Saturday, March 20, 2010

Houge Park's Big Turnout

Local skies in San Jose were beautiful all day, and spring daytime temperatures made their first real appearance, so it was no surprise we had a big public turnout at the San Jose Astronomical Association's Houge Park in-town public star party last night. However, I had a lot of concern when packing to go, as the clear blue skies were washing due to a high thin opaque layers of clouds encroaching from the west.

Someone counted eleven telescopes. There were a number of refractors, including a very nice 6" AP on a 900 mount, and at least three ten inch Dobs (including mine). The crowd began to show up just at dusk, and I really didn't have the opportunity to walk around and look at the other scopes. Early on, people were fascinated that they could see Venus and Mars. There was also a thin crescent moon. Venus was so low that the moon and Mars were the showpieces. Later though, Saturn would rise and take center stage.

Aside from the local (solar-system) targets, I was showing people views of The Orion Nebula
(M42), the big open cluster M35 and NGC 2392 (aka The Eskimo Nebula) in Gemini. The high clouds persisted, cutting down transparency, but there was still enough detail in all the objects to make it worthwhile. Saturn at times of steady seeing was spectacular - creamy golden with a slit of a gap in the nearly edge-on rings, and subtle banding on the disk of the planet. Mars was OK, but only occasionally gave up much detail - people just liked its color! There were some quite good views of it though through the 6" AP later in the evening.

Other than Saturn, the crowd pleaser in my scope was The Orion Nebula. People asked good questions about size and distance, I would answer about light years and what the term meant. Kevin Roberts, set up next to me, interjected with the most tangible comment about the distance, saying the light we're seeing left from the object around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, before the Dark Ages - good answer! A boy asked how the nebula was formed, so I got to talk a bit about dust and gas in space, gravity, stellar winds and radiation, so aside from the nice visual of the (brighter portion of the ) nebula and Trapezium stars, there was some appreciation cognitively, for what was being viewed. I had added an Orion Ultrablock filter to show more of the nebula - of course it dimmed the stars, but it also led to discussions about passing only certain wavelengths of light. So, all these things led to interesting discussions, and a good size crowd around the scope.

Overhead, there were long bands of thin clouds that would pass through. Some of them reminded me of the great aurora we saw from Houge Park several years ago. But there was still plenty of decent sky to enjoy. People seemed to like M35, as a contrast in object type to M42. The low power view at 57X allowed nice framing (my scope is a 10" f/5.7)... the stars were varied magnitudes in the cluster, and sharp pinpoints.

I finished up showing the Eskimo Nebula at 163X. I added an NPB filter, which showed the greatly dimmed central star, round bright disk in which the star is embedded, and a dim outer ring around the disk. Some people saw the object, some saw detail, some could not figure out what I was looking at - it was the "challenge" object of the night!

The last thing I did was to try splitting Procyon, but could easily tell there was enough scintillation to make it impossible. By then it was 11 p.m. the temps had dropped to the point of feeling chilly, and the crowds had disappeared. I packed up while visiting with some old buddies, and new friends I had met during the evening. I got to use my 10" scope, which is a rarity these days, and we had finally had a good (well, reasonable) night at Hogue Park, the first in several months.

A suggestion, if you're not looking at Saturn, you're missing out. It is spectacular right now with the rings at such a shallow angle. Get your gear out and check it out!

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