A View from the Past

As an evening pastime in these COVID restricted days I have been delving into the past again. Again reading the work of an amateur astronomer from long ago.

Frontspiece of Bedford Catalogue, 1844
Frontspiece of Bedford Catalogue, 1844, Capt. William Henry Smyth

I had previously read through the work of Rev. Thomas Webb, a vicar and amateur astronomer active in the late 1800’s. Webb frequently referred to the work of an earlier observer, Capt. William Henry Smyth.

Retired British Navy Captain Smyth was a backyard observer, gazing at the stars with a 150mm refractor from a garden behind his home in Bedford England. His telescope was quite good for the time, made by Tully of London, the best money could buy. This telescope was eventually purchased by the British Government to be used in the 1874 transit of Venus expedition to Egypt and the 1882 Venus transit in Jamaica. It now sits in the collection of the Science Museum, London.

Capt. William Henry Smyth's Telescope at Bedford
Capt. William Henry Smyth’s Telescope at Bedford

Smyth published two volumes on astronomy in 1844 under the title A Cycle of Celestial Objects . Volume II of this set, commonly called The Bedford Catalogue, contains descriptions of more than 1600 double stars, clusters, and nebulae, serving as a guide to what may be observed with a small telescope. The Bedford Catalogue became the standard at-the-telescope reference for other amateur observers for many decades until it was generally replaced by Webb’s Objects for Common Telescopes.

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Eyepiece Time

Given stay at home orders and a virus haunting our community I have gotten quite a bit of eyepiece time this year. Mostly quick driveway session in the evening, or sometimes the early dawn hours, a solo activity perfect for social distancing.

At the telescope in the driveway again
At the telescope in the driveway again

I usually use my roll-out scope ready in the corner of the garage, a classic 8″ Cave Astrola. Just roll it into the driveway, plug it in using the purpose located power receptacle on the corner of the lanai,. slide an eyepiece in… Ready to go in two minutes.

Last night was a perfect example… It was raining at sunset, but an hour later the skies were clear and dark. Better yet the rain had left clear, haze free air overhead with great transparency. I spent an hour hunting down dark nebulae in Aquila, dark clouds of galactic dust best visible with perfect skies.

The pages of the observing notebook fill quickly, a page or two each evening until the Moon comes back. I have so many object I have never viewed, so many easily visible from the driveway with a fairly small 8″ ‘scope.

Often I come across pleasant surprises, a pretty binary or a deep red carbon star, the region surrounding my target rich with stars and wisps of nebulae, so many wonders I have never seen despite years at the eyepiece.

Social Distance Measured in Light-Years

Social media is currently full of advice on what to do while stuck at home waiting out a pandemic. I find I need no advice… A dark sky and a telescope? No problem.

The observing notebook fills with notes beside the telescope
The observing notebook fills with notes beside the telescope

Awake at 4am this morning I pulled the Astrola from the garage and observed until the dawn lit the sky.

Once the evening clouds dissipated I again pulled out the telescope and observed for another two hours this evening.

Following the advice of staying at home I have been observing alone from our driveway. This weekend would have been our normal club dark-of-the-moon star party at Kaʻohe, getting together with other observers. Obviously this was cancelled.

This period of social isolation is measured in pages of notes on stars and nebulae, measured in the light-years I cross while peering into the universe.

A Full Night at Kaʻohe

A last star party of the year, actually the last star party of the decade.

'Scopes in the Twilight
A pair of 8″ telescopes in the twilight, with a setting Moon and Venus over Hualalai

With new Moon in the middle of Christmas week I had the choice of the weekend before Christmas, or the weekend after. Guessing that attendance would be better in the quiet days between holidays I chose December 28th as our monthly new Moon star party.

The site was, as usual our Ka’ohe observing site on the side of Mauna Kea. The weather was nearly ideal, clear, not very cold, and almost no wind at the site.

Arriving at the site to find beautiful, clear skies we marveled at the sunset scene. A brilliant Venus and three day old crescent Moon hung above the fading sunset and Hualālai.

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December Observing List

Our next club dark sky star party will be Dec 28th at the usual Kaʻohe site, in the lull between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

The Pleiades, color image through LRGB filters
The Pleiades, color image through LRGB filters

For the evening I have again assembled an observing list for those who want to explore some of the more interesting objects available in the sky this month.

These are all visible in the early evening, all suitable for average telescopes, with a couple more suitable for binocular viewing.

While most of these will be easy to locate and observe, there are a few more challenging objects in the list.

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A Foggy Night at Kaʻohe

Foggy? Well? Mostly the skies were the beautiful dark Mauna Kea skies we enjoy. Mostly. The fog did flirt with us much of the night, rolling over hard for about half an hour, blotting out the stars for a while.

The Phelps family enjoys the skies at Kaʻohe
The Phelps family enjoys the skies at Kaʻohe

Despite a dire forecast for moisture on the mauna, the weather at Kaʻohe was quite nice aside from a bit of fog. The big telescopes atop the mauna were closed for much of the night in fog and even a little light snow, while we were enjoying the stars in the eyepiece.

There were ten folks who drove up the mauna to enjoy the night… Maureen, Cathy, Andrew, John, Cliff, and myself. Plus all four members of the Phelps family with their own telescope.

The view after sunset was stunning, Jupiter and Venus in a close pair over the summit of Hualālai deep in the bright zodiacal light. The Milky Way arched over the northern sky from Sagittarius to Cassiopeia.

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