On Monday, August 26th, Jacob and I headed out to the Fred P. Lossing Observatory (FLO) in Almonte. The land is owned by the Mill of Kintail Conservation Area, but they let RASC Ottawa put an observatory there in slightly darker skies than we have in Ottawa. There is a gate with a lock, a warming room, and a couple of buildings with larger scopes in them. If you get trained on them and pay a small fee each year, you can use the scopes. Otherwise, as just RASC Ottawa members, you can use the grounds to set up your own scope.
While Jacob and I wanted to do some observing, my main reason for going was another member in the club. He and his son (J1 and J2) had bought a new scope, a Celestron Powerseeker 127EQ, and were struggling to see much through it other than the basics. They had not yet managed a polar alignment, nor figured out star-hopping, and were looking for an intro night from someone in the club. My first option of a would-be mentor didn’t work out for them, so I agreed to do it myself.
My willingness to take on this extra role for someone is driven by two things. First, I know what it is like to have a new scope and struggle with the opening setup. I did that for five years. And each time I had a break-through, it was because someone helped me in person. Astronomy can be a lonely hobby at times and while links and webpages and online videos (oh my!) are helpful, they often pale in comparison to someone taking five minutes in-person to walk you through a learning curve that they mastered years ago but you would spend hours trying to figure out yourself.
Second, Jacob needs to learn some of the basic things too, and I can teach him. But since I’m a blogger, I’m often caught by a desire to turn that “learning/teaching” into a post that anyone else can read if it helps. For example, my posts about solving my alignment issues with the Celestron NexStar 8SE are among the highest hit counts I have, next to the HR posts. People have had the same issues as me, and they wind up on the site, looking for tips and tricks, or hoping for solutions to a problem they have. Which has led me to an idea for a new “guide” — the PolyWogg Guide to Astronomy.
However, unlike my HR guide which I’ve seen as a series of posts all going into a big book at some point, I’ve moved more towards a series of hand-out sheets. Simple one- and two-pagers that summarize the info concisely which someone can just download and print if they’re interested. So figuring out how to teach it to J1 and J2, and to Jacob, has led me to have to figure out how to explain it to someone else in an organized fashion — a pseudo-curriculum, if you will — and writing some quick guides to the various topics. Eventually, I’ll launch a new page on which I’ll post the various links, but for now, I was just trying to teach them three things — aligning your finder tool to your scope, learning to star hop, and aligning your scope to the sky.
The finder tools we had were a TelRad on my 8SE, a Rigel Quickfinder on Jacob’s 4SE, and a red-dot finder on the 127EQ. Except the dang red dot didn’t seem to be working at first, We just couldn’t see the dot. So I showed them on my scope. Jacob already knows how to align for the finder scope, and managed to do it mostly on his own. Later we got the red dot working too.
For navigation, I started with a planisphere, one for Jacob and one for J1 and J2. I explained how it worked, and gave them a paper copy of my guide. But the sky wasn’t dark yet, so you couldn’t see them yet. I also showed them my star map (the Orion 600 folding paper map).
Last, we did an alignment to the sky. I showed them how my 8SE aligns to the sky, and then we did a linear scales alignment for their EQ mount. Later, my buddy S showed up with his daughter M and was able to give a LOT more guidance on working an EQ mount. Whew. And J1 and J2 were able to see much more using their extra EPs that they had bought (they bought one of the Celestron kits). I think the training was helpful for them, but time will tell. They have a couple of things to still tweak to get fully going.
For Jacob, his alignment worked well, and we did a joint sky tour for the night. Considering I didn’t have the exact setup info for the observatory, i.e., the right GPS coordinates, and so I improvised them a bit, my and J’s alignments worked pretty dang well. At the end of the night, J did an awesome job helping me clean everything up together. Much better than my experience at the cottage, and I was really grateful for the combined effort. It made things go so much better.
