Shortly after Astronomy Week, I experienced my first ever dark-sky observing at the RTMC Astronomy Expo 2011 on Memorial Day weekend May 27-29th, held at YMCA Camp Oakes near Big Bear City in Southern California.
RTMC is a 3-day event which includes vendors, presentations/workshops, raffle, and swap meet, as well as a contest for most original home-made telescope. But I was mainly excited about experiencing some "dark-sky" observing (the campsite is in a "green-zone"), since I had never observed anything darker than suburban or "orange zone" conditions back in Los Angeles. My instrument of choice is the 100mm Orion Skyscanner, because of its transportability to darker sky sites (easily fits in a large backpack) and because it provides just enough aperture to show all the Messiers and the brighter NGC objects in a suburban sky. Although my observing session was cut short on the second (Saturday) night because of full-force winds, the skies were gorgeous that weekend – I have never seen so many stars and the Milky Way was beautiful.
On Friday night, the first DSO I pointed my 100mm Skyscanner at was galaxy M109 in Ursa Major. At only 20X, I couldn’t believe how bright it was, even with the "dipper" star in the field of view. Next target was NGC 3877 (visual mag. 11.3, surface brightness mag. 13.2) also in Ursa Major – with the help of a deep sky chart, I was (surprisingly) able to spot this galaxy using direct vision. From there, finding the Ursa Major NGC galaxies 5322 (10.1, 13.5), 5308 (11.7, 12.6) and 4605 (10.4, 13.0) was a cinch. My final target was NGC 4236 (9.9, 15.3), a huge galaxy (21.9’ x 7.2’) in Draco, but because it was low in the sky by the time I searched as well as its low surface brightness, I had no luck finding it (I later found out it was on the list of RASC’s challenging deep sky objects!).
Even though the winds were beginning to pick up early Saturday evening, I was determined to nail NGC 4236 when it was higher in the sky. So right after the RTMC raffle, just before the keynote speaker was to make his presentation, I rushed out of the camp dining hall and back to my campsite, grabbed the Skyscanner out of my tent, attached the tripod to the base, and made another stab at NGC 4236. Aiming my scope higher overhead at 20X and using averted vision, lo and behold it was there, as a thin sliver of light. As is the case with large galaxies having low surface brightness, lower powers work best – this object seemed to fade into the background even at 40X. I had time to seek out one more rather easy target (galaxy NGC 4589 – 10.9, 13.1) before the strong winds ended my final evening of dark sky observing at the RTMC.
The Orion Skyscanner is my portable mini "light-bucket" and I love it!!
Telescope Field at Camp Oakes
Kneeling in front of my tent