Phoenix Observing, November 26, 2004

We drove down to Phoenix for the long weekend. I told my sisters I would bring the telescope down the next time we visited, so into the trunk it went. It’s one of those packing items that requires breaking all your other travel needs into smaller packages to fit around it. So you forego the huge suitcase for several smaller ones. Well at least in a Honda Civic trunk anyway. I’m pleased to see that with our kids being 7 and 4 years old, the massive entourage of family-on-the-road, travel packings has really gotten downsized compared to years past. So everything fit.
I was really curious how the observing was going to be down in Phoenix during a full moon. I lived there for 24 years before moving to Flagstaff 10 years ago. Along with the occasional visits, I recalled being able to see Ursa Major, Orion, and Polaris pretty regularly. But never Ursa Minor. I was never well-versed in constellations before this past Summer, so I don’t recall what else was or wasn’t visible. Other than to say I could probably count all the stars in the sky on 3 or 4 hands. (I’d have to borrow some hands. I don’t use my lower limbs when counting.)
So Friday night as I set things up, I glanced around and (aside from the glaring moon) saw Cassiopeia…well, 4 out of 5 stars. The nothernmost star didn’t pop out right away. A little later that night, I finally spotted it naked-eye. But that was a definite indication to me of what I was in for. After getting the rig all bolted and wired together, I set out to find M31. It couldn’t be that hard, even under this sky. But myeah, it was hard. I realized all too soon how easy I have it in Flagstaff, even in my front yard, under the glare of the cement factory. I can almost always spot the galaxy naked-eye, and barrel-sight right to it.
After trying again and again to skip over to it from a couple pointer stars in Andromeda, I started to get flustered, because one of my sisters, my brothers-in-law, and his sister, were filtering out the back door with the “Oh my gosh!”es and “Jeeeez, what sort of missiles can you shoot with that thing!” I couldn’t let the shock-n-awe wave die down while I puttered and sighed over M31. So I slewed over to the moon and full-viewed it with the 25 mm eyepiece. The reaction they had was awesome. The kids trotted out, a couple at a time and smiles were definitely worth it.
When everyone is chatting and commiserating, it’s hard for me to keep my senses, so I didn’t take the time to scan the limb of the moon for any good relief (which I realized later had a couple of beautifully huge craters in profile). Instead I put a 240X zoom on Tycho, and let everyone have a look at that. It really isn’t very hot at that magnification when the moon is full–at least in my opinion. Contrast was really subtle at high magnification. But everyone still enjoyed the view. The younger kids had a lot of trouble centering their eyes on the teeny exit pupil for that view.
Everyone went back inside for a while. After an hour or two, my other sister and her boyfriend showed up. Assuming Saturn would be up, we went back out, and sure enough, there it was hovering just over some tree tops. Not the best position, but how could I resist while everyone was standing there? After lining everything up, I centered a 240X magnification on it and set it loose on the group. My brother-in-law, Donnie, was beside himself checking it out. I think at one point he said, “I’ve been waiting my whole life to see that!” There’s hardly any better reward for dragging a scope 150 miles down the mountain than to hear something like that. Everybody else enjoyed it much better than I had hoped too. That sight is such an immediate home-run hit. I wish I could have saved it for last.
Seeing was a little wiggly that close to the horizon, but not terrible. The bright inner and dark outer ring were evident, as well as a darkish cloud band. But no Cassini division at that point. Titan was an easy sight, and 2 or 3 dimmer specks that might have been other moons, or background stars–not sure which.
Four out of five kids got to see it, but Harrison couldn’t line his eye up on it. I’m going to have to spend some time with him this winter. I felt bad that he couldn’t see what the other kids were talking about.
So after everybody had a chance to see it, I started pointing out some of the constellations I could make out–Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Andromeda, Orion. And you know what made the next big splash right? No, not the Orion Nebula. It was the green laser pointer. Both of my sisters’ significant others were about to lose their collective minds over it. I stressed, as strongly as I could, that it would put your eye out, so watch where you point that thing. And never have I seen such a cool light show put on by way of palm tree fronds, and bermuda grass tips. Nobody got hurt, thank goodness. Although I think the cat may have had a couple close calls. “It will make the cat blind too, Matt, just so you know…ehh Matt! Dear god man! Stop!”
I layed the scope onto M42 next, but it didn’t readily show its form outside the trapezium region. The Ultrablock filter didn’t seem to help much under those conditions. The reaction was pretty much, “yeah, I can see that…but Saturn is still way cooler.” Heh.
After everybody went back in, I decided to get serious and find at least M31, if not something else. Obviously, blown out skies require a little more planning. So instead of shooting from the hip for the easy ones, I took some time on the star atlas to figure out how many degrees I needed to slew from a reference star using a 1.4 degree field of view. And that did the trick. M31 finally slid into view, along with M32. They were much more subdued, but the cores still shone through the haze. I’d be hard pressed to resolve dust lanes in the midst of those sort of LP conditions. To anyone who has never viewed M42 or M31 outside of the city, be sure you spend a good long time with them the next chance you get to observe from a moderately dark spot. Please.
With a little degree-by-degree FOV hopping, I was able to land on M15 too. I didn’t resolve any stars, but it did show up as a nice round fuzz. I’ll admit I didn’t spend a great deal of time trying to pick it apart, but spending too much time outside by yourself when everybody else is inside having a good time feels a little creepy.
We ended up leaving around 1:30 in the morning, and before packing everything up, I took a last look at Saturn, the moon, and M42. They were nice and high in the sky, and the Cassini division popped up very clearly. What a difference 50 degrees makes. Seeing was better than what I’ve dealt with in Flagstaff for a while. Good old smogville. While zooming around the moon, I took a stop at Alphonsus Crater to see what a week’s worth of sunrise had done for its volcanic cones, and sure enough, 3 dark spots came into view. They were incredibly obvious, although any hint of the crater wall itself was a real strain to detect in the perpendicular glare. My last stop was M42, which had resolved itself dramatically. At 120X, the nebulosity showed much more detail outside the area of the trapezium, while the inner sanctum was showing off some very distinct mottling. I thought about zoning in for a lucky peek at the E and F stars, but decided I’d better get the family back to the hotel for some shuteye.
That was definitely an eye-opening experience. I really respect the challenges the urban astronomers have to deal with, and the spirit they have to keep getting out there and observing the cool stuff.