For the night, we saw both Jupiter and Saturn, a bunch of clusters, including the Hercules Keystone and cluster, and S showed me the teapot below Saturn. When we first got there, the sky wasn’t looking great, but it turned out pretty well overall for the night. And we were gone by about 10:45 p.m. Another guy, R, who runs part of the Observatory site, was there with some friends doing a sky tour with one of the bigger scopes, and they seemed to have a good night too.
And it gave me an appreciation for how to teach certain topics that I didn’t have before…I’m calling that a win. Jacob had a good night too, but I think he was equally enamoured of the name Fred P. Lossing Observatory, or as he renamed it, the FLOSSING Observatory. So he flossed before we left…
Saturday, August 24th was the proposed date of our monthly star party, and I confess, I wasn’t looking forward to it. I might even confess to hoping we would get rained out. The dates were set way back in March, and revolve around the dates of New Moon. But while I am the star party coordinator, I had to make some changes this year so that I wasn’t automatically the default event marshal too…too much commitment, too many days. So we changed things so that we only book 2 days a month instead of 4, 1 for the Saturday before New Moon and 1 for the Friday after New Moon. A much softer load on the need for marshals, and for me. And up until this weekend, I have had marshals available to cover the events, even if I couldn’t make it.
But this weekend is the height of the summer, lots of people are on holiday, and more importantly, the date conflicted with the annual big StarFest up near Collingwood. So my normal marshals weren’t available, and this left me more or less on the hook for the event. Originally, I thought this would be no problem, but then I was up at the cottage and had no real desire to rush back. But if I didn’t marshal, there would have been no event (our insurance requires it). So I was kind of, sort of, totally hoping the weather wouldn’t cooperate. Nope, this time we had a completely clear forecast! We packed up Saturday morning at the cottage and headed back.
I would have liked to take Jacob too but I had to stay until it ended, and it would have been way past his bedtime, so I went out by myself. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to set up the 4″ or the 8″ scope, so I took everything with me. I got there about 10 minutes later than I wanted to, turned off the lights in the parking lot and on the nearby building, unlocked the portapotty, and set out the traffic cones. We had word that some people in wheelchairs were likely to be coming too, so we asked a bunch of people to set up their scopes at a lower level, and 3 or 4 had a good option for those in wheelchairs. Mine isn’t at all conducive, as you can’t get close enough to the eyepiece and the tripod legs, and the scope is short (i.e., doesn’t stick out very far). I decided to set up the big one for the night and managed to get it all ready just as Jupiter was starting to shine through. And while I showed off Jupiter to a few people, I also managed to get the scope aligned fairly early using Saturn, Antares and Arcturus. Booyah!
Up until close to 10:00 p.m. or so, the big hits were Saturn and Jupiter. Standard views and responses, nothing particularly amazing. And then a family returned that I think is the same one I saw two years ago. If so, they were the group that gave me my favourite experience ever at a star party…the father had brought his family with wife, two kids and his mother. They were from Pakistan as I recall, recent immigrants, and he was happy to bring his family out to a free science event. His kids looked first, and they were excited. Then his wife looked, and I was watching him. He was super happy that SHE was happy. Then it was his mother’s turn. She kind of giggled and shuffled over to look, all fun and games, something silly to do, until she looked through the scope and saw Saturn. And her world got rocked. She grabbed her son’s arm and started chattering away excitedly. And then looked again. The experience blew her mind, seeing another planet so clearly. But for me, while it was great to see, it was again watching him that was so amazing. He was almost emotional because here he was with all three generations of his family, and each of them was happy and excited. They started to walk away, after thanking me, and I was like, “Don’t you want to look?”. And he was like, “Oh, I get to look too?”. Kind of an afterthought, because he was just happy to be the facilitator for them. And then he was amazed too. It was awesome to see.
