Well, Thanksgiving turkey is still laying heavy on me, and I haven't been out to observe in two weeks, so I'm having deep thoughts about my dark site at the Simmons Lot in Little Compton. The last two times I tried to observe out there, the 'sea breeze' was a gale, and I didn't even get out of the car. But that was last spring, and I have been using Pardon Gray Preserve as an 'almost dark' site all summer, so tonight I'm feeling lucky.
As I head down Bulgarmarsh Road from my house, a lovely crescent moon setting over Portsmouth tells me that this will be a good night for sure. As I pull into the Simmons Lot at 7:30, total darkness and - just as important - no wind greet me as I drive the access road. As soon as I step out of my car, with no dark adaptation, I can see the Double Cluster in Perseus and M31 naked eye, with plenty of Milky Way nearly from horizon to horizon. It will only get better!!
I set up in my favorite spot, on the southeast corner of the lot, about a dozen feet back from the 15 foot dropoff that marks the south end of the lot. It is a gorgeous spot, with about 150 degrees of ocean horizon, and low shrubs or open space on the remaining 210 degrees.
It is dark enough here that I don't even use the shroud on the telescope, and the only caution there is that I need to be aware of moisture blowing onto the primary mirror, with basically an open mirror box. No problem, though, since no dew collects all evening, even on the Telrad! The temp when I arrived was 38 degrees, and 35 when I departed, and the breeze was barely noticeable all evening until after 10pm.
As always when transitioning to a spot that hasn't been visited for awhile and under skies that are magnitudes darker than usual, I spend some time just getting my bearings. Out here, the Great Square of Pegasus is full of stars, and Orion must have 100 background stars itself, so nothing looks normal, and it does take time to know exactly what you are looking at. The super-low horizon all around also brings in some stars that I haven't seen in a while, so I simply turn to the major directions with my star chart in hand. Now I'm ready to observe. I intend to do some galaxies and nebulae tonight.
First up, of course, is the M31 trio. M31 fills the 1.5 degree field of my 30mm ep, and nebulosity actually runs out both sides. Dust lanes are readily visible, and the galaxy core is brilliant. The sister galaxies are in view in the same FOV, and they are bright. NGC 205 is so obvious that I swing down to view it alone. It is amazing to see some structure in a galaxy that is normally just a smudge. Next up is M74 in Pisces, which we observed briefly at Rehoboth Skies. It was a faint blob then, but tonight it is obviously a face-on spiral. No details, but good hints of spiral arms. M77, the next galaxy over, in Cetus, is very bright, but only a large core is visible. A shift upward brings M33 into view. It is truly stunning! At first, since the arms are completely visible, the tendency is to think 'Wow, I'm seeing star clusters in the arms. But this galaxy is peppered with many 10 to 11 mag foreground stars, giving the impression of seeing things in M33 itself. Nonetheless, this galaxy is a beautiful sight, with a distinct core and so many visible arms. Very nice.
M45 is now high in the sky, so I observe it to see if the nebulosity among the stars is visible. It is, even without a filter. The UHC filter seems to make the nebulosity stand out. An attempt to see IC 349 within the Merope nebula is not successful. However, M1 is also high in the sky, so I observe it with no filter, an OIII filter, and a UHC filter. Under these skies, it is actually bright with no filter, and there is a hint of the dark division in the middle of the nebula. An OIII filter darkens it too much without bringing out more detail. The UHC filter darkens it less, and provides the best contrast, showing some knots within the nebula.
Finally, the Great Nebula in Orion, is high enough to see by kneeling on the ground. This is the one drawback to a dob. However, I have not seen this nebula with the OIII filter I got at Stellafane, and what I see tonight is just jaw-dropping. In my Newtonian view, there is a huge extension on the right side and underneath this nebula, showing nearly double the normal extension of the nebulosity. How much of this is due to dark skies and how much to the filter, I'm not sure, but I don't think I've seen this extension before. The view is excellent. M43, however, is dimmed to near invisibility by the OIII filter. M78, on Orion's back, is also killed off by the OIII, but this filter makes Barnard's Loop barely visible, which is not true of the UHC or naked eye.
A search for galaxy NGC 891 was not successful, but I did view gamma Andromedae for the first time, and found it to be a very pretty double.
The breeze suddenly came up, and I was tired, so I packed my gear and was on the road by 10:30, happy to have had a nice night to see my old winter friends finally showing up in the sky. I can hardly wait to get M42 high enough to really inspect with this OIII filter and some power. Isn't technology great?