Wednesday, June 11, 2008

As Far Away As Can Be

Hmmm. Not too long ago I said I was going to plan on spending my astronomy time this summer looking at open clusters and colorful doubles. Open clusters are fun to draw, and it’s challenging trying to capture the subtle colors of colorful doubles.

But, right now, I’m not really in the mood for hauling out my telescope and setting up for regular sessions in the backyard. And I don’t really have the energy or focus to do much drawing, especially the whole drawing and scanning process.

So last night I spent some time looking for stuff like this. I’ve seen this before. This is the Andromeda galaxy. It takes a smashing picture. Smashing photos require, generally, big telescopes and time exposures of many, many hours.

But, of course, in real life—at least under light polluted skies through a very small telescope or binoculars—it looks more like this:

Galaxies make for interesting observing targets because they are the farthest things you can observe.

Interplanetary distances are measured in millions (or even billions) of miles. Interstellar distances are measured in lights years or hundreds of light years. But intergalactic distances are measured in many millions of light years. The distances are unimaginable, but, amazingly, on a good night a person can stand in their backyard, look up at the sky and peer across those great voids and observe the whirlpools of billions of stars so incredibly far away.

On a good night.

The Andromeda galaxy is the brightest galaxy in the northern sky. We used to be able to see it with the naked eye around here, but now I need binoculars. But you can see it.

Last night I spent some time looking around the handle, and bowl, of the Big Dipper. There are three “easily” seen galaxies around the Big Dipper. Two, by the bowl, are the brightest pair of galaxies in the northern sky.

M101 and M51 are within ten degrees of the handle of the Big Dipper. And M81 and M82 are just about ten degrees away from the bowl of the Big Dipper.

I didn’t take out my telescope last night—I’m a slacker, and a kind of tired one at that—but I did check out the handle and bowl with my binoculars.

It was one of those nights when I could almost see what I was looking for. Using averted vision—looking slightly off center—I could almost/sorta make out hazy patches where I knew the galaxies were. But I didn’t actually see them.

[shrugs] That’s how observing works. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Especially with deep sky objects. They are very low contrast compared to the background sky and light pollution hurts those kinds of objects the most.

But I’m going to be spending some time with the Big Dipper this summer. It’s easy to find. The surrounding ‘landmarks’ for M101 and M51 are very clear. And with an exceptional night my binoculars will come through and capture the most distant kind of object observable.

The distance sounds good to me now. I kind of wish I were that far away.

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