Just got back from an exciting astro expedition to Hopewell Observatory with one of the other members. Great fun!

Anybody living on the East Coast in March 2018 has just lived through a very strong, multi-day gale. The same weather system brought snow and flooding to the northeast, and here in the DC-Mar-Va area, it was cut off power to many (including my mother-in law) and caused almost all local school districts to close — even the Federal Government! Two of my immediate neighbors in DC had serious roof damage.

Today, Sunday, Paul M and I decided the wind had calmed enough, and the sky was clear enough, for an expedition to go up and observe. We both figured there was a good chance the road up to the observatory would be blocked by trees, and it turns out that we were right. My chainsaw was getting repaired – long story, something I couldn’t fix on my own – so I brought along work gloves, a nice sharp axe, loppers, and a 3-foot bowsaw. We used all of them. There were two fairly large dead trees that had fallen across the road, and we were able to cut them up and push them out of the way.

However, there was a large and very dangerous ‘widow-maker’ tree (two images above) that had fallen across the road, but it was NOT on the ground. Instead, was solidly hung up on the thick telecommunications line at about a thirty-degree angle to the ground. The power lines above it didn’t seem to be touched. You could easily walk under the trunk, if you dared (and we did), and you probably could drive under it, but of course the motion of the car just might be enough to make it crack in half and crush some unlucky car and its driver. Or maybe it might make the phone line shake a bit …

No thanks.

So, we didn’t drive under.

I called the emergency phone for the cell phone tower (whose access road we share) to alert them that the road was blocked and could only be cleared by a professional. I also attempted to call a phone company via 611, without much success — after a long wait, the person at the other end eventually asked me for the code to my account before they would forward me to somebody who could take care of it. Very weird and confusing. What account? What code? My bank account? No way. We will both call tomorrow. Paul says he knows some lawyers at Verizon, whose line he thinks it is.

But then: how were we going to turn the cars around? It’s a very narrow road, with rocks and trees on one side. The other side has sort of a ravine and yet more trees. Paul realized before I did that we had to help each other and give directions in the darkness to the other person, or else we would have to back up all the way to the gate! Turning around took about four maneuvers, per car, in the dark, with the other person (armed with astronomer’s headlamp, of course) yelling directions on when to turn, how much to go forward, when to stop backing up, and so on. Success – no injuries! We both got our cars turned around, closed them up, got our cutting tools, gloves and hats, and then hiked the rest of the way up, south and along the ridge and past the big cell phone tower, to the Observatory buildings themselves, moving and cutting trees as we went.

As we were clearing the roadway and walking up the ridge, we peered to the west to try to find Venus and Mercury, which had heard were now evening planets again. It wasn’t easy, because we were looking through LOTS of trees, in the direction of a beautiful multi-color, clear-sky sunset featuring a bright orange line above the ridge to our west. Winter trees might not have any leaves, but they still make the search for sunset planets rather tough. Even if you hold perfectly still, one instant you see a flash that’s maybe a planet, or maybe an airplane, and then the branches (which are moving in the breeze, naturally) hide it again. So what was it? Paul’s planetarium smartphone app confirmed he saw Venus. If the trees weren’t there, I think we also would have seen Mercury, judging by Geoff Chester’s photo put out on the NOVAC email list. I think I saw one planet.

In any case, everything at the observatory was just fine – no tree damage on anything, thanks to our prior pruning efforts. The Ealing mount and its three main telescopes all worked well, and the sky and stars were gorgeous both to the naked eye and through the scopes. Orion the Hunter, along with the Big Dog and the Rabbit were right in front of us (to the south) and Auriga the Charioteer was right above us. Pleiades (or the Subaru) was off high in the west. Definitely the clearest night I’ve had since my visit to Wyoming for the solar eclipse last August, or to Spruce Knob WV for the Almost Heaven Star Party the month after that.

Paul said that he and his daughter had been learning the proper names of all the stars in the constellation Orion, such as Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak. As with many other star names, all those names are Arabic, a language that I’ve been studying for a while now [but am not good at. So complicated!] Mintaka and Alnitak are essentially the same Arabic word.

