Oh my gosh, I’d been waiting for a confluence of darkness, transparent air, and a break in my schedule. And a Saturday night as well so I could stay out late! Tonight turned out to be it after a rough start.
I set out after returning from an evening movie at 10:30 – about early as it gets for truly dark sky viewing around the summer solstice. There’s no possibility of interference from the moon tonight and dark skies beckoned!
The mostly-clear forecast and favorable prediction for above-average transparency were enticing. Unfortunately the sky remained about 70% covered as I set things up. There were some openings though and one could hope!
A decent opening was centered just around Jupiter – what a great place to start! Jupiter was particularly beautiful tonight. Clear Dark Skies also predicted decidedly bad seeing, yet shimmery Jupiter remained more stable than expected and conditions only improved. Wisps of passing clouds served to reduce its bright glare and improve the view. Otherwise I’d even consider installing my moon filter to reduce its glare.
I was Joined by Wendy and Joseph. They were great company – I was glad to meet them. We enjoyed seeing Jupiter up close and I had a welcome opportunity to review how the equipment works. I love sharing this stuff!
The clouds were slowly lifting. My earlier single-point alignment proved sufficient to send the telescope cruising towards Saturn as we approached the 11:00 o’clock hour and beyond. A little nudging quickly brought Saturn within our field of view. The clouds thinned and we got some tantalizing glimpses through them with the target eventually emerging in full force before our eyes!
Saturn was amazing tonight despite the overly pessimistic seeing prediction of Clear Dark Skies. It’s bright yellow orb was beautifully surrounded by perfectly angled wide-open rings. We saw several moons and later I was able to pick-out the Cassini division (the most prominent gap in the ring system).
We found openings to the double-stars Mizar, then bright orange-blue Alberio, and finally we turned towards the Great Ring Nebula – one of my favorite objects. The terrific transparency and dark skies yielded exceptional contrast for this generally diffuse object. At 200x magnification this was one of the best views of the nebula that I’ve seen!
Around about midnight I considered packing up. No-see-ums had discovered their way through my hair and were working their way in! (I should have sprayed up there!) Wendy and Joseph departed but the sky continued clearing as I contemplated heading home. So I endured.
The milky way was about as bright as I’ve ever seen! I pointed toward it’s brightest patch on the southern horizon to find a beautiful star cluster and nebula. I don’t really know what I was seeing with pointing accuracy limited by my earlier single-point Jupiter alignment. Whatever – these were new objects for me. A later Stellarium search suggests I was seeing M21 and the Lagoon or Trifid nebulae.
It was past 1:00 AM into the next day but I had to take a quick look for a few galaxies before heading home. I found the whirlpool galaxy up high in all it’s glory – the best view I’ve seen without aid of a camera. And by then Andromeda had risen high enough to clear the treetops. It was my first look at our magnificent neighboring galaxy this summer. At 2.5 million light years distant it seemed just around the corner!
No pictures tonight as it was easier to dodge the clouds while only observing visually. By the time clearing had really begun I was in full visual mode, just taking in the photons. Nor did I get an opportunity to look for Comet Johnson. So much space, so little time.
But what a night!