Well, it has taken until Thursday, but here is my two cents worth on Stellafane. I only observed on Friday. Yes, indeed, last year was darker and the Milky Way more detailed by naked eye, but considering that the town was socked in with fog, we lucked into a very nice, but unusual, night.
I will use Andromeda for a benchmark. It was barely visible naked eye at some times, while last year there was no doubt as to where it was all night long. In the scope this year, using a set-up with my 1rpd 30mm ep, there was a distinct gap between the core of M31 and M32; last year M32 was completely enveloped by the outer regions of M31, just like in the photos you see in the magazines. I did note, however, that a number of objects seemed to fade in and out as the waves of moisture shifted and moved over our area. The zenith was always the better area to observe, while the horizons were hit-and-miss.
I have decided that I am a nebula guy, just like Pete with his asteroids. I simply love looking for the faintest extent of various nebulae. The Veil this year was good, much better than most times I've seen it this year, but last year showed festoons and swirls and 'lace curtain' areas that were not there this year. Nonetheless, over a period of a couple hours, I did find that Paul D's O-III filter darkened the Veil considerably over my UHC, and made some areas visible that I had never seen before. I was going to try the Orion Ultra-block, but had to quit viewing when I bummed my ankle again.
Before that, however, I did observe the Swan, and saw more extent in that nebula than ever before. I credit the darkness and my new mirror coatings and new secondary, since I found that the the Swan is actually a 'bubble nebula' with the Swan as the 'gemstone' on a much larger but faint 'ring' somewhat like the 'diamond ring' effect on a partial solar eclipse. I have reviewed a number of photos of the Swan in the past several days, and they confirm a faint bubble 'behind' the tail of the Swan. It actually showed up better in the eyepiece than in most photos I have looked at, although admittedly most photos concentrate on the Swan itself and do not show a wider view.
I hit the Lagoon twice, with one view being a great disappointment, but a half hour later the dust lanes were positively painted like black ink on the lovely nebulosity, with the stars like diamonds.
Swinging to M81/82, I was absolutely disappointed when M81 was so dim. Hunting around for M82, I suddenly ran into M81/82 together, as usual, and realized I had been looking at a small NGC (probably 3077) that never showed up before in any of the many times I have hunted for M81/82. My actual targets blew me away. I have never seen these two galaxies GLOW like they did that night. They were almost painfully bright, especially the central bands along the dust lane in M82.
I had the same experience as others, seeing spiral arms in M51, but not the bridge. Again, last year was better by a long shot, with the spiral arms last year standing out in very high contrast to the background sky.
However, I also saw spiral arms in M101, something I have not seen before in my telescope. I don't think M101 was on my list last year. I have always considered M101 to be a challenge to find in Rhode Island, yet in Vermont it stood out as big and bright as could be, on the edge of the field of view after I star-hopped up the chain of stars that runs away from Mizar. At home, only the core is dimly visible. This time I saw structure.
All night, we kept seeing Perseids and many random meteors from all parts of the sky. At one point, a fireball came out of Perseus and ran parallel to the horizon, right above the trees. I had the impression that I also heard this meteor, very faintly, something I have read happens in the high desert, but Paul D also said he thought he heard it. I actually thought someone had fired a bottle rocket, but this one did not explode, and I am sure it was a meteor. Since it left a persistent trail about 30 degrees long, it may have been close enough that we did hear it. I saw one meteor at the eyepiece, and satellites beyond count. Some of the satellites were dim, even in the eyepiece, so it may be that the dark skies help the satellite count, too.
Just for fun, I ran the Milky Way all along Cygnus with a wide-angle ep, just amazed to see stars like one would usually see in the Sagittarius star cloud. While I was engaged in this little flight of fancy, Paul D invited me to look for the North America nebula with a hand-held Hb filter. There was a bit of reflection off the near side of the filter, but by cupping it in my hand, I could definitely pick out nebulosity behind Deneb. I could not pick out any features that would identify the nebula, but by moving the filter away from my eye and back again, I am certain that I was seeing nebulosity. I had read that it should show up more when both eyes were kept open, with just one eye looking through the filter, but that did not work for me, at least partially because the Milky Way was so bright. I am anxious to try this with my new 2" Hb filter, which I picked up the morning after this episode. I intend to try threading the filter onto my 2" eyepiece extender, and use that for a light shield when I look through the filter. Since the North America nebula is quite large, it does not show up in its entirety in a typical telescope field of view, and I have read that the visual-with-filter method is the best for seeing the whole thing at once. I think that reclining in a chair may help, also.
Someone reported color in the Ring, and I hopped right to it. I ran the power up a couple of notches, but I think my telescope fogged over when I aimed it almost straight up. In running back and forth to get the hair dryer and climb up my ladder, I reinjured this ankle that has ruined most of my summer. I rested it for a few minutes, but it was obvious that my evening was over, so I covered the scope and called it a night.
Well, Stellafane may not be Nirvana, but it is sure worth the drive. At least part of its charm is the opportunity to observe with such a rich mix of friends. If anyone thinks astronomers are stuffy and stiff, they needed to be at Stellafane. I'll never hear 'Who's your daddy now?' without thinking of our very own 'Incredible Hulk' who seemed on the point of having his shirt rip open and truly endanger those poor folks on the hilltop. The authorities stepped in just in time.
There are not too many nights when you feel the adrenaline pumping over the brightness of the Milky Way, but that is the excitement that overwhelms me every time I see the inky skies of the North Country. I have friends on the other side of Vermont with even darker skies. I just may have to pay them a visit....
Thanks to all who helped me with my gear this weekend. I felt like I was not carrying my share of the load, but you all made it possible for me to be up there despite my bum ankle. You are all good friends.
15" f5 Starsplitter Dob/80mm Finder
5" Explore Scientific APO on Ioptron mount
4" f13 Gibson Homebuilt Refractor
"He numbers all the stars, and calls each one by name." Ps 147:4