After we got the scopes working, Paul suggested checking out Rigel, the bright ‘leg’ of Orion, because it supposedly had a companion star. {Rajul means “leg”} We looked, and after changing the various eyepieces and magnifications, we both agreed that Rigel definitely does have a little buddy.

I had just read in Sky & Telescope that Aristotle (from ancient Greece) may have given the first written account of what we now call an “open cluster” in the constellation Canis Major (Big Dog – that’s Latin, which I studied in grades 7 – 12) called Messier-41, only a couple of degrees south of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. A passage in a book allegedly written by Aristotle (roughly 230 BC) seems to indicate that he could see this object with averted vision. (He was trying to establish that it was a fuzzy patch in the sky that was most definitely NOT a comet, just like Charles Messier was doing almost exactly two thousand years later!)

M41 was quite attractive. But no, we didn’t then look at M42. Been there, done that many times before. And no, what you see with a telescope does not have all those pretty colors that you see in a photograph.

Instead, we looked on a multi-sheet star atlas (that stays in the observatory) near M41 and found three other open clusters, all really beautiful. We first found M38 and thought that in the C-14 and 6″ Jaegers, it looked very anthropoid or like an angry insect, if you allowed your mind to connect the beautiful dots of light on the black background. In the shorter 5″ refractor made by Jerry Short, it looked like a sprinkling of diamond dust. This cluster must have been formed rather recently. We then found M36, which was much less rich, but still quite pretty. Lastly, we found M37, another open cluster, which has a very bright yellow star near the center, against background of much fainter stars. It seemed to me that those other stars might be partly obscured by a large and somewhat translucent cloud of dust. We saw a web of very opaque dust lanes, which we confirmed by readings on the Web. Really, really beautiful. But I’m glad we don’t live there: too dangerous. Some of the stars are in fact red giants, we read.

Then we looked straight overhead, in the constellation Auriga. We decided to bypass the electronics and have Paul aim the telescope, using the Telrad 1-power finderscope, at one of the fuzzy patches that he saw there. He did, and my notes indicate that we eventually figured out that he found Messier-46 (yet another open cluster) with his naked eye! Very rich cluster, I think, and we even found the fan-shaped planetary nebula inside!

At this point we were getting seriously cold so we moved over just a little, using the instruments, to find M47, again, a very pretty open cluster.

Realizing that the cold and fatigue makes you do really stupid things, and that we were out in the woods with no way to drive up here in case of a problem, we were very careful about making sure we were doing the closing up procedures properly and read the checklist at the door to each other, to make sure we didn’t forget anything.

On the walk back, we saw the Moon coming up all yellowish-orange, with the top of its ‘head’ seemingly cut off. When it got a bit higher, it became more silver-colored and less distorted, but still beautiful.

I really thought all of those open clusters were gorgeous in their own right, and I think it would be an excellent idea to make photographs of them, but perhaps black dots on white paper, and give them to young folks, and ask them to connect the dots, in whatever way they feel like doing. What sorts of interesting drawings would twenty-five students come up with?

I am not sure which of our various telescopes would do the best job at making astro images. I have a CCD camera (SBIG ST-2000XM), with a filter wheel. What about just making it a one-shot monochromatic black and white image? I also have a Canon EOS Revel XSI (aka 450D, I think). Compare and contrast… The CCD is really heavy, the Canon quite light. I also have a telephoto lens for the Canon, which means that I have essentially four telescopes to choose from (but not a big budget!). One problem with the C-14 and my cameras is that the field of view is tiny: you can only take images of very small bits of what you can see in the eyepiece with your naked eye. This means you would need to make a mosaic of numerous pictures.

In any case, no imaging last night! Not only did I not feel like hauling all that equipment for a quarter of a mile, after all that chopping, sawing, and shoving trees, it turns out I had left my laptop home in the first place. D’oh!

I had previously found every single one of these open clusters when I made my way through the entire Messier list of over 100 objects, with my various home-made telescopes, which had apertures up to 12.5 inches. However, I don’t think I had ever seen them look so beautiful before! Was it the amazing clarity of the night, or the adventure, or the company? I don’t know!

But this was a very fun adventure, and this photography project – attempting to make decent images of these six open clusters – promises to be quite interesting!