Saturday, November 9, 2013

2013 Deep South Regional Star Gaze

My wife Cindy and I arrived at the Feliciana Retreat Center around 2:30 pm on Wednesday Oct. 30 for the 2013 edition of the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. This is our sixth star party at this venue so we are  getting the hang of things.  It is a well run event at a great location and the skies are quite dark offering very good viewing.  This time however our stay will be different because we now have a Tracer 2700RES travel trailer. Staying on the observing field will make it easier to pop in for a coffee refill or to warm up a bit without the ¼ mile walk back to the room in the dark. More importantly having a trailer close by the scope will allow Cindy to participate more as the walk from the room to the observing field was difficult for her.  In preparation for having a trailer on the observing field we covered the windows with aluminum foil and I built skylight covers from Styrofoam covered in black cloth.

In the days leading up to the DSRSG I was hopeful for some good observing sessions.  As chronicled herein, my last 3 star parties have hit significant snags, so I felt I was due a good one. Additionally the weather this summer in south-east Louisiana has offered very few decent observing nights, especially Friday or Saturday nights. So as the DSRSG approached I watched the weather with anticipation of a cold front that would come through and clear out the skies. The cold front did finally arrive, but not until Thursday evening. So Wednesday night was near total cloud cover and Thursday afternoon and evening were stormy.  Early Friday morning the clouds cleared out and Friday was a beautiful day for setting up equipment and a few got in some solar viewing.  Friday also saw the arrival of our daughter Heather, her husband Eric, and son Brandon.  Our party was now complete.

Friday evening as dark fell I eagerly waited for the stars to come out.  As those little pinpoints of light came into view across the sky the sound of Dec and RA motors filled the night air.   After carefully polar aligning my mount I aligned on Vega, Kokalb, and Fomalhaut.  I've found that aligning using the Mallincam and a 7" monitor at the mount provides very good results.  I fired up the Miloslick Mallincam Control software, which I bought a few weeks ago after hearing rave reviews from several broadcasters on the Night Skies Network.  I've only used it a couple of times, but I find the interface intuitive and thus far I really like it.  After I work with it more I may publish a review here.

I fired up Sky Charts and connected to the mount. I've used the Meade Autostar program and Stellarium to control my mount, but I've learned to really like Sky Charts.  I was now ready to roll.  I fired up  Deep Sky Planner and pulled in my Messier and Caldwell observing plan to pick the nights first target: Messier 20 - the Trifid nebula.  I hit the goto button on Sky Charts, motors whirred, I set the Mallincam for a 60 second exposure at AGC 4, and hit theMiloslick shutter button.   When the countdown timer expired, I was rewarded with a nice image of the Trifid nebula, which I've always thought looked like a red, squinting feline.  The nebula was just lower left of the center of the frame.  As I moved from object to object during the course of the night, all requested objects popped right into view.  I was very pleased with my LXD-75 mount's go to accuracy.  Here are several of the images from that night.  All are single exposures with no post processing.

The face of a red, squinting feline
 I have to trust that this is a object is a nebula as it looks like a bright star.

 M13 was low in the Southwest, actually too low as this shot is through some tree limbs.
 Messier 22 is a beautiful globular cluster, but it too was shot through the trees.  Much of the left side of the image is obscured by leaves.

 In my opinion, the dumbbell is one of the nicest deep sky objects.
 Messier 30 is a rather unimpressive globular.

 The Sculptor galaxy is one of my favorite objects.

 A ghostly face in the sky.

The mount's tracking is a bit sloppy so my images are limited to less than 90 seconds.  I need to take some time to lube and tighten the gears.  The night went very well with 17 objects imaged. Clouds rolled in around 1:00, in bed at 2:30.  Meant to get up at 4:30 to see ISON but overslept and din't get out til after 6 and it was too light by the time I got the equipment set up.

I got a Unihedron Sky Quality Meter-L for my birthday. I tried it a few times between 10 & midnight and obtained readings averaging 21.10 MPSAS (Magnitudes per square arcsecond) = (approximately 6.2 NELM (Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude)). Significantly darker than the 18.1 – 18.5 MPSAS readings I obtained in my backyard.

Saturday, Nov. 3 - Had a very nice day visiting with old friends, grilling out hamburgers with Heather's family, and watching some football on TV.  The highlight of the day was the group picture and the drawing for the door prizes.
The hopefull waiting to see if their number is drawn for one the nice prizes.  Up for grabs were 2 refractors, eyepieces, and various other astronomy items.  On Friday I won a 1-1/4" Televue 2X Barlow - a nice addition to my collection.

 A couple of looks at the field.

 Telescopes of all types and sizes.

Somehow I missed taking a picture of the Southeast side of the field where Heather and my scopes were set up.

As darkness fell the outlook for the night was great.  It was drier than Friday night and the seeing was better.  Shortly after 7 I aligned on Vega, Kokalb, & Fomalhaut.  The go to accuracy was again very good.  I was able to image 10 objects on my list.

 An open cluster in a rich star field can be difficult to discern from the surrounding stars.  Here I've taken images of M23 at 3 different exposure durations.  Here at 5 seconds the cluster is more evident.
 Here at 10 seconds it is difficult to pick out the cluster.
Here at 20 seconds the cluster is lost in the star field.  

 Imaged through the trees.

At 9:27 sky meter read 21.09, similar to this time last night but the seeing is better tonight.  At 11:30 got reading of 21.05 – 21.11 at 9 C very clear night and much drier than last night.  Went in around midnight so I could get up to see ISON.  Came back out at 4:30 and fired up the scope to target ISON. Tried to align to Dubhe and Denebola but the alignment failed.  I did a 3 star alignment and went to Denebola and realized I had been choosing the lower star in Sextans instead of Denebola !!! I was too anxious and didn't look closely enough at the sky. At this site the sky is so dark I see many more stars than at home and got confused.  After Denebola I jumped to M65 .  This is a nice galaxy and a member of the Leo Triplet of galaxies.

I told Sky Charts to drive the scope to ISON. I hit the shutter button and waited. Bam, there it was almost dead center in the FOV. A bluish-white core with a distinct halo and a nice but faint and rather short tail. The visible tail was only about 12 arcmin long but the last half is really faint in the pics. I'm not sure of the magnitude as there are no stars in the neighborhood on my charts to gauge the brightness against.  For my best pic I moved the core down a bit and tried to tease out a bit more of the tail.  Jumping the AGC up to 6 yielded a washed out image with less of the tail visible because dawn was approaching.

 The DSRSG was over.  I had checked 27 objects off my observing plan plus ISON.  After 3 disappointing star parties, the 2013 DSRSG was a resounding success.  A benefit of having the trailer is having television so we could watch the first half of the Saints game before heading home.

There are 109 Caldwell objects, but 18 are not viewable from my latitude.  There are 110 Messier objects that are all viewable, so my observing project includes 201 objects.  There are probably a few duplicates between the 2 lists but I haven't yet identified them.   I had 99 done before the star party and was able to image 27 Messier & Caldwell objects at the DSRSG.  I have bagged 126 objects so I'm 62.7% of the way to my goal with 10 months left to go.