Crawlin’ out of the icy cold January weather we enjoyed most of the month, February dawned with new hope- of milder temps, some clear skies… and a New Moon weekend first crack out of the box! Shore ’nuff, the New Moon coincided with dry conditions, milder temps, AND clear skies! Normally this time of year is wet enough, and probably cold enough too, that skygazing ventures are limited to scurries out the back door- warmth, shelter, and other amenities being close at hand… and mud & four-wheel-drive all non-issues. But this year my buddies & i decided to try something we’d never before done: head out to our dark-sky site in the hills of southern San Benito County… in February!
Most everyone was unable to ditch their pesky commitments (like jobs) for a Friday night run, so it was agreed to try for a Saturday night into Sunday deal. Since each previous year had begun the astro season with a March trip, and one of the guys had a new (to him) scope he was itchin’ to feed photons, there was quite a bit of anticipation in the air… each of us cautiously eying the forecast as the weekend approached. While scant days earlier the overnight temps were down near freezing, day by day things were getting less severe- and by midweek the forecast (aka “the foreguess”) was calling for beautiful sky conditions, and overnight lows around 40 degrees F… doable for us landlubbers.
Shoulda gone Friday:
Yet it seems there was a bit more than anticipation in the air. Saturday dawned clear, but as we all began our trip to the site, there began spreading from the west a cloudy haze- creeping like a blanket across the sky. By the time the last of us had arrived, and began deploying our gear for the eve’s observing, there were swaths of soup spilled all over the sky- a sense of “what for” began clouding everyone’s mind; it sure seemed like we’d come all the way out there to eat some good food, enjoy some fellowship, and go to sleep early for lack of anything better to do; the sky appeared to be a lost cause. It was early February- what were we thinking?
After wolfing down a robust dinner of fresh-kill burritos, chips, & salsa, everyone tended to their scopes. The darkness continued developing, amidst moderate breezes- but amazingly, chunks of sky remained clear- enough that entire constellations could be seen! Gratefully, Orion was one such constellation, so three telescopes began pointing that general direction, hoping to catch not only the “best” show in town, but about the ONLY show still playing!
My scope’s first slew into Orion’s neighborhood was for syncing my onboard computer-object-locater to the sky, bright & beautiful Rigel being the target. Acquiring the star in the eyepiece, i was pleased by how sharply it focused up, even clearly & sharply revealing its faint stellar companion. “OOooo, nice air” said i. Then, to help better center the star in the view for more accurate syncing, i defocused Rigel into a large, bright disk of light- to better sense its centeredness within the circle of the eyepiece view. It was then i was struck- the disc of defocused starlight, which would normally be boiling, flaring, & undulating due to air turbulence, was instead crisp, calm, & silvery like a fine china dinner plate! Faint concentric rings could be seen across the entire disc like ripples on a pond, subtle but distinct.
I knew what i was seeing, but was entirely unaccustomed to seeing it; the mild evening temps meant the scope & its optics were thermally stable, and the air above was amazingly steady- nearly motionless. Aside from the clouds, and in spite of the ground-level breezes, this could be an atmospherically phenomenal night for observing!
And so it was, for a decent stretch of time. We would hop from one part of the sky where it was clear for observing objects, to another part of the sky when the current patch grew overcast. Each area afforded 20-30 minutes of observing, so was far superior to being stuck with only “sucker-holes” offering quickie glimpses. Having good skycharts, along with a healthy dose of combined experience, made the patch-grazing approach quite fruitful- numerous galaxies, nebulae, & colorful double-stars were able to be sought, found, & enjoyed by all- folks often wandering from one scope to another to enjoy the differing sights offered by each.
However, the decent stretch of time came to an end about 11pm; what had been a variably light breeze all evening, suddenly changed to a hearty gust of wind- announcing its arrival by an unearthly howl coming from the hill behind our observing area. The howl of wind thru brush, grass, & oaks provided just enough warning to grab a hold of whatever wasn’t large & heavy, or nailed down, and steady it for the imminent blast.
My gear was pretty much hunkered down in modestly heavy cases, small eyepiece caps being sequestered well inside foam cut-outs, so none went flying. But my Dobsonian scope, standing a bit over 6-feet when aimed straight up, its strut-poles covered with a fabric shroud for dust+light protection, became a large sail for these gusts, and i would grip a couple of its struts thru the shroud as a gust approached, to make sure the whole rig didn’t go swinging or tipping!
