May 16, 2010


Last night I drove out to the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex (SPOC) for the second official star party I've been able to attend this year. The park is home to 3 incredible telescopes that are among the largest in Utah, and as last night was a "private" party for Salt Lake Astronomical Society (SLAS) members and their guests, the ratio of nerds to regular Joes was highly imbalanced.

I should say that I love nerds and have always aspired to be one --though during adolescence I was in denial about this and wished, as most teenage girls do, (unsuccessfully in my case) that I could overcome my nerdiness and be "cool".

This forgivable diversion aside, I've come to love the fact that I seem to belong with people who are insatiably drawn to explore some part of the universe, who obsessively work to develop an obscure skill, or who cannot seem to get their fill of an off-the-beaten-path area of knowledge and often yearn to share their interest (invited or un) with everyone around them. Folks like this are the salt of the Earth. I am thrilled by the passion they exude and can only hope that some of it will continue to rub off on me.

SLAS is full of these wonderful sorts. Our club president Dave Bernson, the walking encyclopedia, can take a green laser and point out and name every constellation, every star in those constellations, tell fascinating stories about how each was named, and rattle off a list of significant astronomical statistics relating to them and other interesting telescopic sights nearby. Newsletter editor Patrick Wiggins, an official NASA Ambassador, is often found in the building housing the beautiful 200mm refractor he assembled charismatically entertaining lined up viewers with odd tidbits about the solar system. And the lawn surrounding the telescope houses is filled with dozens of other club members and their telescopes--all of which come in every shape, size, and political persuasion.

Throughout the night people observe a while and wander a while, everyone taking in far-out vistas in various scopes and comparing notes on how to trick out their gear or how to take the most detailed photo of the Whirlpool Galaxy. For newbies this conglomeration of human and technical oddity can seem intimidating at first, but after viewing Saturn for the first time through someone's enormous Dobsonian, the mood under dark skies is infectious and adults and kids alike are easily caught up in the excitement.

In addition to getting my nerd fix, my purpose last night was to refresh my memory of the night sky and see if I could efficiently operate the C8 telescope I'd been loaned. I've agreed to help out Patrick with 4 monthly star parties at Bryce Canyon and the first one is this coming Thursday! The crowds are great at Bryce and I want to make sure I can hold my own with the scope before heading down. So, after taking in an INCREDIBLE view of Mars with a backdrop of blue sky (I could see the Matian polar cap for the first time!) at the refractor house, I set up my scope, aligned the finder and telrad, and, starting with last night's beautiful crescent moon, set off to see how many beautiful objects I could find.

The picture at the top of this entry is one I took through My C8 by holding up the lens of my camera to the scope's eyepiece. At the mid-upper left of the crescent, you will see the edge of the sea of crisis (one of the lunar maria or seas--actually lava plains) and below that, further to the left in the image, a string of 4 fairly well-defined craters: Langrenus, Vendelinus, Petavius, and Furerius (no, I don't know these by heart...I looked them up in my Atlas).

Even without a scope, the moon was spectacular. The crescent framed a gray disc of Earthshine against a sky that could put Maxfield Parish to shame, and above it and to the South, Venus shone like a beacon--amazingly brilliant in the fading dusk. Magnification adds another dimension to the experience and you can almost imagine what it must have been like for Galileo to have seen, for the first time, that the moon was not a perfect porcelain disc, as the lore of the time claimed, but a far off land with high mountains and vast plains pocked by myriad craters. The view of the moon is best, and much less blinding, when not full and the most captivating texture is more obvious at the terminator--the line between lunar night and day.

As the night continued I focused my scope on Venus, (bright indeed, but not much else to see), Saturn and four of its moons (my previous record for seeing moons with Saturn is only two!), Mars, the beehive star cluster in the constellation Cancer, M13 (the giant globular cluster in Hercules), and the Ring Nebula and the "double double" (an interesting pairing of double stars) in Lyra. Anyone with basic observing experience would recognize that none of these targets is particularly difficult, but as my anticipation of the Bryce excursion continues to mount, it felt good to confirm that I could still identify and focus on interesting sights and operate the telescope without too much trouble.

The one issue I had is what prompted the title of this entry. While trying to refamiliarize myself with the visible constellations, I ran into some difficulty when I saw what my memory told me was the first bit of Scorpius coming up over the horizon in the South. Looking at my maps things didn't seem to be lining up right, but I'd look over and, "No, that really does look like Scorpius": three starts pointing up and to the West and seeming to radiate from a brighter 3rd star in the East, "though that little star couldn't possibly be Antares could it?". I continued to confuse myself until I finally found Patrick and Bruce Grimm and asked them, "So, that's Scorpius, right?". They both busted up and said "What!? Have you been drinking or something? That doesn't look anything like Scorpius!"

Apparently, I'd humiliated myself by mistaking Corvus for Scorpius...Jeeze! Well, I'll admit, it is a fairly big mix up...well, really, I should know better, but as Rob pointed out to me when I called him a bit later, "You are hanging out with some real geeks!"
I felt a little better later when I found Dave and he agreed that indeed, the two groupings of stars resemble each other. Embarassment aside, I was glad to be corrected and finally catch my bearings.

All in all it was a good night. We were treated to flyovers of the International Space Station and later the Space Shuttle, and the skies remained relatively clear with only an occasional interruption by stray bands of cirrus clouds.

After a few hours of viewing I joined a bunch of folks at the local Denny's for "advanced training" (astronerd humor), and then went back to SPOC for some deep sky viewing on the Grimm scope (a 32 inch reflector good at zooming in on the "faint fuzzies"), and some further aid with my constellations. Dave and another club member pointed out the "toes of the dragon": two stars that give a little foot to Draco, and "the three leaps of a gazelle": similar "two toed" pairings of stars that could be either the toes of the Big Bear (Ursa Major), or an interesting asterism all on their a little antelope had in fact bounded across the sky leaving its dainty prints among the stars.

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