Log, Feb 8, 2002

40 people. Doug and Les agreed to arrive very early in hopes of getting the system up and running while the Comet Ikeya-Zhang was above the horizon. The night promised to have excellent viewing. While it was still twilight, the Milky Way, M42, M45 and a raft of 2nd and 3rd magnitude stars were clear to the horizon. The air was extremely steady and for a while we thought that the Clear Sky Clock's prediction of fine cloudless skies would be born out. However, between 8:30 and 11:30 we were hindered greatly by episodic cloud layers. The clouds were always thin but no less of an obstruction.

Initially, luck was with us and everything was operational by 5:45 PM. Even the balky PC which has been hanging up on references to the 3.5 floppy worked well by inserting a blank formatted floppy disk. We easily located the comet about 16' ESE of the star HD1654. By this time a number of people had arrived including one new astronomer [Steve] with a nice 8" GOTO Celestron.

Mars was surprisingly good. In fact it was clear at a small 5.2" than it was last year when it was much larger but dusky. We could see the polar cap and a small amount of dark "maria" in the northern hemisphere. Jupiter and Saturn were outstanding. They were exceedingly clear and steady. We could see five moons circling Saturn and all the Galilean moons except Europa which was on the far side of Jupiter presented distinct disks and traces of color.

M42 was its usual incredible sight with the Trapezium and other newly minted stars presenting brilliant pinpricks of light against a dark contrasting background. We were able to split zeta Orionis and 32 Orionis crisply and clearly in spite of a minuscule separation of 1.1" for 32 Orionis. We displayed M41, M37 and M1 [the Crab Nebula SN1054].

Clouds gathered and the crowds diminished to a few folks. Old standby like Ernie Evans gave up in disgust. Josh and Art Guarino headed home. Dave Etris bowed out earlier than usual because of a long workday today, leaving only Doug and Les to close up shop. We stayed for a few minutes to make a try for the elusive fifth and sixth moons of Jupiter. We felt it was unlikely but the telescope didn't have to move much so we gave it a try.

Our first attempt was to try for Amalthea. Amalthea is bright enough to be seen against a dark sky, but it orbits very close to the tops of mighty Jupiter's atmosphere. Even though we moved Jupiter's image just a whisker off the edge of the eyepiece view, glare made Amalthea invisible. Oh well.

With nothing better to do we moved to Himalia. Unlike Amalthea, Himalia rides a huge angular distance from Jupiter at a steeply inclined angle. You could tuck the entire Moon and half of the Sun's diameter between Jupiter and its dim distant moon. And yet SUCCESS!! Not only were we able to find the dim 14th magnitude dot against a jumbled background loaded with Milky Way stars we were able to actually perceive it move a small distance past a background star over a period of an hour or so.

We hardly noticed in our detailed search but the clouds were evaporating. They didn't blow away, they simply disappeared in place. Doug and Les decided to hone their seeing skills. This is something that every observer should do from time to time. If you have never done it, you won't believe how much it can improve your skills. Both Doug and I credit it with almost a full magnitude improvement in our own skills. We chose an open cluster NGC2420 as our first practice area. It has about 100 stars of magnitude 16 or less. Les bored Doug by counting and counting and counting. His count came to 71 stars probably limited to about magnitude 15 or more.

Once started, we went over to Clown Nebula and almost neglected the Clown in favor of spotting field stars with magnitude between 14 and 15. We now were getting maniacal about stray light and began to put cover over every stray piece of light. Even indicator LED lamps were taped over. We then tried for a cluster of galaxies in Hydra near the foot of Leo. This cluster is too large to fit into a single eyepiece at a time but we only needed to move the eyepiece a small way to see outliers. We initially bagged NGC2696, NGC2697, NGC2698, NGC2699, NGC2702 (very dim), and after moving the eyepiece a few arcminutes we added NGC2708 and NGC2809.

