experience reminded me how awesome the Milky Way under a true dark sky can be. I’ve recently verified seeing to 6th magnitude with the naked eye from my back yard, so the sky quality at my home is really very good. But removing all the extraneous glare and adding more than a magnitude to naked eye visibility makes the starry sky an indescribable wonder.

I started off by driving to Cinder Hills Overlook at Sunset Crater National Monument. The 25 minute drive from my driveway to the site makes it hard to avoid as my first choice observing spot. The cold gusting winds I met when I opened the car door were another matter. I was not at all in the mood to deal with that, so I drove further down the winding 2-lane road to Wupatki National Monument. If I take Highway 89 to the main Wupatki park entrance, it’s a 45 minute drive from my home to get to the Doney Mountain Picnic area for observing. Wupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments are connected to each other by a 30 mile long Park Service road that connects to Highway 89 at the north and south ends. Since I was already partway down this road at Cinder Hills Overlook, I decided to take it the rest of the way instead of backtracking to the highway.

During daylight, this park road and the scenery around it are breathtakingly beautiful. The area descends from Ponderosa forest and clusters of ruddy, volcanic cinder cones down to lower elevations of grassy bluffs and hills covered with piñon and juniper scrub. Along the way as you descend, you are treated to distant, colorful vistas of the Painted Desert further to the northeast. On a moonless night however, the brilliant, starry sky is the keeper of wonder. I turned my dashboard lights down as low as I could so that there was no glare on the windshield as I swept my way down the curving road. Ahead of me to the east, the Pleiades and Hyades were looming in grand, sparkling splendor over the dark, rolling horizon. At regular intervals, the clean lines of the road arced upward like a launch pad to those brilliant masses of stars. It was perhaps a bit like piloting my way to the heavens as the road swooped and carved its way up, down and around the landscape.

Along the way, the darting road-mice kept me from becoming too entranced. I’m happy to say I avoided all of them! (I had to come to a complete stop for one stubborn little guy.) It took an extra half hour to reach the Doney Mountain picnic area. This large parking lot lies on a little corner of Forest Service land that juts into the National Park boundary. And while overnight parking/camping is not allowed, it does mean that I’m not as liable to make trouble for the Park Service rangers who are keen to protect the Native American artifacts that abound at Wupatki. My discussions with the National Park Service office indicated that as long as I don’t pull an all-nighter, then some late night observing shouldn’t be a problem. It had been going on three years since I had used this particular site, but it is definitely worth the extra driving. As good as Anderson Mesa and Sunset Crater are, the modest Flagstaff light dome is still a mildly distracting entity, and puts a bit of the sky off-limits to deep observing. Wupatki on the other hand is perfectly shielded from Flagstaff. A very subtle bubble of light is still discernible far to the south, but it is definitely not a player in degrading the sky at all. The lower elevation also means warmer temperatures, and best of all, the gusts of wind at Sunset Crater were replaced by light, ignorable breezes. The parking area is also generous in size and offers a sense of some security from whatever critters might be sniffing and lurking in the brush. (I’m still fairly jumpy when it comes to that.)

The sky at the site is a seething mass of stars and the Milky Way gnarled and twisted like the deeply fluted trunk of an ancient tree. Like a kid opening a present, I popped the eyepiece and objective guards off my binoculars and threw the 15 x 70s at Perseus and the comet. The view was a sweet, luscious dessert for the eyes. The round but feathered ball of the comet absolutely fluoresced with cool, light as a huge counterpart to the wide, sparkling fireworks of Melotte 20 right on its doorstep.

I set up my equatorial mount, mounted the camera and zoomed in on the comet and its neighboring stellar group. After fiddling with the focus for probably way too long, I pulled in a few short 60 second exposures, and then went for a 5 minute exposure. After checking the image (and of course killing my dark adaptation the whole time), I figured I could focus it better. I also decided to stop down the aperture a bit more to tighten up the diffraction rays around the brighter stars, and go for three ten-minute exposures for maximum depth. Just then, the equatorial drive controller started flashing the dreaded low-battery warning. At that moment, panic swept over me as I realized I had not brought my backup batteries. I was 45 minutes from home with a dead equatorial drive and there was nothing more I could do.

So, after beating myself up mentally for a few minutes, I decided to make the best of it and see what else this pinnacle of dark sky observing could show me visually. First up was what turned out to be an easy search for the Gegenshein. I never really spend time looking for it, but sure enough it was there, a huge ellipse of slightly degraded sky bracketed by the Hyades and Pleiades. A soft band of zodiacal light extended away from it to the west, while the Milky Way blocked any impression of the other side of that band to the east.

It so happens that I had brought the 8″ Dob along for some visual observing during photo exposures. I sighted in on the Pleiades, and despite the glare of the bright stars in my cheap 32 mm Plössl the Merope reflection nebula was beautifully obvious, swooping away from its host star as a graceful ‘comet’ of misty light. Hints of nebulous beginnings surrounded other stars in the cluster, but I think I really need a better eyepiece to cut down on all the reflected glare. The Merope nebula also turned out to be readily visible through the 15 x 70 binoculars, although it was not even close to as obvious as it was in the telescope.

I moved the telescope to M31 next, and was treated to an easily detected view of both dust bands, and the star cloud NGC 206. I can see these with my 6″ scope from Cinder Hills overlook, but the slight difference in aperture and perhaps sky quality make the process more difficult. I went next to M33 and although it was subtle, I was excited to observe the clumpy, swirling arms of the galaxy begging me to make a detailed sketch. But I was not prepared to hunker down for sketches this evening and will have to put that off for another time. The North America Nebula was stunning through binoculars and just pointed the way to more and more masses of clumped and swirling dark nebulae all over the place.

With time slipping away (merely 11 pm :), and a morning agenda ahead of me, I packed it up, and headed ten miles further down the park road to Highway 89 and on home. I’m not sure how long it will be before I can make another trip out there, but that experience sure whetted my appetite for more.