Tuesday, March 20, 2007

my first RASC city session (Toronto)

Wow! Tonight was a lot of fun!

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada - Toronto Centre city observing session was a GO tonight. The sky was looking very favourable this afternoon. I monitored Environment Canada, Danko's sky condition site (predicted seeing: average 3/5; transparency: average), and the GEOS satellite imagery through the day. I was hopeful!

I hurried home from downtown, reviewing my packing checklist, and loaded the car excitedly in anticipation. By about 4:30 or 5:00 PM, it was obvious that the evening would remain clear (air pressure at PIA was 103.9 and rising). I ate an early dinner and put on layers of warm clothes. I had emailed the Yahoo listserv to clarify where we would meet and when I should get there. Guy replied with some tips and suggestions where to park and setup and said he'd be there around 7:30 (for the sunset).

With some irony, I thought, searching for a warm hat, I'll put on my Subaru Rally Team toque!

I chose to take an inner city route to the Bayview Village Park (coincidentally passing the RASC national office on Dupont) so to avoid the highways and guessed correctly that I would need 45 minutes travel time from High Park. I arrived at 7:15. The western sky was still bright and I could not see the young moon's crescent or Venus.

lat: 43.77 N
long: 79.39 W

I debated waiting in the parking lot for some of the "regulars" to arrive so I would know where to set up. But then I decided to at least move my gear from the car into the field (in 2 trips) so I could do some preliminary setup. Even with the tripod up and the mount installed, I could easily relocate. I used the mini-compass in the mount to find magnetic north (later when I could see Polaris, I found I was within a degree of it). At this point, I spotted the thin crescent of the Moon. That's it then! Fire up the 'scope! As I was attaching the OTA, other members arrived. I then spotted Venus ablaze 20° above the moon. The moon was very pleasing through the 'scope. Venus was gibbous.

Shortly after, Phil and Guy wandered into the park, gear in hand (I liked Phil's portable table). It was a treat meeting them (even though they protested I had set up too far from the parking lot). I fired many questions at them and they clarified a number of items for me. For example, I was trying to get a sense of how old the moon was. Phil pointed out that the new moon was on Sunday; so tonight's moon was 2 days old. I asked Guy about my suspicion that I would benefit from converting to a 2" visual back and mirror-diagonal before getting new eyepieces.

Guy was very supportive at the 'scope and let me try a bunch of his eyepieces on my SP-C8. That was a very pleasant surprise and very illuminating. With the 32mm, viewing M42 and the Trapezium was very pleasing and I could see the green colouring of the nebulosity. We went up to 250x trying to spot E and F in the Trapezium. I really liked the 32mm for viewing the moon. Wow!

We acknowledged the vernal equinox at 8:07 PM. We joked that some arrived during the winter; others had arrived in the spring.

I spotted Saturn early on and our 'scopes swung to the new target. It was good to be back. The rings presented very nicely. When the air stabilised, I could see the Cassini division and cloud bands. I could easily see a number of moons around the ringed planet. However, none of us knew exactly which ones were where. I also noted the shadow of the planet on the rings. Beautiful.

Soon there was largish crowd. Later Guy and I were trying to remember the numbers. We agreed it was about a dozen people. A number were visitors with lots of questions. One gentleman (William) was there with a newish 'scope (a WO 80mm) on a new tripod. Another member was trying a new Pentax digital camera.

It was tremendous fun looking through the different telescopes. I had never looked through a dob before. Saturn was very nice with good contrast. Phil's APO view of the Perseus Double Cluster (NGC 884 and 869; aka Caldwell 14) presented a crisp, delicate view with incredibly fine, small stars. Anthony's refractor views of Saturn were quite nice at medium powers with good contrast. Later when he targeted the backlit moon, it just popped! It was very dimensional. I had an incredibly strong sense of an orb floating in space.

Later, I asked Phil for some good targets for my cat. He suggested the open clusters Messiers M36, M37, or M38 in Auriga. I tried a few times for them, even using my Tirion charts at one point, but could not see them.

A discussion ensued about the Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31 or M31). Someone suggested that it could not be seen but then we were reminded that March was the month of Messier Marathons. That said, it was quickly determined that at this time (it was probably around 9:30 or 10:00PM), it was very low. Someone spotted it by averted vision with their big binoculars off in the north-west. I tried for it with my crappy Bushnells and just caught a glimpse of it. Rising to the challenge, I worked the telescope viewfinder and my binos until I final nailed it. And there, very faintly, in the eyepiece, a ghostly apparition. Guy confirmed it. That was tough!

I was getting cold. I had brought my Oregon Scientific eb313hg portable weather station. I checked the ambient temperature at 10:20PM and it was -7.5°C (not counting windchill, which had lowered the temp 5° at 5:00pm). I didn't have any more energy to chase Auriga open clusters. And I realised it was starting to get late.

As I finishing packing up I checked the temperature again. It had grown colder. It was now -9°C. Oh, and the humidity was 41% (dewpoint had been predicted at -16).

A bunch of the remaining people helped me lug my gear back to the car. What a cool group of people.

And I was impressed at how dark the park was. It will get better when the trees along Bayview fill in and block the street lights.

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Phil's telescope details:

Tele Vue NP101 f5.4 (101 mm aperture, 540 mm focal length)
Universal Astronomics MacroStar mount on Manfrotto 117 tripod
Tele Vue Panoptic eyepiece at 23x with a true field of view (TFOV) of 3 degrees

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The gentleman (Dave) with the Dobsonian had a red-lit light table. I forgot to ask him about the design, how it was powered. It worked really well!

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I overheard a conversation that someone occasionally attends the city observing sessions who lives in High Park, does not have a car, takes the subway, and carries around the portable telescope. It occurred to me that car-pooling might be offered. When I'm going to my next observing session, I'll have to put that offer out there, in case anyone could use a lift.

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I was feeling a wide range of emotions this evening! Before the event I was excited and anxious. I was looking forward to learning and using my 'scope and meeting some local society members. But I was intimidated as a rookie. During the session, I was sometimes encouraged and at other times put off. Leaving the event I was a little sad, that it had to end. And I was disappointed somehow. Maybe I wanted more coaching and assistance? And later I realised I was anxious or upset with my equipment. My SCT has very low contrast compared to a Dobsonian. And the clarity of the optics pales compared to Phil's APO. And I clearly need more eyepieces... That was a little depressing.

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