Mars Opposition and Southern Skies in Bolivia 2003 Aug

by Bob Jardine

Observing Report, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, 2003 Aug 24 through 29

LocationSouth 16 deg, 12’, 54”, West 68 deg, 40’ 59”; elev. 12,300 feet
EquipmentTeleVue NP101, Gibralter Mount, Canon 15X50 IS binoculars, Celestron 8X40 binoculars; sometimes TeleVue BinoVue.
EPsTV 32mm Plossl, 19mm Panoptic, 9mm Nagler (T6), 12.5, 7.5, 5mm Takahashi LEs, TV 2.5x & 5X Powermates. Orion #21 and #25 filters. Plus, occasional use of the "house" 22-inch Starmaster.


Mars, of course. The seeing was never really awesome, as I had hoped; the combination of 12,000+ feet altitude, the dry climate, and the fact that Mars would be nearly exactly overhead when it culminated led to high expectations. However, the best the seeing got was good, with occasional moments of very good; never excellent and never even very good for more than seconds at a time. I attribute this to unstable weather most of the week.

Still, I got some very good views of Mars through the NP101. I never got great views through the 22” Starmaster; maybe it wasn’t well collimated; also the image was always too bright. The best views I got were through the NP101 with 5mm LE and 2.5X powermate (for 270X) with both an Orange and Red filter in place to dim it down and bring out some contrast.

M83 in NP101. This thing was fabulous. And it wasn’t even well placed -- already setting in the West by dark. But in the 4” refractor, I saw as much detail in the spiral arms as I do in a good 10” scope on M51 from a pretty good dark site in Northern California! Just awesome! I can see why this is called the Southern Pinwheel.

Centaurus A -- easy to spot in binocs -- a large oval shape; dark lane visible in NP101; in 22” Starmaster, just huge and amazing; lots of detail.

M7, NGC 6231 (False Comet), and NGC 2362 (Tau CMa Cluster) in BinoVue and Binocs -- all of these are life changing; best views ever; M7 and 6231 are big and bright nekked eye, both directly overhead. False Comet really looks like a comet. Both are simply dazzling in the scope with BinoVue. The only thing I've ever seen that rivals these is the Double Cluster on a dark night with the same 'scope. 2362, one of my favorite clusters up North, was just stunning when up a little higher; but it never got overhead (wrong time of year), so maybe it gets even better. This one is small, and not nekked eye, at least to me, but what a beauty!

Albert’s glob (NGC 6723) and other globs: M55, NGC 6397, 6752; all big and beautiful; all rivaling M13 from up North. Not to mention 47 Tucana, my favorite glob of all; prettier (though not as big or bright) as Omega Cen.

NGCs 253, 288, 55, and 300. All easily visible in binoculars, nearly directly overhead. All of these are so low at home as to be relatively difficult or easy but poor excuses for showpiece objects. When overhead, all really are showpieces.

The center of our galaxy directly overhead. Wow. When you see the whole thing, you can really start to get a sense for ... a galaxy!

My plan was to spend a couple of hours each night on Mars, waiting for it to get well up into good position. Most of the rest of the time I planned to spend working my way through the AL’s Southern Skies Binocular Club list. I figured that this would be a good list for my 4” travel scope as well as for binoculars. This turned out to be a pretty good list of objects. I observed over half of them. Finally, I also wanted to observe a few of my favorite things that are low in the South from home, particularly M22 and the bottom of Scorpius. And M83, which I had read was spectacular, but it never seemed so to me -- turns out that it is spectacular.

I did a limiting mag check on two occasions, both times using area 29 in Hydrus. But this area was not near the zenith, so I think the counts weren’t terribly representative; one night I had 9 solid (5.7) and 10-12 occasionally (6.4-6.5); the other night I got 10 solid and 12-13 occasionally. I’m typically 0.1 to 0.2 worse than most observers, and up to 0.5 worse than the keenest-eyed observers that I normally associate with; so I’d guess the LM could be called easily somewhere between 6.6 and 7.0. It didn’t seem darker than, say, Shingletown or Mt. Lassen. This was not the darkest location in Bolivia, I'm sure; but it sure was convenient (see my trip report, filed separately).

List of objects observed:

I’ll be glad to send anyone my descriptions of any of the objects I observed, if you want it, but I won’t file the complete OR unless asked.

If you get a chance to go South, do it. To put it simply: they really do have more than their fair share of the good stuff down there. I can't wait to go back...