As I said, I’m not sure it was the same family, but it looked like the same guy. They were now a totally assimilated family though if it was the same family. The young boys were now 9 and 11 or so, and much more aggressive and vocal about what they say. The younger one kept saying, “OMG, OMG, OMG”. Sure, he was milking it and putting on a performance, but it was interesting. Mom was dressed in Western-style clothes, and much more fluent and comfortable in English. She looked and was really happy again. Then it was Grandma’s turn. No shuffling, no traditional dress, no giggling, almost like a running back breaking through the line of scrimmage, she deked between her grandkids and strode right up to the eyepiece in jeans and a sweater. And she again had her world rocked. A little less “shocked”, and a little more “Oh, wow, oh, wow”. But rocked. And Dad wasn’t leaving until he got his view too. I like to think it was the same family. I have no real idea, it was two years ago and only a few minutes together, but it seemed like him. Either way, it was nice to see three generations enjoying the view.
I also met a couple who have the same scope, but who have had a bit of trouble getting used to the setup for the 8SE and she has also been disappointed with the quality of seeing so far. I tried to give them an overview of my experience, but it was very disjointed as there were lots of people coming through, and I kept adjusting the scope and thus having to start and stop some of the advice. I gave them my card and suggested we go out one night just one-on-one with the two scopes and I’d walk them through my setup. Hopefully, they’ll take me up on the option.
Then something unexpected happened in our viewing. A woman happened to ask about “that sparkly star below Jupiter”, which was Antares, and I offered to show it to her if she hadn’t seen it before. Which she hadn’t and I did. Then everyone else saw it. And were really impressed with it. In the past, I’ve stuck to the big-ticket items like the planets, but they were interested in the star. So I gave them Arcturus too, which they all liked. So I went to Albireo, which turned out to be the hit of the night. Normally I tell people the history of Mizar (Roman guards, etc.), but letting people look at Albireo in a group, and each saying what colours THEY see for the two stars was illuminating (sorry, bad pun). It got THEM talking. I confess I don’t have a lot of experience with outreach, and this approach sounds obvious in retrospect, but we often all default to telling people what to look for, and they see it and say thank you. But they were far more engaged telling ME what THEY saw, then me telling them what they SHOULD see or look for in the eyepiece. That was a good lesson learned, and something I’ll try to include for the future.
A second development also showed up. Normally, my favourite eyepiece is the 17.3mm Televue Delos. It gives a nice big Field of View (FoV), isn’t too overpowering for power (118x) and good for planets and most objects. Plus everyone seems to enjoy it equally, or so I had thought. When I was choosing EPs for Jacob last month, I had him try all the different options. And he really liked the plossls; my larger FoVs didn’t work very well for him with his glasses on. That might be partly needing adjustment, but he works well with the plossls. So when a couple of people — old and young — this night had trouble seeing through the Delos, I swapped them out for a Plossl. And each time, they nailed it on the first try. The Plossl is just way more forgiving for them. I had the same experience with Andrea’s grandfather and friend the night before — the Plossl worked well for them, the Delos did not. Another “trick” I need to remember in the future if someone is struggling to see through the particular EP I have in at that moment.
Finally, the inevitable happened…someone bumped the tripod in the dark. Which of course threw off my alignment, and I had to start my setup over. But it got me thinking about the visibility of the legs again. Most of the time, when this happens, it’s newbies whose eyes are not yet dark-adapted. And even the night before, the grandfather and friend had trouble knowing where to step to avoid the tripod, after just having come out of the cottage to see Jupiter (which didn’t require dark adaptation). Interestingly though, as I was getting to wind down for the night, I noticed another guy was using those round glow sticks around the legs of his tripod. It might not go over well with the purists at a dark sky site, but for a public star party in a darkened parking lot, I thought it was a brilliant solution. Very clear where the legs were and easy to avoid them with your feet.
Despite my initial reluctance, the night was great. I had a really good time. And I did some other objects near the end of the night (mostly globulars, although I almost pulled in the Pleiades from behind some trees). Most of the public was gone by 11:30 p.m., but I let everyone else stay until closer to 12:25/30 before I turned the lights back on and locked up.
