Monday, December 28, 2009

Finally! A nice night under the stars

As chronicled on these pages it's hard to find weather that makes an astronomer happy. In Seattle it's usually cloudy, but then when it's clear, as it was for a week or so straight a few weeks back, it's 15 degrees outside and we don't like that, either. Then this week there were a few more wonderful, clear, and actually mild nights, but we were too busy festivalizing to get out and look at something.

Finally, though on Dec. 26 the feast days were history, the weather held, and Weisenheimer enjoyed a night of stargazing. Not that there wasn't something to complain about. There was a bit too much Moon, as it was waxing gibbous, first quarter having been on Christmas Eve. This makes deep sky objects all the more challenging to see. But the moon is itself a perfectly fine astronomical target, as evidenced by the accompanying Weisenheimer photo. I'm not really an astrophotographer; I just stuck my little point-and-shoot camera to the eyepiece and fired away (or, for the truly technical, the photo was shot with a Canon PowerShot A530 through an Orion SkyQuest XT8 and a TeleVue 24mm Panoptic eyepiece.) Even so, the results are OK.

There were other good targets out and about. Jupiter is still reasonably high in the southwest at dusk, and I got some good looks at it even before dark. A favorite at this time of the year is the Christmas Tree Cluster (NGC 2264) which really does look like a Christmas tree. Mars cleared my backyard trees around midnight. It's still a little far off, as opposition isn't until late January, and this year's apparition isn't a very good one. I didn't resolve any surface features on Mars. Also took a look at M31, the great Andromeda Galaxy. It was easily visible even with a lot of Moon right nearby. We actually saw M31 without aid of magnification from Ashland, Oregon during the new Moon in September.

I also checked off a handful of objects on the list for the Astronomical League's Urban Observing Club. Another of those has some seasonal appeal. It's the "Blue Snowball," a planetary nebula known as NGC 7662. As of today I've seen 90 of the 100 objects on the Urban Club list. Almost there!

Some high, thin clouds rolled through starting at about 12:30, and a breeze kicked up, so it got cold in a hurry. I retreated inside to some hot buttered rum and a warm bed at about 1 a.m. Not a bad evening!

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