A dark moon weekend? I had not been out in a while, time for some dark skies with a telescope. This night had been scheduled for a while, the folks I work with keep asking me about getting a look through one of my big ‘scopes. Thus this night had been set aside on a calendar normally used for staff meetings and investor conference calls.
Where? Kaʻohe of course, the best place for this on the west side, easy range for my friends coming up from Kona.
Everone arrived on schedule at sunset, car pooling up from Kona. Greeted by a spectacular sky, a slim crescent Moon seeting into the golden glow of Hualalai, the bright planets Venus and Jupiter appearing in the gloaming.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 last star party of the year, actually the last star party of the decade.
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.