The night ended a bit odd though. As I was driving out of the lot and back on to the Carp Road, a young woman seemed to be crossing the road about half a block away, but when she saw me, she went back and waited on the curb, kind of waving me through. But then as I got closer, she had her hand up waving me down. When I chatted with her, it was clear she was somewhat drunk and was confused as to where she was. But then as I spoke with her a bit more, I also realized she was developmentally delayed cognitively too. She told me her full name and that she “lived at the post office”, which I recognized as a frequent training method people use to make sure they know how to self-identify, seek help, and get directions to home. I offered her a ride, as I was going right by the post office, and as we drove along, she was getting a bit agitated at herself. She had been out somewhere, and upon leaving, had turned the wrong way.
She had walked all the way to the end of town (Carp is pretty small), and couldn’t figure out what she had done wrong, just knew something wasn’t right because she couldn’t find the post office (it was in the other direction). As we drove, she recognized some landmarks as we went, and realized how far she had gone the wrong way, and I think that realization was also scaring her a bit by the way she talked about it. Anyway, she was hugely relieved when we got to the post office, and then she wanted to tell me her life story. Not really, but it seemed like it. She apparently used to work at the Stittsville Flea Market watering plants, with her dad. Now she lives in the building next to the post office (she pointed out her kitchen window), and that the building is now a heritage building as it used to house the old newspaper. Anyway, I made sure she got inside okay, and then headed off again. My Good Samaritan duty for the night, I guess, but I was disturbed more by what would have happened if I didn’t come along — would she have kept walking into the country? Would someone else have found her? It was almost 1:00 a.m. at that point, and the town was deserted. I didn’t see another car almost until I was nearing the 417, 10 minutes down the road.
Finally, though, as I was heading across the Carp Road to the highway, I ended up with another astro event. The waning crescent moon was rising over the fields to the East, and it was spectacular. Almost a yellowish colour in the low haze around the horizon, and it looked gigantic so close to the ground in altitude. I really should have stopped and taken some pictures, but it was now after 1:00 a.m., and I wanted to just get home and crash. Except I ended up getting home, unpacking the car, doing a few other things, and I never crashed until almost 3:00 a.m. Idiot that I am!
But a pretty great night, even if I didn’t get to stay longer at the cottage or get the picture.
A week or two ago, my wife’s grandfather (D) asked me about an object he had seen in the sky that had been unusually bright. Given the time, clarity, and brightness, I quickly confirmed it was Jupiter and its four moons, but it got me to thinking. Given his recent interest, had he ever had the experience of looking through a telescope? We’ve had the scopes up at the cottage repeatedly, and my mother-in-law’s family has looked numerous times, but I’ve never had it set up when my father-in-law’s side of the family has been around. So I suggested if we had a good night, maybe D could come for dinner and see Jupiter and Saturn.
Monday to Wednesday were out, and Thursday was uncertain, so we aimed for Friday. D brought his friend Z and the weather held. I would have loved to hear more about a friend of his who had passed away that week…97 years old, had served in a gun turret in a tank in WWII and had driven it all over Europe. Lots of action, lots of experience. By all accounts, the type of man my father would have loved to have met and played cards with (cribbage or euchre, probably). Sigh. But the skies beckoned and Jacob and I started setting up our two scopes around 7:45 p.m. We have good views to the South + West from there, so Jupiter was clear. Saturn was not quite out yet, and behind clouds. We were good to go with enough darkness around 8:45 p.m. and we were able to show off Jupiter and Saturn.
While I was happy to show them both, two things were apparent that I had not realized enough before. My favourite eyepiece, the 17.3mm Televue Delos, is really not that forgiving for everyone. Jacob prefers plossls by a country mile, and D and Z both had much easier times with the stock 25mm Celestron Plossl. Secondly, I made a note that the legs are VERY hard to see. We had to turn on the red flashlights quite bright so they could see where they were walking, and even white light wouldn’t have been inappropriate. What looks easy to me once my eyes adapt are not as easy for others. Both of these issues were relevant again the next night, so I’ll discuss them more then.
