The Official Publication of the Bucks-Mont Astronomical Association, Inc


VOL XVII, NO 5m                                                   MAY 2002                                              
Scott Petersen, Editor

©2002 BMAA, Inc

May Observing

"A catalog of sky sights from the city"

- by Bernie Kosher

All in all, a poor month for observing. It seems we've had no clear skies without bright moonlight for weeks. Even though Comet Ikeya-Zhiang (or something like that) was pretty bright and had a fine tail, it was low in the sky and hard to observe without a clear and dark north and west. Now it's in the morning sky and looks pretty good.

We seem to have missed several auroral displays, one due to time of impact at 0700 local time. Being extremely knowledgeable, we realize full sunlight makes it difficult to see the northern lights. The three-hour overnight display on Wednesday the 16th was fully clouded and rained out. I find these conditions also make it difficult, but will check into this further. While neither display was in the awesome range the sight would still have been worth losing some sleep.

I find myself in a quandary. How do I fill this page without any input? Oh my. Looks like you'll have to read my own ramblings.

While reading some older astro books and magazines I found some interesting 'facts' from those days, and some of the things amateurs contended with.

In about 1960 the distance of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, was confidently given as 600,000 light years, with 'no major revisions' anticipated. Current figures are upwards of 2 million light years. Hmmm. Perhaps we should also view things with eyes open to the possibility that the 'well known' facts are right.

About then the first computers, room filling vacuum tube leviathans, were making an impact. Several of the ones available to science had as much as 16K of memory, primarily magnetic rings, one for each individual bit. That's a lot of magnets. They were programmed in 8 bit code (one byte), the code being input to the computer by moving a set of switches to the on or off position manually for each byte. This took a while.

Before computers, ray tracing for the design of a simple doublet refractor objective was a daunting task for the optician. Tracing to evaluate the primary aberrations took many hours of work with pencil and paper using six place logarithms. Now it takes seconds to input the info and have the computer maximize the design for the glasses and constants.

Amateur astronomers were paying a lot more, relatively, for a scope, so most made their own. A 6" f/8 was the standard, and an 8" was the next step. A 12" was enough to make the amateur drool. Back then the 6" Newt on an equatorial mount cost about an average worker's salary for a month. Now they cost less than a week's pay. Let's not even talk about $100 televisions.

The standard eyepiece was a Ramsden, with a 40-degree field, but only about 20 degrees of which was really usable. The Huyghenian was OK for long f ratio instruments but a disaster in an f/8 or lower. Even finding a target was an experience. Setting circles were (and still are) a pain in the neck to use, and were fairly useless if the mount wasn't well polar aligned. So most of the amateurs found things by the hunt and peck method.

To get to the point, try and get outside and observe a bit more, using all the advantages we have. Perhaps you'll surprise yourself at just how much can be seen in the average scope. I'm fairly lazy too. So I should get off my butt and go outside instead of watching the Stanley Cup. But it's cold. Oh well, another night watching someone else do something.

I am not advocating torturing yourself by using a small instrument, or doing without the modern electronics. But being inside will not add to your list of M objects.

Yes, their skies were darker. It was probably safer to be outside at night. The better observing sites were a shorter drive. There were a lot less other distractions and interests to absorb free time.

Somehow, though, the amateurs saw more than we do now. It never ceases to amaze me. Drawings of the planets and Earth's moon made with 6 and 8 inch scopes prove to me how dedicated to the hobby they were. It seems no night went by when some sort of observation wasn't at least noted. The end result of all this? They had learned to observe what was there. Every moment spent searching for a wisp of light in the sky, or waiting for a split second of steady seeing while observing a planet, improved their technique and sensitivity to low light levels.

Anyhow you get the idea. So here's the wild eyed idea which rocked the very foundation of my musings. Perhaps I exaggerated there. Why not make our own catalog of what can be seen from your backyard?

So you live in a brightly lit city location. I do too. If you feel you are out of targets that can even be seen in your scope, let me ask you this. Where is NGC 6543? Why, it's a planetary nebula in Draco. But, planetary nebula are faint and spread out. Zounds, this one is 9th magnitude and is only about 15 seconds of arc in diameter. When I first went looking for this 'faint fuzzy' I spent about two hours looking for a faint disk like the Ring Nebula. But NOOOO. I had passed over it at least five or ten times as it looks like bloated star. When I got mad and said "I'm going to find this !@#$#", there it was, laughing at me. I have since seen it with a 3" f/5 refractor at 70 power from Trenton, when it was only 20 deg up.

There are at least 15 more of these planetaries that are visible from city areas, along with many globulars which are bright and pretty much condensed enough to be easy. Lots of clusters and double stars; red stars and stars that look green (really) and even an occasional galaxy.

By the way, this is using a 4.5" scope.

Did I forget to mention the internet? Oh my. It seems they had to call Sky & Telescopes's 'hotline' to find out if there were any comets visible. Or possible auroras. And they had to (gasp) go by RA and Dec coordinates, with no finder chart.

So let me know if you find anything, or if your target object was beyond the scope's grasp.

I'm also asking that you keep some sort of record of what you found (or didn't) so we can make a list of our

own. But this will require effort on your part. Hopefully you'll find it worthwhile.

* * * * * * *

- BMAA member Bernie Kosher provides 'Observing' articles regularly. He can be reached at [ -ed]


Wednesday, May 1 at 8:00p - BMAA General Meeting at Peace Valley

The next BMAA General Meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, June 5 at 8:00p



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