A Calm Night at Kaʻohe

It has been too long since I really got out with a telescope.  The ‘scopes have been out, but usually doing public work like last weekend’s Winter Star Party at CFHT in Waimea.  Time to get a good night for myself.

Awaiting dark with the 20" telescope
Andrew Unger beside the 20″ Obsession while waiting for properly dark skies at Kaʻohe

As president of our little club I make the schedule and choose the night.  Last month was a bust, bad weather rolling in both weekends either side of new Moon.  Thus I was pleasantly surprised when this particular Saturday I had chosen looked perfect, not a cloud in the sky over Mauna Kea.

It was the wind that was likely to spoil the night.  In Waimea and Waikoloa strong trade winds roared and rushed.  A pall of dust could be seen over the whole area from Waimea to the sea.  The Kaʻohe site has a particular blessing, it is directly in the lee of the mountain when the trades come out of the nor’east.

Arriving at the site it is amazing to leave the roaring winds behind to find calm, with the occasional brush of a light breeze.  We could hear the winds higher on the mauna, Maureen commented it sounded like flowing water or surf.  We were untroubled by the winds that could so easily spoil such a pleasant night.

The only other issue was the military.  We were startled by a few artillery flares over the range to the south.  the bright sodium light threatening our night vision and casting shadows from miles away.  Fortunately the army did not appear to be too profligate and the flares stopped after a short while.

Beside a big dob and under a dark sky I remember Steve Coe and those dark Arizona nights I shared with Steve, AJ, Tom, and the rest of the crew.  I learned so much on those nights, including his love for the night sky.  Steve is gone now, but I can still learn from him.  I brought a copy of his Astronomical Tourist with me this night.  I flip through the pages and recall memories I though I had forgotten.

With no real observing plan I turn a few more pages until I reach a section for a region of sky that was high in the actual sky above me… Andromeda and Cassiopeia?  NGC891?  Can do that, easy to find in a ‘scope with only a Telrad near γAnd. 

NGC891 – Even though this famous galaxy has been used as an example of an edge-on galaxy in many books, you must avoid the trap of knowing too much before you observe.  In a long exposure photograph it would seem bright and obvious.  However, it is a fairly low-surface brightness object and you might need averted vision to see the dark lane.

Steven Coe, Deep-Sky Observing: The Astronomical Tourist

NGC891 is a good target for the 20″ as Steve notes it has a low surface brightness, hiding among the rich star field.  I show this quintessential edge-on to Maureen and Andrew.

Another good target for the larger ‘scope is found later in the book… NGC281, the Pacman Nebula.  This is a faint emission nebula and Cas, nicely visible as a glow in a rich Milky Way star field.  I am surprised there are no notes for this one in my personal database, I have seen it before. 

Comet 46P/Wirtanen was very easy to find on the border of Cetus and Eridanus.  One clear of the treetops the comet was easily visible to the unaided eye.  In the telescope the comet was large, bright, with a sharp center to the coma.  No notable tail could be seen, just a bit of extension of the coma in one direction.  The comet also had a modest green hue in the 20.

As the evening grew late I found myself tiring, it was not even midnight.  No surprise as it has been a very long day for me.  Most everyone else was also breaking down.  The only one of our group ready for more was Cliff, but he needed our help to break down his 24″ and was forced to call it a night when we did.  Thus I found myself following the last vehicle out at 11pm.

My only real regret was not staying later to enjoy such a great dark night. Alas my day had started quite early, up at 5am and driving up the mauna to guide the KOE tours at Keck.  With the ‘scope loaded I opened the driver’s door.  Before driving off I stood and took one last wistful look at a beautiful sky scattered with stars.

The Moon and Saturn set over Hualalai
The Moon and Saturn set over Hualalai

Author: Andrew

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

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