Montebello Friday Night

by Jeff Kirk

Montebello on Friday night, August 8, 2003 was pretty crowded. I don't know exactly how many people were there, but there must've been at least ten scopes set up. I was excited to try my new iSight web camera adapter, but it seemed as if it was going to become rather dewy, so I decided to just look at the sights with my Meade LX90 8" SCT.

My first observation of the evening occurred before sunset. Michael Schwartzman (I hope that's how he spells it) had set up his lovely Takahashi 85mm refractor (I think that's what it was, anyway) with a Coronado solar filter set. I begged a glimpse of the day star, and was rewarded with a beautiful view of the ruby orb through his Tele Vue bino viewers and 17mm Takahashi eyepieces. (Again, I **think** that's what they were. They were certainly excellent, whatever they were.)

It was my first direct view of the sun through one of these filters, although of course I've seen the ads in S&T and Astronomy magazines. The photos don't do the actual images justice. I must say, if you haven't had the chance to observe through a hydrogen-alpha filter, you must track down someone who has one and make them let you look. The Sun is astounding.

To think that the solar prominences erupting from the distinctly granular "surface" arc tens of thousands of miles above the curve of the star, and the ribbons of plasma that swarm around the sunspots are carrying enough energy to burn the Earth to a cinder in a microsecond... to see the actual physical processes at work in the Sun is a majestic and awesome experience. Thank you, Michael. Now of course I lust after a Coronado hydrogen-alpha scope of my own, and will be unable to slake that lust for months or years to come. They're not, uh, inexpensive. Oh well... I'll just add that to the list of goodies I want to acquire. For now I'll make do with the Baader film filter on my SCT.

My buddy Max Pruden joined me just before sunset, and we finished setting my my scopes. Max was using my Orion Short Tube 80 refractor, which I usually piggyback on my LX90, on a video camera tripod. I recently purchased a new accessory tray for my tripod from ScopeTronix, and it was immediately apparent that it was a hugely useful purchase. I strongly recommend that anyone with a Meade LX-model telescope get one. It reduced the number of times I had to go back to the folding table for eyepieces to zero. Very convenient, and very sturdily built (basically it's just a machined plate of aluminum 1/4" thick).

In spite of the Great Obliterator, I was able to get reasonably sharp views of the Ring Nebula and the Dumbbell Nebula. I suppose as a newbie amateur astronomer, I will spend a lot of time revisiting these favorites of the summer sky. It helps that both were pretty close to zenith when I started observing, and they are both spectacular in the 2" as well as the 1.25" eyepieces. I have a 2" O-III filter from Lumicon which I bought for astrophotography with the f/6.5 focal reducer, and I was able to use it to good effect on both of these nebulas. Several people came by to comment on the clarity and brightness of the image, which of course had me preening. I owe most of the clarity to Bob's Knobs, the collimation thumbscrews I painstakingly affixed to the secondary mirror and worked with for hours the other night, trying to make that out-of-focus star absolutely as circular as I could. Seemed to work pretty well!

I also visited Albireo, of course, and was once again pleased at the contrast between these two beauties. I didn't bother splitting the Double Double, because I was already reasonably sure the seeing was only so-so (visible twinkle in Arcturus and Altair), and because I was going to spend the rest of the evening gazing at Mars and the Moon. Max was having some luck with the ST80, which is really a very nice little scope. The tripod I brought for him to use, unfortunately, was not up to it. I should put that one back in the closet and get a nice tilt-pan head for the heavier tripod base I bought for my 20x80 Orion Megaview binos. The Moon was spectacular through the ST80, and the atmosphere was becoming pretty stable.

I put the 2" diagonal on my LX90 and peered at the moon with the 40mm Optiluxe, with moon filter attached. Holy cow! Max said the lunar light on my face from the 50mm spotting scope on the LX90 made me look like the Terminator. And of course, I was looking at a terminator, though of a different sort. The light was unbelievable. Even with the moon filter, I was completely dazzled. I put the 7mm Nagler into the 1.25" adapter and was rewarded with a surreal experience. It was almost as if I were in low orbit of the Moon, peering down from a spaceship, instead of nearly a quarter million miles away. None of my lesser eyepieces provide even remotely similar fields of view, clarity, or sharpness. And the magnification! With the 7mm eyepiece, the magnification is 286x. When I put the 2.5x PowerMate into the eyepiece stack, I was experiencing an unholy 714x magnification. Much of the detail in such a view is illusory, I know, since the atmosphere limits useful magnification to around 300 or 400x, but it still looked great. I was able to clearly make out tiny streaks of ejecta from craters that none of my other eyepieces could even visualize. I now have Nagler Fever.

Eventually I tore my now dark-unadapted eyes away from the Moon and settled down for some serious Mars-watching. (It took me a while to be able to see much of anything. When I finally tore my gaze away from the 7mm Nagler, it was as if someone had stuck a black contact lens on my right eye.)

The fellow who set up his Orion refractor next to my car, Frank, was impressed at the image in the ST80, as was I. Even though there was no discernable detail when we looked through the scope, just after Mars-rise, the disc was easily detectable, and the color was a beautiful ruddy orange. I went back and forth between the Moon and Mars with the LX90 for the rest of the evening. I was able to make out much more detail in Mars this time, owing, no doubt, to the recently collimated optics and the new eyepiece. I could see a narrow V-shaped swash of darkness above the polar ice, which was noticeably smaller this time than it was two weeks ago.

Astounding. It truly is an amazing experience to look at another planet with the aid of a telescope. It's completely unlike looking at a static picture in a magazine or on the Web. While the detail in a published photo or heavily doctored webcam image may be impressive, there is nothing so astonishing as pointing the scope at a particular region of the sky, centering the eyepiece on a shimmering circle of light, and realizing that I am actually looking at the real thing.

That's Mars over there, climbing slowly up the moon-gleaming bowl of sky. That orange-red dot is another world, about half the size of the Earth. It's getting closer, don't you know, closer every day, and in two and a half weeks it will be as close as it has been in tens of thousands of years. It'll be bigger, too, and with any luck the heat of the sun will not have boiled away those glorious ice caps or stirred up a globe-spanning cloud of dust. With luck, we'll be able to haul out the scopes once again, set them up on the dusty hilltop overlooking the Bay, and whistle in amazement as the tiny world arcs into the heavens in rust-colored glory. That's Mars! It's a cold dustbowl now, but in centuries to come, who knows? Men and women will live there someday. The rust may fade away and be replaced by a glittering cerulean, and our descendants may peer up at the Blue Planet looking for reflections of the Sun in oceans of cometary water.

That's Mars! And the best it has to offer is yet to come.

Eventually the long work day caught up with me, and I put my scope to rest. I pried Max loose from the political discussion going unheeded behind me and we packed up the rest of my gear. I kept stealing glances at the Red Planet, wondering if I should just put the scope back on its mount and stay, but I was too tired.

Moon or no moon, with Mars in the sky growing ever larger, it was a wonderful night.