Last night, after a beautifully clear day spent with family, I drove
out to Boundary Bay to observe. It's near a small airport south of
Vancouver, and it's far enough away that you can see the light dome of
the city rather than be enveloped in it. I've been there once or
twice before for the star parties that the local RAC chapter has
here (last Saturday of the month; check Twitter for updates), but
not to observe. I've only been out of the city once a year or so for
semi-dark skies, so I thought it was the right time: a four-day
weekend with an unconscionably gorgeous stretch of weather.
I'd packed up earlier, so after saying goodnight to the family (and
making a note to try for some of the Virgo Messiers) I hopped in the
car and drove off. Even with a wrong turn it was only half an hour
there (35km), and I arrived about twenty minutes past sunset. I
parked, finished up my tea and set up the scope and table (plus a
cardboard flat from Costco that had held coffee to use as a dew
shield, which worked amazingly well). I don't usually drive to
observe, and I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly everything was
going. The only downside was that by the time I remembered I'd wanted
to collimate (something I don't do nearly often enough), it was too
dark for me to see in the eyepiece...a laser collimator would
definitely be nice. I'd also forgotten the dew shield for the scope,
but it turned out not to be a problem.
Twilight deepened; I listened to the wildlife. There are a ton of
birds there -- I saw a heron not five meters away -- and it was
enchanting to think "What's that weird sound?" and realize it was the
hissing of a flock of birds going by. The stars came out, and I was
surprised at how high Sirius was: enough to see the whole of Canis
Major, and Crater and Corvus -- constellations I never saw before.
The horizon there is flat nearly all the way around, and that is
such a change from my usual location. More than that, though, it
was darker (even a half hour before twilight was over) than I ever
see at my usual place (a suburban park with no shield from the many
streetlights). I resolved to come back in the summer to look at
Sagittarius and Scorpius.
Finally it was dark enough to look for Comet PANSTARRS. I hadn't
prepared much, but I knew that it was near M31. A short pan around in
the binos, and there it was about 6 degrees below the galaxy --
almost in the same FOV. I was just able to make it out the tail
with direct vision, and it became an obvious fan in averted vision.
Viewing it in the scope at 48X brought out more of the fan and made it
brighter, but it was still better in AV. In both the binos and the
scope, the nucleus was obvious and pointlike.
By this time twilight was over. I took a moment to see how dark it
was (mag 5 with AV), then for fun pointed the binos at Sirius.
Could I see...yes, I could: M41 (below the trees where I usually
observe), M46 and M47 (which I'd had the devil's own time trying
to find this winter). I took a look at them through the scope, too.
I don't remember much about M41, but it was pretty enough. M47 was
sparse, stars in obvious chains and arcs. M46, though...wow: a cloudy
scattering (obtypo: scattery, which I think sounds really cool) of
faint stars, almost glob-like in the way it was just on the verge of
resolving. Almost as good as M11, the Wild Duck cluster, and
that's saying something.
A couple had parked earlier to go for a walk, and at this point they
came back. I asked if they wanted a look through the scope, and they
were happy to do so. I showed them Jupiter, M42 and the Pleides; they
were amazed. We talked for a while longer, and I told them about the
observing parties the RASC puts on. Hopefully they'll make it out the
It was 10pm by this point, and I decided it was time to try for M65
and M66. These pretty much skunked me the last two times
I tried for them, and I was trying not to get my hopes up about seeing
them here. But YES: in the binos, if I held them steady, they showed
up with AV, and through the scope at 30X with AV. Awesome! Bumped up
the power to 48X and saw them both with DV, faint but there. Not only
that, but I was just able to pick out NGC 3628 at 100X with AV and
complete the Leo Triplet. At 160X I could see a definite nucleus
to M66, but no features on M65. Man, I was happy about this.
Well, if I can get those three, let's move on, right? I went for
M51 next. It might have shown up with AV in steadied binos, but
it was obvious (and obviously two parts) at 30X in the scope. At
100X a satellite went through the FOV, which always makes me smile.
At 160X it almost seemed like one of the parts -- the main galaxy, I
think -- had a starlike nucleus. The two parts were definitely
separated by now, but I could not see any spirals or any sign of the
bridge between them. Still, this was another galaxy that had
skunked me the last time I'd tried for it, and I was really
pumped about finally seeing it. (BTW, this sketch of M51 through
a 28" reflector is incredible.)
Saturn was up, though still very low, and I took the chance to see
it. Lovely; no sign of the Cassini division, which was not
At this point I realized that M63 was close to M51. Should I try
for it? Why the hell not? And again, obvious at 30X; 48X showed a
slight brightening on one side, I think.
It was getting late, and the caffeine was starting to wear out, but I
wanted to try one more thing: I'd printed out setting circle locations
for M84, and I wanted to try dialing it in. I didn't hold out much
hope for it, since I'd had such mixed results with setting cirlcles
previously. But what the hell...140 degrees azimuth, 47.8 degrees
altitude...look through the 40mm eyepiece, move it around a bit -- and
holy shit it's there: a dim but obvious elliptical. Success!
Now at this point I ran into difficulties: yes, I'd found a galaxy.
But confirming that it was M84 was tough. (I was happy to have seen
anything, but I wanted to know what it was I was looking at. Plus,
I was hoping to see more of Markarian's chain.) Have you ever
looked at a chart for the Virgo area? I had, but I hadn't paid
attention. It's a mass of galaxies and labels, with a handful of
faint stars thrown in. It was extremely difficult to see what I was
looking at. I sketched the area as best I could, then closed up shop
at midnight and headed home; I took the wrong turn but still made the
trip in a reasonable time.
Looking more closely at this today, I'm fairly sure that what I
actually saw was M87, not M84; there's a slight J of three stars
due south in my sketch, and a rectangle of stars to the east. And M87
is only a degree off from M84, so I was definitely in the right
neighbourhood. I'm going to call it M87. Too bad it wasn't part of
Markarian's chain. I really need to start making these tough
observations earlier in the night.
So: it was an amazing night. The dew wasn't a problem thanks to the
shield; the horizon was simply incredible to see; I did my good deed
for the day with some sidewalk astronomy; I found a comet; the setting
circles worked; and I saw an assortment of galaxies and clusters that
I haven't been able to see at home. I feel bad about using the car,
but it really was wonderful to see all these things. My lovely wife
ran interference with the kids this morning and let me sleep in 'til
9am. I had a great time with the kids despite the messed-up sleep (us
old folks need their rest), and when I got cranky and stupid later in
the day I held my tongue and did not lose my temper. (Now that I'm
proud of.) Only thing missing is an observing partner...it would be
smart to go there with someone else.
I've added seven Messier objects to my list: M41, M46, M51 (which I'd
checked off before, but I don't think that's right), M65, M66, M63 and
M87. That brings me up to 40 out of the list -- not bad at all.