06 March 2011

ASV Messier Night

This weekend we went to the annual Messier Night held by the Astronomical Society of Victoria, at their dark site a bit out of Melbourne. We arrived mid-afternoon; staked out a spot, and set up our enormous (brand new) tent in the camping area. We set up the PST in the observation field; there was another solar scope somewhere else, which I didn't have a look through. We had a number of people come past to have a look, and they were pretty impressed, which was of course gratifying. The sun was looking awesome: one sunspot by itself, and a 'little' clump of solar spots in the other hemisphere. There were some cool prominences going on too, one in particular that was quite feathery. I didn't actually get much of a look, but that's ok. Hopefully the clouds will stay away in Melbourne a bit more, so I can get it out here.

We set up Copernicus and Keppler before having some food; both got some comments from other astronomers out setting up. People were mostly curious about why our lovely 128mm Tak was in the observational field rather than the photographic.

The night itself was well organised. The site is great - a bunkhouse and toilets, and they had a Lions Club out there with food and drinks - and they had a number of people giving short talks about different aspects of astronomy, as well as someone later in the night giving a talk about what was visible. I hadn't expected that there would be so many people for whom this was a completely new experience; the ASV must have advertised the night outside of the Society itself. It was a good idea, I think: I heard someone very excited about being able to borrow one of the ASV's scopes when they got home. As a consequence of this, though, there were a lot of people wanting to have a look through the various telescopes that were set up. Happily, I had no plan for the night other than find Saturn, and use the Argo to go a tour of the Messier objects.

Early on I had a look at the Pleiades - which just never looks good through a scope - and the Hyades, which I like; it forms quite a distinct triangle. I tried to split Procyon on discovering that it was a double (I was trying to figure out the stars on Canis Minor), but the atmosphere was pretty turbulent, and I have no idea what the mags of the stars are. It finally got dark enough that M42 looked awesome, which was of course a delight.

I had a look at a few Messiers - so many of the open clusters are just dull, and I didn't spend much time on them. Saw M78, that lovely little nebula in Orion, with two associated stars. Then Saturn was high enough above the trees to make it worth having a look - at least if it's something new - and I think, over the night, maybe 40 or 50 people had a look at it. There were some people who had never ever looked at a planet through a scope, and they were seriously impressed. It was a lot of fun, actually; I really enjoy helping people appreciate the night sky. Over the rest of the night I also showed some people Omega Centauri and 47Tuc, impressive of course, and then I finished with M42 - of course - and showed a few people that, too, which they all enjoyed.

It didn't get as cold as I had feared, so the freezer suits never made an appearance (happily!). I made it to 1am comfortably, but from there I started to fade, so packed Keppler away and just had a look through Copernicus. Early on I had looked at the Tarantula Nebula through J's new 20mm Nagler, and it looked spectacular; so did 47Tuc, and an amazing planetary nebula with a hole in the middle. Later in the night it was dark enough to see the Horsehead Nebula, and I think this time that I really did see it, which is thrilling. The Flame Nebula was more interesting, though. Also, the Sombrero Galaxy: seriously, seriously cool. The dust lane was clearly visible... it may be one of the most interesting galaxies I've seen, actually. Just before bed we had a look at the Spindle Galaxy - which I didn't look at long enough to see the elongated ends - and the Ghost of Jupiter, which was just mush. Finished on Omega Centuari, which was an adequate substitute for Orion. I guess.

In the tent by around 2am.

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