A Very Dark Night

Planning a night of observing is a challenge. There is the choice of equipment, setting up observing lists of objects to target. And then there is deciding where to go.

Finding a dark spot can be a challenge in Hawai’i. Almost every bit of land is gated and tied up in bureaucratic rules. We often use the area around the Mauna Kea VIS to observe. Located at 9,000ft on the south side of Mauna Kea the area has much to recommend it for amateur astronomy. This land is under the administrative control of OMKM, who actively support astronomy, both professional and amateur. But the area does have a number of lights, and there is regular vehicle traffic, even in the middle of the night. Thus I have been actively looking for other places.

Ready for Dark
The 18″ setup at 9000ft on the side of Mauna Kea
The area around the MK VIS is state land, under the control of the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Just below the VIS is the start of a back road that almost entirely circles the mountain, R-1, also part of the Na Ala Hele trial system, a road designated for public access. Perfect! All I need is a place just enough out of the way to avoid any lights or activity in the night.

State land is an interesting issue in Hawai’i. No camping is allowed outside of designated sites, period. But, according to the DLNR administrative rules it is not camping unless you are… “in possession of a backpack, tents, blankets, tarpaulins, or other obvious camping paraphernalia, any time after one hour after sundown until sunrise in a forest reserve” (Section §13-104-2 Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife). I made certain I had no “camping paraphernalia” with me. I am merely picnicking… in the middle of the night.

As the Sun set, I headed to a particular spot found on a scouting mission months before, a site with enough flat ground for a vehicle and a telescope to be setup off the road. Better yet, a knoll of rough a’a and picturesque mamane trees would provide fodder for time lapse photography.

Thus the plan, setup the ‘scope for the night. Also set a couple cameras out in the dark, shooting for hours as I enjoyed the night sky with my telescope. The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky, excellent transparency and only a gentle breeze. The seeing would prove to be quite decent, perhaps a 7 out of 10 on the Pickering Scale. It was also quite warm, I never had to resort to the insulated boots or add layers under the heavy jacket. The observing plan was to continue hunting down Hickson galaxy clusters. There are 100 of these challenging groups, of which I have now observed about one dozen. I suspect it will be a while before I complete the list.

A couple early evening stops included the new supernova in M101, easily visible as it brightens. Much brighter and it will begin to outshine the entire galaxy. I also looked up comet C/2009 P1 Gerradd. Surprisingly bright, with a bit of a fan shaped tail to one side. Maybe I should set up to photograph this comet later in the week?

M101 A magnificent face-on spiral, multiple arms visiblespiraling out from the core, a number of HII regions visible within the arms, a 12th magnitude star just 1′ north of the core, a pair of 13 magnitude stars on the south margin, SN2011FE currently visible in the southern reach, at least a magnitude brighter than any of the involved stars

SN2011FE Easily visible on the south end of the halo of M101, now the brightest object in the vicinity, just four days after erupting, about 1 magnitude brighter than the star just north of the galaxy core, a bit brighter than last night and a week(?) more to peak

When full darkness arrived I was pleasantly surprised at just how dark it was at this site. No lights, unless you count the dim glow of Hilo coming through the clouds far below. The Milky Way shone brightly overhead. Checking for a shadow from the glow of the Milky Way I saw nothing, but the dark volcanic cinder on the ground made this difficult. I spent a while setting up both cameras, carefully bracing the tripods amongst the rough lava and making the correct settings. A few test exposures gave me time to simply look up and enjoy the sky.

On to the realm of galaxies!

NGC6161 Small, faint! a 1’x0.5′ oval with no other detail, difficult with direct vision, better with averted, the pair of NGC6162 and NGC6163 is 2′ north, member of HCG82

NGC6162 Small, faint! a 1’x0.5′ patch with no detail, paired with NGC6163 1′ west, NGC6161 found 2′ south, member of HCG82

NGC6163 Small, faint! a 1′ patch with no detail, paired with NGC6162 1′ west, NGC6161 found 2′ south, member of HCG82

HCG82 Three very faint galaxies visible (NGC6161, NGC6162, NGC6163), the fourth member not seen (PGC58231)

HCG86 Four small faint galaxies in a 5′ area, three in an east-west line (MCG-05-47-004, MCG-05-47-003, MCG-05-47-001 east to west), a 12th magnitude star at the west end of the line, one additional member to the south (MCG-05-47-002), all four seen, MCG-05-47-001 only with difficulty

Observing Table
The observing table in the night
As Jupiter rose high I took a break from galaxies to observe the giant planet. Not a bad decision. The seeing was fairly decent, allowing a good look at the planet and moons. A number of nice features were visible, including the Great Red Spot. I tweaked the collimation of the ‘scope to be rewarded with an even sharper view. All four moons visible as small disks. The best view of Jove I have had in quite some time.

More galaxies occupied my time into the dawn. Several of the Hickson clusters are tough, very faint objects at the limit of even a good sized telescope. At least two of the groups escaped me, HCG83 and HCG 89 were not visible despite finding the correct coordinates and surrounding starfield. Looking for some variety I pulled out my copy of Webb and worked through a couple constellations. I also explored a little of the far southern sky with my new copy of the Observer’s Handbook volume on the southern skies…

ESO240-G010 Small, round, bright core ESO240-11 is 12′ south

ESO240-G011 An elongated oval 4′ x 0.5′, no core, ESO240-10 is 12′ north

ESO240-G013 Faint, small, round, 1′ diameter, no core, no detail

ESO292-G014 Faint, good sized, elongated 3’x1′ east-west, no core or other detail noted

NGC7744 Small, about 2′ diameter, bright, round with a stellar nucleus

NGC955 Bright, elongated 2’x 0.5′ northeast-southwest

NGC1055 Large, diffuse, 2′ x 6′ southeast-northwest, a central lane visible, no distinct core, M77 is 30′ southeast

M77 Bright, round, 5′ diameter, a notably bright core with a stellar center, hint and bits of spiral structure in the halo

At the end of the night I had five full pages of notes… Thirty seven galaxies, five galaxy clusters, four globular clusters, a few open clusters and nebulae, a comet and one supernova. It was simply a perfect night for observing, under fantastic skies. This is the type of night I hope for each time I load the telescope and head up the mountain.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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