New moon is the best time for astronomy because then the lunar glare does not wash out the dim nebulas and galaxies that preside over deep space. I was desperate to take advantage of the new moon period this month, as warm dark nights are available only a few times a year. The weather looked unpromising for places I wanted to visit, up to and including the new moon, which was on Aug. 9. The next day’s weather was fine for astronomy but I was committed to attend an evening meeting of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society Board of Directors in a local Denny’s Restaurant.
Consequently, from Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning I drove three times from Salt Lake City to Utah’s western desert and back. Twice I camped at the Knolls Sand Dunes, an off-road vehicle recreation area halfway from the capital to the Nevada state line; between those excursions I went to Lakeside, a dusty valley 20 miles closer to the city. The sites are in Tooele County.
*** Strike One, night of Aug. 11-12, Wednesday to Thursday
I set up on a hard and relatively flat desert just outside the Knolls ORV reserve, so close to the I-80 freeway that I heard all the semis as they snarled past and saw their headlights. But the lights really weren’t a problem and this was a surprisingly dark site. The problem was the incessant wind. Unless it stopped bumping the telescope around astrophotography would be impossible.
The wind whipped my pant legs and rustled plastic bags that held some of my gear. My hat flew off a couple of times, and a rubber mat that I use to cushion the tripod on the back seat, blew onto the desert. The hard soil was littered with bits of broken porcelain, glass shards and other debris.
The scope made terrible noises while attempting its first major slew, and then the hand-held control box, called the handbox, flashed a notification that a motor failure had occurred. This seemed a catastrophe. But I found that the little steel knob that adjusts declination was bent, chaffing on the support and finally jamming against it. I bent the knob back nearly into position, and shifts in declination began working better.
The wind would not die down. It hooted and whined, the sounds sometimes mingling peculiarly with the generator’s chugging. As it shook the telescope, star images in the eyepiece became white streaks.
Still, in the momentary pauses I immensely enjoyed examining the Cat’s Eye Nebula, which was as bright as a star but spread out; the open star cluster M55, nicknamed the Scorpion Cluster; the great galaxy in Andromeda; the Ring Nebula; the fascinating spiral galaxy NGC7331; the fuzz enveloping some of the Pleiades cluster; the wonderful Whirlpool Galaxy, and several prominent stars. The Milky Way was glorious. An advance agent from the Perseid Meteor Shower flamed across the black sky leaving a clumpy smoke trail that I could see for eight or ten seconds after it passed.
Close to the location is a railroad track. Passenger trains gave long honks and swept by. When the first approached its compartments were lit up. Much later the next came into view heading the opposite direction and the lighting was dim in most of its compartments. A cargo train took long minutes to roll past and its silhouette looked like a knobby landscape pulling by.
*** Strike two, night of Aug. 12-13, Thursday to Friday
It was a lovely night at Lakeside. When I arrived I found that Steven Fisher, also of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, was already set up with his large refractor scope. Later another fellow, Dan, showed up with his two dogs. Dan wanted to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower from a dark site. He was eager to learn more about astronomy and indicated he might join the Society.
[My telescope at Lakeside, Tooele County, as I wait for the local star to set]
The Perseids were supposed to peak between midnight and 3 a.m. We saw only a few shooting stars but some were bright blazers. At least the night was calm and clear.
I tried to work further on the declination problem but when I tried to force the stainless steel knob upright, it broke off. With the telescope on the tripod I disassembled the cover over the declination mechanism and discovered the bent knob had jiggled loose a teeny hex screw. The screw kept a gear pushed against its axle. When it was loose the axle would spin without fully engaging the gear.
I used a correspondingly small hexagonal wrench to tighten the screw, which restored the mechanism to good working order. The knob wasn’t vital and I decided not to bother replacing it. The telescope now swung obediently without hanging up or hesitating.
I centered the spiral galaxy NGC 6946 in the main camera and got it tightly focused. In trial exposures, the galaxy’s sprawling long arms stretched dramatically across my laptop’s screen. I was excited about getting a much better photo of NGC6946 than I’d made back in 2006. But when I plugged the wrong cable into a socket, the scope went haywire, forcing a time-consuming restart, from aligning the telescope to finding the galaxy.
I had downloaded an improved version of the PHD autoguiding program to keep the telescope locked onto its target, but I had not studied it. I struggled all night to get it working with a cruddy guide camera. With dawn coming, I changed autoguiding cameras, putting on a Meade Deep Space Imager I had toted for years without using. It connected nicely and delivered crisp images, but I could not get it to move the telescope.
Finally I clicked on a button that connects to the mount, and it worked fabulously. I took a test image: the view was steady, locked in, but dawn had washed out the galaxy.
*** Strike Three, night of Aug. 13-14, Friday to Saturday
Lakeside was half a mile out of range of my cell phone and Cory didn’t like that. So I was back at Knolls. A train that went past threw a ferocious light on power poles and dirt hills, and motorcycles growled around. I had thought I’d be away from them because I wasn’t in the sand dunes per se, but they used the roads at night. I could see shadowy figures standing upright in the ORVs that whipped past.
The telescope was easy to set up and I got started faster than usual. The only difficulty was that I was off of true north just enough that I had to move the tripod and re-level it. But that didn’t take long. I found my target for the night, NGC 7331, right off the bat by syncing on a nearby star, Matar, a corner point in Pegasus. I centered the galaxy and locked the guide camera onto a target.
I was about to finish focusing the main camera when a hurricane of wind hit. It kept worsening.
It was impossible to focus when the stars were jiggling blobs. I took several views of 320 seconds each, just to see if the guider worked. They showed smears of light in the identical places, meaning the guider somehow managed to keep locked on.
The Milky Way stretched across nearly the entire sky, showing dark dust lanes. I picked out constellations and waited for the wind to stop.
I called Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, who was driving home from a public star party, and asked him to check a weather page on the Internet. He said the air was still where he was, near the Great Salt Lake. I was dozing in the Jeep when he called back and told me that at Knolls a wind of 8-10 mph apparently was supposed to last all night. I felt certain it was far wilder than that, maybe 30 mph. The Jeep rocked and shook.
In the morning there was an ORV accident in the BLM reserve beyond my camp, and several emergency vehicles went up the road toward it. An hour or so later, while I was loading my equipment into the Jeep, an ambulance and fire-fighting vehicle returned. A white pickup truck with BLM decals stopped and a ranger walked over to chat with me. She said a fellow had tried a jump on his motorcycle, was thrown and broke his hip. He was airlifted out, though I had not seen the helicopter.
She had been to a SLAS star party and I advised her to join the society.
The following night turned out clear and peaceful. But it would not do to take off for a fourth night, and I was exhausted.
Now August’s new moon period is over. The half-illuminated disk hangs above, shining malevolently. The next new moon will be on Sept. 8, with summer’s balmy weather going fast or gone.