We looked at NGC2903 which is a large relatively bright spiral galaxy. We could make out details of the arms. Les got all excited about a 14th magnitude star in the rim of one of the arms. Notions of SN2002/FDO whirled in Les' fevered brain. A careful check found [ALAS, ALACK] that this sensational find was merely a Milky Way foreground star suitably aligned. What was amazing was that by now our eyes were so well dark adapted that a magnitude 6.9 star well off the eyepiece view was annoyingly bright. Images were very steady in spite of moments when moisture condensed a few thousand feet above our heads for a few minutes at a time.

Doug wanted to look at a barred spiral NGC2918. We both could see the central bar which was definitely rectangular in outline. The rest of the galaxy was much more diffuse. Clouds were beginning to gather again and it was after 1:15 AM so Les and Doug made a try for one of the new targets on the FDO candidate list - Copeland's Septet. This group of seven galaxies in Leo form a very dense group easily seen in a small area of the eyepiece at 19mm. Doug and Les easily saw the five brightest galaxies. They would have been a Smudge of the Week seen separately, but as a cluster they were fine. We logged NGC3746, NGC3748, NGC3751, NGC3753 and NGC3754. Two of the galaxies were invisible. NGC3745 has a total magnitude 16.1 with a dimmer surface brightness. It was simply too dim. NGC3750 is magnitude 15.4, but it overlaps a brighter magnitude 14.3 galaxy making it difficult or impossible to spot.

Doug and Les wrapped up at 1:45 AM with clouds again settling in. Perhaps if we had waited until 3 or 4 we would have had a chance at something else (one of the 8 quasars bright enough for us to see perhaps) but we had had a good night and we didn't want to take another long siege.

Doug sends along this Addendum:

As noted by above, this Friday night started out with great promise from the weather forecasters. Everyone was calling for clear skies start to finish; so with no Moon to interfere we were anticipating a standout night. But although most of southern New England did remain clear all night long, thin cloudiness developed unexpectedly and plagued the viewing over FDO for most of the mid to late evening. We didn't realize it at the time, but the clouds were only a local phenomenon - caused by cooling air flowing from the inland regions colliding with and lifting milder moist air along the coastline. As the night progressed and the atmosphere stabilized this effect lessened, allowing us to enjoy some very steady viewing through what were still somewhat hazy skies.

These local climate oddities make weather forecasting for FDO very difficult.. But it's not all bad news - there are just as many nights where the atmosphere is turbulent and cloudy inland but we are saved by a mass of stable maritime air that keeps the skies clear and remarkably still. On other nights the winds are brisk and steady enough in one direction that virtually everyone experiences the same sky conditions. Another plus for FDO is the moderating effect that the ocean has on air temperatures. We are virtually always milder on winter nights and cooler on summer nights than locations just a mile or two inland. The lesson is: be patient! This IS New England, after all, and to quote Mark Twain:

"I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather. I don't know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the weather-clerks factory who experiment and learn how.... In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four-and-twenty hours."

During the clouded-out stretch last night a group of ten or so convened in the Nature Center for some astro chat. Les set up his very fine laptop and demonstrated its many capabilities. Ernie Evans was kind enough to bring along a 1960s reprint of the original Dreyer NGC catalog of 1860 for us to look over. All agreed how amazing it was what the early observers like the Herschels were able to see with what would today be considered second rate telescopes. Even the great speculum metal 72" scope of Lord Rosse was only a bit more powerful than FDO's 16" SCT. The biggest difference in those days was the total lack of light pollution. In fact, Charles Messier and others did most of their observing from within the city limits of Paris. Imagine what little can be seen from there today!

Some comments on our two target moons of Jupiter: Amalthea was the last moon in the solar system discovered by direct visual observation. Credit goes to E.E. Barnard, in 1892, using the 36" refractor at Lick Observatory (the second largest ever built). This scope has five times the light gathering ability of the 16" at FDO, almost a two magnitude gain. So it is not surprising that without some form of occulting device we have little hope of ever seeing this moon which, last night, was never farther than 31 arc seconds from the disk of Jupiter (barely over 2/3 the planet's diameter)!

