Mt. Wilson Observatory Trip
November 5-6, 2016
Trip summary and observation by Glen Smeltzer
After meeting in the San Luis Obispo Home Depot parking lot, we boarded the bus and a car for the trip south. We stopped in Santa Barbara for a quick lunch and a peek through Dave Majors’ H-alpha solar telescope to check out the activity on the sun, where we noted a couple of prominences but not much else. Back on the road to La Cañada/Flintridge where we fueled up and headed for the mountain top. All went smoothly until we were stopped just short of the turnoff to the observatory because of a motorcycle accident and had to turn around to another route, which cost us an hour of time. However, we did arrive at the observatory safely and in enough time for an abbreviated tour and our night of observing through the 60 telescope.
Our hostess, Shelly Bonus, and master telescope manipulator, Tom Mason, were wonderfully accommodating and provided us with an exceptional experience. Over the course of the night we observed over 30 objects in the night sky, many which most of us have never seen before. At the hours passed, some of us took time to cat nap or indulge in the world’s best hot chocolate. Throughout the night we shared stories with one another, took cell phone photos through the eyepiece, kept reasonably warm, and expressed our amazement at many of the views through the scope.
Following is a list of the objects we viewed and and what I was able to observe about them. Others saw more detail and some saw less; this is simply my observations.
- Mars – nicely resolved showing dark and light areas of the terrain. Seeing had not settled down yet as this was early in the evening, so Mars popped in and out of focus.
- Ring Nebula – Beautiful view, although I was still not able to identify the central star. Still best view I have ever had.
- Double double in Lyra – Crisp view of this multiple star system.
- Moon – With the very narrow field of view afforded by this magnificent instrument, we were focused on a small portion of the waxing crescent. Again the view was crisp and very steady, hardly a hint of atmospheric ripple. Features were clearly and easily visible. We could have explored much more, but, alas, we had other objects to visit.
- Albireo – This beautiful double star in Cygnus sat like a sapphire and diamond on black velvet seemingly so close as to reach out and touch.
- Blinking Planetary Nebula (NGC 6826) – Here the central star was not only visible, it was impossible to miss, very bright, and it was surrounded by its gas cloud, not in a ring but full almost to the central star itself. When I averted my vision the cloud brightened significantly, nearly outshining the star. I enjoyed averting and centering just to see the effect.
- Campbell’s Hydrogen Star – This tiny planetary nebula proved to be a challenge, even in such a large telescope as the 60”, but it was distinguishable as a nebula rather than a star.
- Neptune and Triton – Tiny, but easily seen as a blue planet, although very oblate. A real treat was noting its moon Triton, an amazing sight considering the distance from Earth.
- M 15 – While certainly not the largest of globular clusters at about 100,000 stars, it was easy to see hundreds of individual stars even close to the core. Not bad for being 36,000 light years away.
- Deer Lick Galaxy (NGC 7331) – Very small and very faint. Averted vision helped, but this tiny target was difficult to observe. I was able to make out its central core as a bright spot in this edge-on spiral galaxy.
- Blue Snowball (NGC 7662) – Wow! Just wow! This planetary nebula showed up blue as its name would indicate and quite large. I was able to make out its ejection layers of gas as rings of gas emanating from the center. An amazing sight.
- Uranus, Titania, Oberon, and Miranda – Beautiful blue disk, well focused in the center of the eyepiece. I was able, after a couple of tries, to find the three moons listed here.
- M 32 – No wonder I haven’t been able to see this very well in my own scope. It’s tiny even in the 60”, but still observable.
- G 1 – Stretching the limits of the scope we observed this globular cluster that is attached to the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million light years away. Yes, is was barely distinguishable from the two foreground stars used as markers, but there it was. I was looking at a group of stars in another galaxy. Scientists estimate some 12 million stars comprise this wonderful globular.
- M 77 – A galaxy located in Pisces. Very small view, but definitely shows as a galaxy with a bright central core.
- M 45 – The Pleiades, well one bright star and three dimmer ones in this very narrow view, where we were able to see the nebulosity of the gas cloud through which the Pleiades is passing.
- M 42 – The Great Orion Nebula. Again, WOW! The details of wispy gas clouds easily visible. The color, a pale green, varying with the thickness of the cloud, almost creating a 3D effect. The Trapezium, showing its four main stars and two smaller ones. Add the Oxygen III filter and gasp as the background dims and the cloud becomes even further defined. I’ll never look at the Orion Nebula with the same eyes again.
- Sirius and Sirius B – The blinding light os Sirius, combined with refraction spikes, prevented me from identifying the companion star. Other reported seeing it.
- M 46 – A small planetary nebula with an open cluster in the same field of view. The nebula was faintly visible, but the Oxygen III filter made it pop into view instantly, almost magically. Much fun moving the filter in and out of the view to watch the show.
- M 37 – A beautiful open cluster of blue stars with a single red one almost in its center. Almost as if someone had a string of blue mini Christmas lights and had to replace one of the blue ones with a warm white mini-light. Lovey to observe.
- NGC 1514 – Planetary nebula. Difficult to see detail of any kind.
- NGC 1535 – Planetary nebula. Small, blue appearing nebula.
- R Leporis – Hines Crimson Star. Bright star surrounded by a tight, red halo of hydrogen. Absolutely stunning! Very bright red around the center of the star.
- Rigel – Clearly saw Rigel’s companion star and the difference in brightness was huge. Interesting sight.