Amazingly, i was able to continue observing in this fashion for the better part of an hour, altho it wasn’t my idea of a restful evening under the stars… it was more a labor of love. So long as a gust wasn’t howling thru camp at the moment, the atmospherics remained quite good for viewing! Yet leaving my scope unattended seemed an obviously bad idea… a sense shared by everyone, as all stuck by their gear to quietly enjoy the night sky.
My companions, on the other hand, were significantly bugged by this development- the one with a new scope was laboring valiantly from within an observing tent, the flaps & walls of which would become downright alarming in the gusts, even threatening to whap into his scope more than once. So he finally decided to pack it all away for the night. His mission had been accomplished: The new scope had been fed a good meal of starlight!
Yet it finally came to pass that about 90 percent of the sky became shrouded from view, so i pivoted the “Dob” down to its lowest profile, locked down each axis, & braced its struts onto my steel-frame observing chair. Taking up residence right beside it in my comfy footrest camp chair, binocs in hand for stargazing, i watched as my buddies each dealt with the worsening conditions. This would include one particularly horrendous gust, maybe 30-35mph, that blew charts & plastic eyepiece caps clean off the observing field & down the hill into tall grass- and even took a folding camp chair with it! All three of us jumped into action, retrieving all we could, one even venturing down the hill to save the chair- rescuing more than one plastic cap on his way back up. Unbelievably, nothing was lost!
After this, the other fellow- having a lonnng refractor on an otherwise hefty mount- decided he was done… these gusts would set the whole thing to wobbling, using the long arm of the scope’s tube as a lever. It just stopped being fun… so he packed it all away, secured all his gear, & crawled into his tent for a good night’s sleep. Not the worst idea, all things considered….
The Weather’d Man:
As many an astrohead will tell you, get involved deeply enough in this pursuit of Astronomy, and you’ll become an avid weather-watcher, as well. Not sure if that works in reverse, but i know of several professional weather guessers who are also amateur astronomers.
My take on things that night, expounded fruitlessly to my fellow skygazers between wind gusts, was that this was the trailing edge of a “system”; storms frequently announce their arrival, and their departure, with steep isobars of atmo pressure- meaning wind for we Earthlings. I left my scope up & functional in the hope that the wind would eventually die down, and that its presence NOW would actually, eventually, clear the sky of overcast.
Well, this specific time i guessed right! Not too long past midnight the sky had cleared to reveal a glorious canopy of stars, and the wind gusts had, slowly but surely, grown less severe & less frequent- finally vanishing entirely. So for the next 90 minutes, my one still-awake friend & i enjoyed tremendous views of several deep-sky objects thru the Dob, the air still being fairly steady & stable. Even Saturn, by now rising higher in the south eastern sky, provided good images of its incredible rings & satellites.
Finally exhausted from the night’s excitement, my companion finally gave it up & headed for his tent, a bit past 2 ayem. His final word for the night was to announce the current temp, as we’d been watching it all night; so much for a predicted ~40 degrees… we never dipped below 50! Not that any would complain…
For the next hour i chased down a number of objects- old favorites, plus some never-seens. As i ran out of steam, the wind began to, again, pick up its steam… and the sky began glazing over. At about 3 ayem i began taking the scope apart, to stow the more sensitive aspects (ie. optics) where they’d be safe from any subsequent surprises. The weather’ll do that, yaknow!
So ended a rather amazing observing session- one conducted in the face of elements we’d not experienced at this location before, nor enjoyed so early in the season. Thinking about it, we’re truly fortunate nothing was damaged or lost… and all things considered, we really made out like bandits!
Under the Weather:
That was three weeks ago, and this February’s weather has nearly stifled any further ventures into the stars. Even last night my Dob was assembled in the backyard under beautifully clear, blue late afternoon skies; by the time i’d finished dinner, the sky was 90 percent clouded over. Another storm is headed this way, and this one is promising such cold temps that the weathermen are predicting snow down to the valley floor- possibly even to sea level!
I could wish to enjoy “weather-watching” half as much as i enjoy star-gazing… but it ain’t so!
Rain & clouds- go away…
Mikey & scope wanna play!
Why spill starlight until it clears,
‘Tis so much better bounced off his mirrors!
So bring on spring, show clouds the door-
Bring on Leo, galaxies galore!
Saturn awaits, ringed with glory,
As does the Mazzaroth- to tell His story!