Himalia is another case altogether. Its actual magnitude last night was a very dim 14.9. This is well within the reach of the 16", as we have seen to fainter than magnitude 16 on some occasions. So seeing Himalia, though just 120 miles wide and 412 million miles away, was a reasonable quest. Identifying it positively among the rich Milky Way background was the challenge. Armed with precise coordinates from JPL, and a photo of the area from the Palomar DSS plates, Les and Doug knew just where to look. But even that wasn't enough to positively identify the tiny moon. During moments of clear air both observers saw Himalia with direct vision, and the DSS photo showed no other stars within 20 arc seconds of the spot. But the final proof came as they watched over a period of 30 minutes or so - they could just detect the slight movement of the object - Himalia at last! It must be noted that given the hazy conditions this sighting challenged even the experienced eyes present. Being able to identify dim star fields and asterisms is essential with so faint a target, and this is a learned skill. Having a telescope that can track effortlessly for long stretches of time is also important. And this particular moon is certainly beyond the reach of any scope under 14" - even on the very darkest and most transparent nights. But the thrill is in the hunt, and rarely have we snatched such victories form the jaws of defeat! The galaxy hunting portion of the evening (which earlier had appeared most unlikely) proved once again how important is good dark adaptation and a trained eye. Les and Doug, with nearly a century of astronomy experience between them, have found their viewing skills to be very similar. Younger eyes are almost certainly capable of seeing even more, but there is no substitute for practice. Many readers of Sky & Telescope fondly remember the wonderful monthly column written about deep sky objects by Walter Scott Houston. A seasoned observer, "Scotty" was still making remarkable observations well into his 80s!

At FDO in the coming weeks we hope to hold a session or two designed for improving our individual viewing skills. These will include such things as achieving proper dark adaptation, using star charts and other data resources, how to properly use and operate equipment, and even such things as suitable proper dress and diet There's a rumor floating about that Twinkies improve night vision - and it may just be true! So the next time you're planning a hunt for those faint fuzzies, you may want to visit the local pastry aisle first!

I want to let all of our readers know about a situation which imperils not only the Frosty Drew Observatory, but any type of serious astronomy in southern Rhode Island. The Town of Charlestown has chosen to leave the Chariho school system. This means the town must build a high school. Ninigret Park, in spite of being next to a National Wildlife Preserve, and just about the last bit of coast line from Georgia well into Maine with truly dark southern skies, is being looked at as a place for the high school.

The dim objects that we look at cannot be seen with the interference of the Moon. They are between a million and a half billion times dimmer that our satellite. A school which must be kept lit for safety reasons, as well as parking lots, cars coming and going for school activities and lighting for playing fields is several times brighter than the Moon. Using Frosty Drew as a dark sky Observatory will become impossible.

This is not simple "not in my backyard" mentality. When the Big Apple Circus and the Rhythm and Roots Festivals are in the Park , FDO is limited to the Moon, a few planets and some of the brighter Messier objects. Visiting astronomers avoid FDO during these periods. FDO understands and is sympathetic to these occasional uses of the Park at night with the attendant light pollution. FDO cannot provide services in competition with stray light. Even the two street lights left on for two weeks after Rhythm and Roots closed up shop the last two years has ruined viewing.

Lest we think that a compromise is possible, that we can meet the new school in the Park half way, please understand that half way reduces the pollution from a billion times too bright to a half billion times too bright. The staff, whose sole perk other than fellowship, is a chance to use an excellent telescope in a dark sky area, will disappear. Today a little more than one half of the active staff travel from Connecticut and Massachusetts drawn by the facility and the darkness. Some of our staff no longer view at the sites owned by their previous astronomical group because of the light pollution that surrounds Groton, Providence, Warwick, Boston and Worchester.

Perhaps the dome and the telescope will remain. The Sky Theater might be usable as an imitation planetarium but the plans to connect it to the telescope for live interaction would be scrapped. It does not matter what facilities remain. Once the staff is gone there will be nothing left of the fine public astronomy which has been the hallmark of FDO. I hope, unlike my paraphrase of Marc Anthony, I will never have to say "I come not to praise FDO, but to bury it."

-Les Coleman

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Feb 8, 2002
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Log
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