D and Z got to see both planets and then headed off home (about 30 minutes away). And Jacob, I and Andrea did a bit of a sky tour. Unlike the last time at the cottage, we were prepared with bug spray (always) and warmer clothes (last time we stayed in shorts and t-shirts, doh!). We cruised the sky and looked at various clusters, etc. Andromeda was visible again, marking the second time I’ve seen it at the cottage, and I was a bit disappointed. Even with my 8″ scope, I wasn’t pulling in as much light as I hoped. I would have liked to take a pic, see if I got any more detail, but I didn’t feel like setting up anything else. Just visual.
I think the highlight of the night for me was Albireo. I love seeing the colours and getting people to say what THEY see…it is always different. I just need to learn more details for describing it. We pushed through to about 10:30/11:00 p.m. or so and then packed up. Jacob was really tired and had to crash after we put his EPs away, which left me taking down and putting away two scopes. Definitely not the fun part of the evening, but ultimately worth it. After I was done, I tried laying on the dock for a bit, but it was making me feel almost nauseated. I did get to see a few remaining meteors though.
I’m usually a “telescope-only” sky observer. But last Thursday, August 22nd, I was up at the in-laws’ cottage, and after a couple of previous nights of “no go” seeing, the night was still looking iffy. Clouds were rolling in from the West, and it wasn’t obvious if it was even worth setting up the scope. I’ve done the same before at the same location, and almost always, the clouds sock me in.
So I decided not to set up. Instead, I went and borrowed their simple terrestrial binoculars and gave it a go while sitting on the dock. I could see Jupiter and Saturn easily with the naked eye, but I couldn’t resolve the discs with the binoculars. While they are better quality design, they aren’t very strong (7 x 25 perhaps?), and they seem to be out of collimation. Everything I tried to resolve ended up having a skewed shape to it.
No problem, I did some playing around with a planisphere and picked out a few objects. The Big Dipper, Arcturus, Vega, the trapezoid / “Keystone” of Hercules, Antares, and I *think* I saw Altair but I wasn’t 100% sure.
Oddly enough, I was still seeing meteors. And the clouds shifted direction, so I could have set up, even though it was still kind of windy and a bit chilly. Nevertheless, a fun quiet night of just enjoying the whole sky.
Having finished the Carp star party on August 2nd, we headed up to the inlaws cottage for the weekend. It’s kind of a small family compound, and there are usually three or four sets of “aunts and uncles” (i.e., Generation 2), a handful of cousins and spouses (i.e., Generation 3), and sundry grandkids (i.e., Generation 4). It can get busy and 30+ is not an uncommon total number of people. This weekend was a smaller bunch, we only had 28.
After we arrived on Saturday, I was frequently asked, “Did you bring your scope?” I hadn’t this time — we just brought Jacob’s smaller scope. The Celestron NexStar 4SE is WAY more portable than my big 8SE, and it has the advantage of having crisp clear images given that it’s a Maksutov-Cassegrain design. We considered setting up on Saturday night, but there was a huge cloud moving in from the north, as there has been on several previous visits. Often the South West area of the sky looks “okay”, but North West is frequently terrible. We didn’t bother setting up.
Sunday was clear all day. The sky had a few wisps of cloud here and there, which is little indication of the night, but in this case, it held. When the night started to fall around 8:30, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. There was some soup at the horizon, but other than that, nada.
The moon was clearly visible, and Jacob set up manually on the moon. We had a bunch of people come over of the 26 other people there, with most popping in for at least a quick look. Normally when I’m up there, there isn’t much to see on the moon. This time, we had a thin crescent, a clear terminator line, and before it got too dark, visible earthshine on the dark side of the terminator line. I guided them to find Mare Crisium and a couple of craters that I imaged back in June, and they were blown away by the level of detail on the moon.
Where we were set up is a deck next to a dock area, and it is just boards above a shoreline. As such, it is a bit springy to walk on, and we had to enforce a “one scope, one viewer” rule that people had to wait on the grass until it was their turn. There were a couple of times we had five or six people waiting to view the next object.