- Betelgeuse – Requested by one of the group, this red giant is almost too bright in a scope like this, but looked like a bright star topper for a Christmas tree because of the refraction spikes surrounding it. Color of the star very vivid.
- M 41 – Small open cluster with two red giants among the bright blue stars of the cluster.
- Beta Monoceros – This triple star system includes one star off to one side of the other two.
- J900 – Planetary nebula. Very tiny, almost just a dot, but not a star. No details visible to me.
- Zeta Cancri – Another triple star system, very similar to Beta Monoceros
- Ghost of Jupiter – Dawn was approaching and clouds were encroaching. I was unable to detect this object, although others said they did.. I will check it out personally when Jupiter is once again in the night sky.
Here are my comments to add to Glen’s
- The Ring Nebula was gorgeous. I could not detect the central star but clearly saw nebulosity within the ring itself.
- Moon- we were looking at the straits between the Sea of Tranquility and the Sea of Serenity. Ron and I spent a fair amount of time identifying the crater Plinius.
- NGC 7331. I had a lot of fun with this one. I had never heard of it being called the “Deer Lick” galaxy. The galaxy is one of the “Cigar” spirals- Not edge on but a highly inclined angle. I saw some mottling on the galaxy as if we were right on the edge of being able to see spiral arms.
- Blue Snowball in Andromeda. This was a great one. You could see rings and arcs inside the planetary nebula indicating many episodes of dust ejection.
- Uranus and moons- Ron, Glen and I went back and forth with Ron’s chart trying to identify which moon was which.
- M32- Easy to spot. I got into a fun little banter with Shelley our session director. I was trying to see if I could detect the background glow of M 31 surrounding M-32. I thought I could but like so many things seen right at the edge of visibility I hesitate to claim I positively did. Shelley thought I was batty looking for it. Probably was.
- G1- also known as Mayall 11-was an easy object for me. While I have never seen it through my own scopes I have seen it in other scopes of 20 ” over the years. In the 60″ this globular was bright and definitely non-stellar. However- if I didn’t know it was one I would not have known it was a globular. One of the more fun things I do when looking at M-31 through a large instrument is to look closely at any stars in the field of view- just in case they are actually bright supergiants in M-31. With the Mt. Wilson 60 ” several of these should be apparent visually. Without a detailed chart I will not be able to positively tell whether they are M-31 stars or Milky Way foreground stars but what the heck.
16 .M-45 The Pleiades- young Open Cluster with nebulosity. Nebulosity was easy. One again Ron and I conferred over his iPad to see if we could identify the stars. We identified it as Taygeta
- M-42. Another WOW. Talk about spectacular. Green all the way across the field of view with innumerable dark patches. And then add the O-III filter and -WOW!!
- Sirius and Sirius B. Sirius B was a easily visible just to the right of the diffraction spike at the top of the field of view. There where a couple of stars of comparable brightness so it took Shelley to point out which one was the companion.
- M46. For me this was the highlight of the night.The open cluster M-46 in Puppis was too large for the field of view but then it has a foreground object- the Planetary Nebula NGC 2438 seemingly within the cluster. In my own scopes this is very pale and difficult to spot. It was the same way in the 60″ -barely visible. Until the O-III filter is brought into play- then WOW! It looks like a big Ring . Easy to see and filled half the field of view.
- M-37. A pretty Open Cluster in Aurigae. Glen and I had a lot of fun with this one. I spent some time using this cluster as an example of how to interpolate visual measurements of star brightness. When he got up to the scope he was able to detect brightness variations that he hadn’t noticed before. Hopefully he will never look at a star cluster the same again
- This was Ron’s star. One of my regular Mira variables- it is near minimum light. It is also a carbon star. An old star currently in the AGB stage of evolution- the last stage in a star before becoming a Planetary Nebula. Both Carbon and Oxygen have been dredged up from deep inside. All the oxygen has been locked up in Carbon Monoxide (yes -the star is cool enough for chemical compounds to form). The carbon absorbs the blue light from the star and thus it is intensely red.
- J-900. I had a lot of fun with this one. In fact- I was in heaven. I had to help Shelley and Tom Mason locate it. Tom uses the Sky as his planetarium software to get him the coordinates and he couldn’t find it in his database. So I take my laptop behind the telescope to his control console and between me giving him the coordinates and him controlling the telescope we get it centered. Then Shelley asks me to identify it for her. It is a bright but small planetary. No sign of the central star but the nebula is easy to see. I commented I haven’t seen it that much and Shelley quips “Maybe there’s a reason I haven’t seen it much”
- Ghost of Jupiter. Last object of the night and hidden in the dawn. I looked very hard for it but saw nothing. A couple of people did mange to make it out but the sky was brightening too quickly for the rest of us to see anything.
I have to say that Shelley and Tom- our session directors were just absolutely fabulous. Shelley was wearing a very appropriate astronomy based Halloween type costume with headgear. A great sense of humor and she and I exchanged in some banter through the night. She took the time all through out the night to talk individually with our group members.
As a group we actually stumped them .We ran through the entire list they had prepared and toward the end they were looking for more objects to feed our voracious astronomical appetites. We got in several requests of our own.
And I certainly can’t leave out Nick- the docent who gave us our tour before the observing began. Very personable and friendly. He regaled with with some great stories about the history of Mt Wilson. He activated and rotated the platform while we were in the 100 “dome and opened the shutters partially. I especially enjoyed his story of Walter Baade and his World War 2 experiences.
Clear skies and dark: