Constellations: Cygnus, Orion,
Asterism: Winter Circle
Messier Objects: M31,M42, M45 (Pleaides)
Planets: Jupiter, Mars
Time: 8:00 PM - 11:00 PM ADT
Instrument: 10" Meadse SCT + Binocular 10x42 IS
Eyepieces: 10mm, 25mm, 40mm, Svbony 3mm-8mm zoom eyepiece
Transparency: Average (3)
Seeing: Average (3)
Observing in Less than Stellar Conditions
While enjoying my morning coffee on January 12, I read two articles in the February 2023 edition of Astronomy magazine – one by Bob Berman on page 12 made me chuckle and the second by Stephen James O’Meara on page 52 elicited an “ah-ha, so that’s what I saw!”
The curse of continuous cloudy skies disappeared on the previous evening, perhaps fleetingly, but nonetheless it was a clear, cloudless night. With my list of Messier objects to observe and to sketch, I stood beside our 10” Meade SCT that Jerry generously set up for me to view Cygnus’ brightest stars shining over western rooftops, Jupiter shining brightly in the south, and the Winter Circle with Mars and the Pleaides clearly visible in the east. At my disposal were 40 mm, 25 mm, 15 mm, and 10mm eyepieces and I was also going to try my Christmas gift - a Svbony 3mm - 8mm zoom eyepiece. My 10x42 image-stabilized binoculars were at the ready.
Bob Berman’s article explained how even backyard astronomers go through the five stages of grief when seeing is not the greatest. Seeing and transparency last evening were rated as average (and perceived as less than average); I experienced the stages just as he described. The session in question began at 6:45 PM AST and it wasn’t until I read his article that I could put it all into perspective.
Stage 1: Denial
Because I knew where to look, I found M31 using my 10x42 IS binoculars before beginning to look for M31, M32 and M110 with the Meade SCT. I used the go-to function and found the non-descript M31 smudge. There was no denying that M31’s characteristic features (bright centre, elliptical appearance) were being denied by the urban light dome, the sky conditions, the equipment used, or perhaps my watering eyes that required frequent drying. I could not make the stars in the FOV appear as pinpoints; they were fuzzy dots at best and mini donuts at worst throughout this session. I thought, “Okay, I know bad seeing is common so let’s look for another object. Maybe this was an exception.” Denial.
Stage 2: Anger
By changing an eyepiece or viewing the object again later in the session when sky conditions change, the possibility of observing the object in question usually improves – not this time. Again, the go-to function was used to “find” M110 (a small fuzzy). I was greatly disappointed in the lack of detail and the lack of definition of the stars, despite several attempts at focusing. Forget about finding M32 in that fuzzy non-entity. Andromeda, et.al., was a bust! The failure to observe these objects in the detail I wanted caused a bit of upset, anger to say the least. Adding to this, my headlamp’s battery died (special size of battery I didn’t have in stock), and I discovered my SQM’s battery was also dead. Bah, humbug.
Stage 3: Bargaining
In his article, Bob Berman stated, “You turn to the next stage: bargaining! Okay, but with whom?” A really good question given the sky gods seemingly weren’t cooperating so no sense appealing to them. I didn’t want to feel like I hadn’t tried, and Jerry was trying to help diagnose why I couldn’t “see” things. The decision was to bargain with myself. Bargain with myself? Who else was there? Try different targets, try different eyepieces, and keep my dry-eye syndrome at bay. My bargain was that if I succeeded in observing and sketching one target, I would go indoors to enjoy a hot chocolate.
Stage 4: Depression
How does one win a bargain with oneself? First, get gloves to keep fingers warmer (it was windless but -10 ̊ Celsius). Second, look for something the conditions would allow observing. Jupiter and its moons maybe? I started with the 40 mm eyepiece, then used the 25mm; Jerry could see the planet’s striping with both eyepieces albeit variable in moments of good seeing whereas it totally escaped me. This is the point where I considered giving up. What was the point in staying outside? Couldn’t see anything. Nothing worked. Bah, humbug.
I chuckled the next morning when reading Berman’s words: “...you suddenly realize what astronomers have known for 413 years: Wiggly, depression-inducing seeing is so widespread, you have no choice in the matter. A smile creeps across your face, the expression common to observers through the centuries. Finally you know its name and cause.”
Stage 5: Acceptance
Having experienced this “success”, I slewed to view the Pleaides, saw Mars as a small red featureless spot centred in my FOV, and then turned my scope to Orion’s M42. I sketched what I saw, assuming it was M42 and other stars and nebula in close proximity.
Now, let’s come back to my morning coffee and reading the February 2023 edition of Astronomy. Stephen James O’Meara, in his article entitled “The Theta Orionis challenge”, challenged us to split Theta1 Orionis and Theta2 Orionis without optical aids. It’s an interesting read but what especially caught my attention was the photo in his article. It was the mirror image of what I saw in my scope and what I had sketched!
Ah-ha, so that’s what I saw! Four stars with one looking elongated (that I initially attributed to the frustrations experienced earlier), 3 bright-ish stars in a line with a fourth less bright forming an equilateral triangle with the two further out, and two stars (one above and one below the quadrilateral). The nebula surrounding it was heart shaped with the quadrilateral side more nebulous than the part covering the first star.
What I learned from this session is that we as astronomers eventually do succeed when we keep going out into the dark and cold, despite all the grief it gives us while out there. We go back night after night (skies allowing) to observe that special object, to perchance sketch its details or to capture it digitally. It’s a process, one we go through alone or with like-minded others – and there’s always acceptance (at some level) of what we see and how well we see it. Don’t we all go through these stages at some point in our observing careers and doesn’t the memory of it stay with us – success or not?