Monday, 5 September 2011

23.8.2011 - In a hot, hot desert...

Date: 23./24.8.2011
Observing site: Anza-Borrego Desert, California, USA (240 meters / 787 feet)
NE Lim.mag: 7.3m (zenith)
SQM-L: 21.39 (zenith)
Background sky: 7 (excellent)
Seeing: 6 (good)
Transparency: 4-5 (good)
Weather: +37.5 - 35.2°C, humidity <10%, strong gusts of wind from north.

The cold and cuddly Anza-Borrego
My first touch with dark skies in California was in a primitive camping site in the Anza-Borrego desert. Temperature-wise, I thought I had it bad in Palm Springs. As I set up the telescope in a searing heat of +45°C / 112°F, I took comfort in the thought that it would soon get colder and I could enjoy a typical, beautiful night under the night sky. Two hours later, I knew it was going to be an observing session worthy of telling the grand kids about. As sweat was literally dripping from every gap, hole and chasm in my body I looked at my portable weather station: +37.5°C / 100°F. It was going to be a long night. As the sun set, a breeze from the north followed. You might consider this a relief but think again: Go to a sauna, bring a friend. When the sauna is warm enough, ask your friend to take a deep breath and blow some air, say to your arm. There you have the "soothing breeze" of the Anza Borrego desert. Other than the temperatures, the place was good enough for some basic observing. Being midway between Salton City and Borrego Springs, light pollution was visible from both of these locations as well as lights from the LA/Palm Desert area. In any case, SQM-L meter showed numbers in the 21.30s in many parts of the sky so as a warm-up session, this would do just fine. Another thing surely worth mentioning was the humidity: below 10%!

XT 4.5 ready to go in Anza-Borrego
The first object to go after was surprisingly Pluto. I had a time window of 3-4 days to spot the dwarf planet before it would "disappear" in to the rich star fields of the Milky Way. It is not a big surprise that the 4.5" SkyQuest had little trouble showing Pluto even in the deepening twilight. SQM-L showed only 19.90 in the region when I first spotted the defunct planet. Identifying it would have been impossible without a printed DSS image of the region.

Real observing started in Scorpius from where I first observed the globular cluster NGC 6453, M8, several open clusters and the beautiful dark nebula B286 (appears as a heart-shaped dark patch). I took a lot of time to log many dark nebulae in the Sco-Sag-Oph region I had not observed before. Keep in mind that when observing for darks, you should only log them as seen when you see a definite difference between the dark nebula and the background sky. Simply logging areas without stars won't do the trick - at least for me.

The failed M11...
I struggled with M8 as it is so massively infused with detail. NGC 6437 and NGC 6415 were surprisingly good objects despite the fact that they're both simple star clouds. Both displayed a rich splash of stars in midst of dark nebulae. Open cluster ESO 456-09 wasn't much to look at and it turned out to be a waste of time. Messier 11 was everything but that. I had spent two nights with it in Palm Springs sketching the brighter, easily visible stars trying to keep the shape and form together the best I could. Here I finished this "monumental" work by adding the fainter stars and also managed to mess up the southern segment of the cluster. The damage was already done so there was no fixing it nor was I interested in doing it for that matter. The amount of stars sketched wasn't too bad but the shapes, dark lanes and star lanes made it very difficult to get them all well placed thus I nicknamed it the "The Cramping Hand Cluster". Also the several star strings made it appear as a large number of waves (apparently this was also noted by Stephen O'Meara in his Messier objects book) were moving towards the west and there you have another silly nickname: "The Omaha Beach Cluster". A wave after wave of soldiers storming to gain a foothold in the beach of Normandy. Don't ask where I do come up with this stuff; late at night I just do.

After finishing up, I concluded that this place was quite good and it is no surprise many societies in CA have their star parties held in such places. Add in a bit more altitude to remove that "murkiness" and you got yourself a great observing spot. At least in the winter...