Wednesday, February 23, 2000

A Happy Monster

I was looking at the sky from my backyard tonight, between drenchings. A few clouds low over the mountains to the south, small puffs here and there, but mostly clear. A bit hazy I thought, but still, after what we've been through, any sky is good sky. I thought about the TACos on Montebello hill, hoping the dew would be kind to them and some photons enjoyed. Then it occurred to me, my daughter had finished her homework and was sinking back into the couch to watch some of the Grammy Awards before desert and bedtime. Why not haul her 10" Dob out back and let her get two of the three remaining Messier targets she lacks to complete the survey? I went back in, looked at her and began thumbing through an old copy of Tirion's Sky Atlas 2000, in such a way as to get her attention.

It didn't take long. "What do you have that out for dad?" I didn't say anything, just smiled, a small, sly smile. "Is it clear outside?" I answered, and before the "s" in yes was out, she was up and heading for her warm clothes.

Out came the scope. On went the Telrad and in went the 20mm eypeiece. Mimi, the Messier Monster, lacked M50, M93 and M83. With Orion beginning his decline toward the west, both M50 and M93 were in prime position. Mimi usually uses my laptop computer in the field while observing. She can point and click The Sky with nearly the proficiency I have gained in the past few seasons. But this was new. Tirion SA 2000 made her turn pages, operate without constellation lines, and experience a new way to navigate. With her fingers, she measured the distance on the page from Sirius to Procyon, figuring out how far it was to M50 between the two bright points. After a bit of trial and error (observer's rust), she was on a bright large open cluster. "I think I've got it." Boy, have I gotten accustomed to those words. I looked, and thought, well, maybe. We checked the chart, then into the house to the computer to fire up The Sky where we identified several bright stars surrounding the cluster. Back to the eyepiece, a bit of fiddling to get it back in, and Mimi identified the marker stars. She then said "I think I've seen this one before." It was only then that I told her I thought so too. But it was a great start.

Immediately she wanted to hit M93. Over to the charts, insisting on finding the right page herself, I showed her where the next object was located. "Find the dog's tail, and right angle up to the three stars in a line, then just west of the middle star" I told her. She looked at the chart and agreed. Over to the scope and bang, right on the spot. "Its beautiful" she said, and paused for a good look.

She went on to look at M42, showing nicely in the bright city sky. "What else can I look at?" Here we go. I looked up and said, well, how about... and she jumped in "The Beehive!" Well, yes, but its so bright out here... still we found it on the chart, saw where it was somewhat between Leo's head and Castor, and she was gone... at the Telrad and again, on the object. "It's not a Beehive, it's a diamond mine" she said. I had to agree, the great spread of bright stars was like a treasure chest of bright gems. How fun to get out for a while, even on a school night, with such enthusiasm and imagination.

Before the night was finished, all within an hour, she continued to find NGC2903 in Leo, a beautiful view of M45, amazing me by getting a good view of M1 (I guess the transparancy must have been pretty good after all), on to NGC 2362 (the gorgeous small bright cluster with Tau Canis Majoris a foreground object.... also known at times as "The Mexican Jumping Star"), as well as noting how amazing it is that these things are just dim points in the sky when you look up, but they take on a whole other meaning through the telescope. It is a sense of amazement.

She finished up wondering when she'd be able to get that last elusive object, M83. We could see the head of Hydra rising up south of Leo, and I explained that the "snake" was the longest constellation in the sky, and M83 lay low on the horizon, or perhaps below. It would have to wait for another night, it was a school night. Finally, she looked up and made a comment all amatuer astronomers come to realize... she said "you know dad, the sky is not just stars anymore, when I look up, there are areas.... its broken up into pieces now." The constellations are falling into place for her. She will always have that wonderful intimate familiarity with the night. It will be with her long after I am. She was a happy monster. I was a happy dad. An hour is all it took.

Good night, TACo friends.

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