It took a while to get through all the kids and the adults for the moon. Then we turned our attention to Jupiter. Again, we ran through all the kids first as many were heading off to bed, and then through the adults. Lots of questions, and lots of attempts to see the bands. I boosted the power, and added a filter at various times, all trying to bring out detail as easily as possible for them to view. With the 9mm Plossl, J’s scope has about 180x magnification, so the planet was discernible for just about everyone. From time to time, it was hard to resolve the bands, but some of that was getting people used to using the focusing knobs themself. Jacob hung in like a trooper, helping people figure out what to do. However, I realized that with the scope aligned, and most of it sitting relatively still for Jupiter, he had very little to do. He said he wasn’t bored, but it wasn’t that exciting either.
We did take a bit of a time-out in between the moon and Jupiter to perform a full alignment plus Jacob tried out all the various eyepieces. I was a bit surprised by the results. While everyone and their eyes are slightly different, I love my Delos eyepieces with the wide FoV. Jacob by contrast was more enamoured of the plossls. They work well for him, and as I was about to order a new 6mm one for him, it was good to know which style to get. It doesn’t hurt either that the style tends to be a bit cheaper, and gives a nice division of eyepieces between us for packaging and bundling.
After everyone had seen Jupiter, and most had drifted away, I started a quick sky tour. Just for fun, since the night skies were so clear, I tried for M110. This one is almost always at the start of my star tour on the 8SE, and to be honest, I have never seen anything. Maybe a faint fuzzy at most. In J’s scope? In between some trees? It was a very large and bright fuzzy. It’s an elliptical galaxy, and while we didn’t see much detail, it was far more obvious than anything I had seen before in that area. Which made me want to try for Andromeda.
M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is hugely popular. Everyone says “Make sure you show people Andromeda”, etc. But to be honest, I have never really seen Andromeda. A faint fuzzy at most. Mostly because I frequently observe on nights when there is a moon, and partly because I frequently view from light polluted skies, I almost never feel like it’s worth my time. I even confess there have been times doing a star tour where I just skip it entirely. This time, it was visible in a gap between some big trees, a nice open area of the sky over the cottage, so I went for it. And BAM! There it was, completely clear.
Nebulae. Galaxies. Open clusters. All were available for the viewing. Double stars too. Albireo didn’t disappoint. Five of us looked at it over the course of the night, and we all saw slightly different colour combinations. Globulars were a bit disappointing, but the rest was coming out great. It was hard to pick just the right “next” object as I worked through the star tour with Andrea and Jacob. In the end, we were trying to finish up just in time for Saturn to come out from behind a bunch of trees close to our viewing site. I thought Saturn would be in view about 45 minutes from when I first saw it (I walked out on a dock to see past the treeline). Instead, the movement across the sky took almost 2 hours (!) before Saturn appeared in our line of sight. Jacob got to see it just before 11:30 and bedtime, but Andrea had just given up at that point.
After J left, I went and got a bunch of the remaining adults (six or so) who were still up, and gave them a look at Saturn. While they were impressed, I think they had been more impressed by the Galilean moons and our own moon itself.
J’s 4SE scope worked great. If I had had my 8SE that night, and there were a couple of faint objects begging for the bigger scope, I probably would have stayed up almost all night. It was simply the best sky I had seen in 35 years, all the way back to when I was a young teenager out at the lake and the sky was full of stars.
Plus, just for a bonus during the night, every so often a meteor would streak across the sky. I saw about 4 for the night, J saw his first, and a couple of other people did too. After packing up around 12:30, I sat at the edge of the lake and just stared out at the sky. I would have loved to stay there all night, but I was exhausted and I reluctantly put myself to bed. I’m hoping to go back up in a few weeks, and I am dreaming that one of the nights will be even half as good.
A great night, great skies, and great company with whom we could share the stars. It doesn’t get much better than that.